Bradford City 3 Aston Villa 1
Nobody is looking for the Wembley map in the programme just yet.
There are still 90 minutes – possibly even 120 and you know whats – at Villa Park that stand between the Bantams and a cup final day-out on February 24.
But can we start to dream now?
Has there ever been a bigger football fairytale than Bradford City’s relentless march through the Capital One Cup?
Goals from Nahki Wells, Rory McArdle and – the baby of the bunch – Carl McHugh earned them a priceless advantage to take to the Midlands. But the real plaudits should go to the Grand old Duke of Yorkshire.
Matt Duke became a king; the keeper who was shipped off to Northampton this time last year earned the freedom of Valley Parade with a flawless display to break Villa’s hearts.
The job is only half done – as Duke pointed out straight after the final whistle – but City have already made history as the first fourth-tier club to beat three from the top flight in the same League Cup campaign.
The competition, in its various guises, has served Villa well. This is their 14th appearance in the last four – equalling the competition record – and they have won it five times.
In contrast the Bantams were semi-final virgins. You wouldn’t have known it.
Villa had also won all their 19 previous League Cup games against fourth-tier opponents. So it was not only the odds and the league tables that were against City but history too.
Again, you could never guess.
Five players had started every round for the Bantams but two of them, Garry Thompson and James Meredith, missed out. With Meredith still recovering from a virus, Curtis Good stayed on left-back duties.
McHugh returned at centre half, allowing Nathan Doyle to resume engine-room role alongside Gary Jones. They were in direct opposition to former Tong School pupil Fabian Delph, returning to Valley Parade for the first time since he left as an 11-year-old for Leeds.
It was new territory for Phil Parkinson as well. The City boss had never got further than two quarter-finals as a player with Reading.
Parkinson had urged calm from his players after their careless display at Barnet three days earlier. The scenario could hardly have been less relaxed in front of a heaving Valley Parade.
The atmosphere was electric – and louder than it had been for Arsenal. If the Gunners’ attitude that night was questionable, there was no doubt how much Villa wanted this one.
Good and Rory McArdle made vital early blocks from Andreas Weimann and Charles N’Zogbia on the break, while Christian Benteke twice headed over – the second he really should have buried.
Delph then slipped Benteke in behind the defence but Duke spread himself quickly to thwart the Belgian.
Zavon Hines looked to have the beating of Villa left back Joe Bennett and forced City’s first corner off him after 17 minutes. And it sent the Bantams once more into fantasy land.
The half-cleared kick from Gary Jones dropped for Hines to have a crack just outside the D. His shot pinged off Villa skipper Ciaran Clark – and straight into the path of Wells, who drilled past Shay Given from ten yards. As the place prepared to erupt, all eyes switched to assistant Mike Mullarkey, including those of referee Howard Webb. But the flag remained by his side and City delirium could begin.
Wells marked the goal by lifting up his shirt to reveal the message “RIP Tumaini Steede”, remembering a fellow Bermudian player who had died in July.
Benteke continued to wage his personal battle with Duke and the keeper palmed his shot away.
But the swagger in City’s play – and in particular Hines – was clear as the winger once more threw Bennett this way and that before stinging Given’s hands at his near post.
And a second corner so nearly delivered a second goal. James Hanson met it with a bullet header but Delph baled out Villa by doing his job on the line.
City had earmarked Bennett as the weak link in the back four and Hines brushed him aside again before firing diagonally across goal. Hines got the ball again to pick out Hanson but the big man’s header was straight into the ground.
It was impressive stuff and making a mockery of the 59-place gap between the sides.
But City were vulnerable to Villa’s pace and Benteke powered past Good before cutting back for Gabriel Agbonlahor by the penalty spot. He met it with venom but Duke stood strong with another big save, ensuring City took a precious advantage into half-time.
Villa came back out firing and should have been level within a minute of the restart from Barry Bannan’s corner but Clark’s heavy touch let him down from close range.
Duke continued to frustrate Benteke with another fine block from a header then plunged low to push away Agbonlahor’s drive.
That was Agbonlahor’s last involvement as Paul Lambert threw on Darren Bent, Parkinson’s favourite striker. His former Charlton charge lashed his first shot high into the TL Dallas Stand.
Hines had run himself into the ground and Parkinson made his first change at the midway point, introducing the young legs of Blair Turgott.
Still Villa pounded away as Duke parried N’Zogbia’s rocket and Bent, with the goal beckoning, nodded the rebound over. The shot count continued to mount but City refused to be broken.
The crowd was at fever pitch as Nathan Doyle and Will Atkinson cleverly turned defence into attack before Wells’ shot was deflected behind.
Villa saw off one corner then another, clearing it back to Jones. This time the cross arrowed to the near post, where McArdle came flying in to head beyond Given.
Complete mayhem ensued – and carried on as Hanson met Turgott’s cross with another header which rocked the Villa bar.
The visitors were wobbling but suddenly grabbed a lifeline eight minutes from time. Benteke headed on, City could not deal with it and Andreas Weimann dinked over Duke.
The Midland Road Stand came to belated life but City were not finished. Far from it.
Another corner – another goal. McHugh had joked before the game about putting a “wee header” past his Donegal idol Given.
“We’re definitely dreaming now!” he’d laughed at the time. Not any more after the ball flew past the Republic of Ireland legend.
City will go to Villa Park in a fortnight with a two-goal lead. Still underdogs but very, very much in the tie – quite extraordinary.