Bradford looks to complete fairytale
Having dispatched three Premier League teams on a fairytale march to Wembley, Bradford must beat another on Sunday if the fourth-tier side is to win the League Cup and complete one of English soccer's most remarkable feats.
Bradford has achieved notoriety for all the wrong reasons in its recent past, with a fire at its stadium killing 56 fans in 1985 and the club twice entering administration - a form of bankruptcy protection - following relegation from the Premier League in 2001.
However, the unheralded side nicknamed ''The Bantams'' has gripped a nation by eliminating Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa to become the first fourth-division club in 51 years to reach the League Cup final.
They have even caught the attention of the Dalai Lama. A representative sent a letter to to the players, in which he wishes the team "every success in the big match."
Only Swansea, managed by Denmark great Michael Laudrup, now stands in the way of Bradford and a place in Europe next season - an achievement beyond the players' wildest dreams.
''I was watching the Europa League the other night - Liverpool were playing (Zenit St. Petersburg) in Russia, and I sat there thinking, `That could be us next season!''' Bradford captain Gary Jones said. ''Just imagine playing Inter Milan on the Thursday and Dagenham on the Sunday . It's too unbelievable for words but that shows you what we have achieved.''
It'll be a huge day for Swansea, too.
While Bradford has a major trophy in its cabinet after winning the FA Cup in 1911, the Welsh team has never appeared in the final of a top competition in its 100-year history. Swansea has also experienced financial strife as recently as 10 years ago when the club almost fell out of the Football League.
They are now at home in the top flight, playing some of the most eye-catching brands of soccer in Britain, but it wasn't always the case.
''For some of the lads, the boot was on the other foot,'' said midfielder Leon Britton, who has risen through the leagues with Swansea. ''We were the team trying to beat the higher-division teams.''
The final will overshadow another important weekend of Premier League action, topped by Chelsea's trip to Manchester City after league leaders Manchester United defeated bottom side Queens Park Rangers.
United holds a 15-point advantage over City in a title race that could well be over by the end of April, given the supreme form shown by Alex Ferguson's side, which is unbeaten in 14 league games. Chelsea is four points further back in third and could yet reel in City for second place.
''We have to treat these games as we would Real Madrid or anyone else,'' Ferguson said Thursday of the game against QPR. ''It has to be won. We want to win.
''My experience of being in this situation is that teams drop points. That's a fact. It's unavoidable. It's a tough league. At the moment we have good momentum.''
Whatever happens in the Premier League is unlikely to knock Bradford out of the spotlight, though.
Languishing in mid-table in England's lowest professional league, Bradford manager Phil Parkinson has somehow managed to eke out a string of stunning displays from a team filled with journeymen players and aspiring youngsters. There's a cancer survivor in goalkeeper Matt Duke, and a striker in James Hanson who was stacking shelves in a supermarket three years ago.
''It just shows if you keep working hard then anything can happen,'' said Hanson.
The cup run has galvanized a northern city brought to its knees because of the economic recession and a club recovering from severe financial hardship brought on by reckless spending that failed to prevent demotion from the top flight 12 years ago.
There is also still the memory of a fire that broke out at Bradford's Valley Parade ground, when a discarded cigarette landed in rubbish below a mainly wooden stand as fans celebrated the team's third-division championship success.
Bradford's players will commemorate the deaths of the 56 fans - that included two from Lincoln City - by stepping out in tracksuits embroidered with the number ''56'' before kickoff.
''There is a unique bond here in this city between the club and the supporters because of the tragedy,'' Parkinson said. ''Because Bradford has gone down the divisions, there is a feeling that those people might have been forgotten outside the city, so we want to do everything we can.''
Laudrup is sure to recall his key players, including prolific forward Michu, who were rested for last weekend's 5-0 loss at Liverpool in the league.
A former Barcelona and Real Madrid playmaker, Laudrup has been involved in much bigger matches as a player. In 1992, he was part of the Barcelona side that beat Sampdoria at the old Wembley stadium to win the Spanish giant's first European Cup.
Yet it will be among Laudrup's biggest matches as a coach.
''When you are with bigger clubs in the world, you are sometimes a little spoilt,'' Laudrup said. ''They are used to having the best players and winning trophies, and you can take it for granted.
''But I know for the smaller clubs like ourselves, it is not like that.''