Aston Villa 2 Bradford City 1
City win 4-3 on aggregate
Don’t just look for them, start booking those hotels for London. Bradford City are off to Wembley.
“This is the best trip we’ve ever been on.” For years, the put-upon Bantam fans have sung it at such unlikely outposts as Accrington, Torquay and Dagenham.
Sung out of irony, sarcasm and more than a little defiance at the thought that some day, one day things had to get better. They would get that dream game that the unwavering support has earned.
Well buckle up boys and girls, that trip is booked now – the Capital One Cup final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, February 24.
For the first time in history, a team from the bottom level of English football will step out at the national stadium for a major final.
And they got there with a headed goal from the striker who, as another favourite ditty goes, used to work in the Co-op.
James Hanson, so often unfairly the butt of any criticism, will now be lauded for ever more.
But that’s what happens when you try taking on a higher power.
Villa boss Paul Lambert had used the build-up to criticise Reverend Paul Deo, the City announcer, for his over-zealous celebrations after game one. He accused him of disrespect with his references about searching for hotels in the capital.
Now it’s Lambert who might need some divine intervention to hang on to his job. The gods are smiling on everything claret and banter.
After 102 years of waiting, City are off to a cup final. The likes of Hanson, Gary Jones and Matt Duke have the opportunity to equal the distant achievements of Jimmy Speirs and Co.
The modern-day supporters have their new heroes.
Parkinson had stuck with the same 11 that did City so proud a fortnight earlier at Valley Parade.
So Curtis Good got the nod at left back again with Carl McHugh keeping out latest arrival Michael Nelson in the middle of defence. Hanson was also back after resting his cracked little toe for the previous two games.
The noise level had been deafening as the teams emerged for battle, City’s 6,500 travelling army holding their own against the home fans waving their free flags.
But for the first 45 minutes, there was no such balance on the pitch as the visitors spent the bulk of the opening half under the cosh.
Christian Benteke had the opening chances in the first game and he was in the thick of it once more as Villa hunted an early goal to puncture the underdogs’ belief. One header dropped wide, another was flicked over the bar by right back Matt Lowton.
Rory McArdle twice came to City’s rescue, first with a goal-saving interception from Benteke then another lunge to block Gabriel Agbonlahor. Fabian Delph drove over the bar, then Duke saved low from Agbonlahor.
Apart from one misdirected header from Hanson, it was wall-to-wall Villa.
They had failed to score in four of the previoushome games but Lambert’s wish for an early breakthrough was granted at the midway point of the half. Joe Bennett, who’d had such a miserable night in West Yorkshire, floated a pass from the left which Benteke dispatched past Duke with a smart volley.
“We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again!” crowed the Villa fans, rekindling memories of their successful fightback from the same first-leg deficit against Tranmere 19 years earlier.
Stephen Ireland immediately thought he had doubled the lead but the offside flag was already up. But still City could not get out of their own half.
Duke, the hero first time out, had to be on his toes to deal with Charles N’Zogbia’s screamer. Then he stretched again to tip over from Ireland.
City could not hold on to the ball and Benteke rose above two defenders to nod just wide, much to the Belgian’s frustration.
Nahki Wells responded with a curler that didn’t curl enough but City finished the half glad to get off for a breather. Villa’s 72 per cent domination of possession had said it all.
The second period began in identical fashion, with Villa pouring forward and City’s front two left to feed off scraps.
But every game, however seemingly one-sided, tends to throw up one decent chance. And how the Bantams grabbed it after 54 minutes.
Finally winning their first corner, they immediately got another and Gary Jones put the ball on Hanson’s head for a bullet finish as emphatic as the two scored in the first leg.
Villa’s Achilles heel, defending corners, had been exposed again as the fans above that end descended into bedlam. What a time for Hanson to net his first goal for ten games.
The confidence surged through the visitors as Wells swung and missed at Stephen Darby’s cross and Zavon Hines forced a save from Shay Given.
And Hanson should have had another from a pinpoint cross by Hines but failed to get enough on his header.
Lambert threw on Darren Bent and Andreas Weimann, two more strikers, but the whole feel of the night had changed on one moment.
Now it was City playing with swagger and verve, rediscovering that “in your face” refusal to kow-tow to supposedly superior opposition. Wigan and Arsenal had been brushed aside; now it was Villa’s turn.
Garry Thompson, twice a scorer in City’s cup odyssey, replaced the tiring Hines – and met Darby’s cross with a first-time effort that rattled Given’s bar.
Weimann made it interesting, unnecessarily so, with a Villa second a minute from the end of the 90. But City negotiated the excruciating agony of the four added minutes without too much alarm.
The team that were 1,500-1 no hopers at the start of this competition had become the first name in the final. The best trip is yet to come ...