Lowly Bradford defies odds with run to cup final
At a time when disparities between football clubs are widening and racism has blighted the game, English football is reveling in a heart-warming story of one underdog's remarkable run to a showpiece final.
Bradford has twice fought for its survival in the last decade and plummeted into the fourth division, but will now contest the League Cup final in front of 90,000 fans at Wembley and tens of millions more watching globally on television.
It's the first time in 51 years that a team from the lowest professional league has reached a major English final.
And Bradford, whose last major final was its FA Cup triumph in 1911, has certainly earned its day in the spotlight again by beating three Premier League teams. Aston Villa was ousted 4-3 over two legs in the semifinals, and Arsenal and Wigan were similarly stunned in previous rounds.
Not bad for a team which is only 10th in the fourth tier, making it the lowest-ranked former Premier League team.
''Apart from being a monumental thing for us reaching the final it does, with the recession worldwide, show if you work hard you can make dreams can true,'' Bradford joint-chairman Mark Lawn said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, still recovering from a late night of celebrating.
''It's not about the money - it's about working hard and you can achieve your goal.''
But the 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) Lawn is hoping to earn from gate receipts, television revenue and merchandise by appearing at Wembley will help to provide financial stability for the club, which is based in the gritty northern county of Yorkshire.
Bradford has been in free-fall since a two-year stay in the Premier League ended in 2001, and has twice been forced to enter bankruptcy protection.
It was investment of around 2 million pounds by Lawn in 2007 that helped to safeguard the club's existence.
A squad collectively paid less than 2 million pounds a year in salaries has managed to beat teams such as Arsenal, whose wage bill last year was 143 million pounds.
''It's good news for football that the financial situation doesn't always dictate what the financial situation is on the pitch,'' said Dan Jones of accountancy firm Deloitte's sports business division.
James Hanson headed in the crucial goal that secured Bradford's progress on Wednesday by only losing the second leg 2-1 at Villa Park after winning the first leg 3-1.
''Three years ago I was working in the Co-op (supermarket) while playing non-league for Guiseley, so it's days like this why you want to be a professional. Thankfully all the hard work I've put in has been amazing,'' Hanson said.
''It just shows if you keep working hard then anything can happen. To score a goal to take us to Wembley is unbelievable.''
The cup run has provided a lift for the more than 500,000 residents of a downtrodden city that has been in decline since the collapse of the textile industry from the 1920s and is feeling the impact of the recession.
The city is also still scarred by the club's darkest hour at its Valley Parade ground in 1985.
A fire broke out when a discarded cigarette landed in rubbish below a 77-year-old mainly wooden stand on a day fans were celebrating Bradford's third-division championship triumph, killing 56 people.
''Sport is playing its part in giving confidence back to the city,'' said former sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe, who represents part of Bradford in the House of Commons.
''The city has been through some difficulties and reaching the final means pride has been restored to the area. It's a great story about a club that's had a rise and meteoric fall and has been able to pick itself up again.''
And the journey's not over yet.
Another Premier League club, Swansea, awaits Bradford on Feb. 24 in the first major final in the Welsh club's 100 years. Swansea beat European champion Chelsea on aggregate.
And there could be trips across Europe next season, with the winner earning a place in the Europa League.
''The underdogs can come through,'' Lawn said. ''Dreams can happen.''
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris