Bradford City dare to dream after shock Aston Villa win
In an era when the major trophies are increasingly dominated by the select and moneyed few, nights like those experienced by Bradford City and their supporters on Tuesday are without price.
When money does not so much talk as shout from every rooftop in football, a team assembled for the princely cost of £7,500 has moved to within 90 minutes of a showpiece Wembley final in the Capital One Cup.
The undiluted joy dripping from the packed stands rising high above the Bradford landscape at Valley Parade would have done nothing to ease the pain of humiliated Aston Villa, as they were beaten 3-1, but it did the world of good for football's heart and soul.
"Gary Jones has led by example in the middle of the park and goalkeeper Matt Duke has been magnificent. They have all been terrific to beat a Premier League side. It was an unbelievable tie - one of the best I have ever seen. I still make Villa slight favourites though because they have the quality and Bradford could be nervous. Can you say Villa have been embarrassed tonight? I'm not sure you can given that Bradford have played so well. But it will be very difficult for Paul Lambert to raise his players for the second leg."
Bradford's supporters drifted away from a thunderous night and down Midland Road daring to dream, at least for another fortnight, of becoming the first team from football's fourth tier to reach the final of this competition since Rochdale in 1962.
It is the sort of story the romantics feared had been left behind by the passage of time in the modern game - but an extraordinary tale has been taking shape at Bradford this season.
And even if the dream is extinguished at Villa Park, where Paul Lambert's Premier League side are fortunate to have the opportunity to right the wrongs of this wretched semi-final first leg, Bradford can remember these 90 minutes forever.
Bradford's supporters, in one of the many periods when their League Two side shook Villa so hard you could almost hear them rattle, taunted them with the chant: "Are you Arsenal in disguise?"
A reference, of course, to how Arsene Wenger's side were also victims of Bradford's adventure in the last eight. No matter what the guise, it seems, Bradford are transformed when facing supposedly more illustrious opposition in this tournament.
Bradford manager Phil Parkinson has plotted an impressive course through the Capital One Cup and they now stand one game away from the greatest destination of all. And how they deserve to have that final tantalisingly within their reach.
Parkinson admitted he would settle for a draw before kick-off but ended with so much more. The celebrations were tempered by the knowledge that Villa's pride will be stung by this embarrassment but the manner in which they probed and exposed their weaknesses will bolster Bradford's confidence.
There were stories and heroes everywhere for Bradford.
They were given the lead by 22-year-old Bermudian Nahki Wells, who started his career at the exotically named Dandy Town Hornets and arrived at Bradford via Bermuda Hogges and Carlisle United.
Rory McArdle extended their lead late on but Villa looked like they had escaped without the major damage their display deserved when Andreas Weimann bravely pulled a goal back with eight minutes left.
It was a moment that briefly dulled the mood of euphoria building around Valley Parade but Bradford, driven by the combative figure of 35-year-old captain Gary Jones, were not to be denied.
Jones sent over a corner that was headed home amid bedlam in the stands by teenager Carl McHugh - and that crucial two-goal cushion was restored.
McHugh, once sent out on loan to Southern League Swindon Supermarine during an unfulfilling spell at Reading, was another Bradford player to put his name up in lights.
The question now is can Bradford take the final step to Wembley? And are Villa in the right state, physically and mentally, to turn the tie around?
One thing is certain - Villa will not want to be relying on penalties as Bradford have won their last nine shoot-outs, including against Wigan Athletic and Arsenal in the Capital One Cup.
Bradford will go to Villa Park armed with the knowledge that they very publicly uncovered a major Villa vulnerability in the air, and at set pieces.
Lambert looked disgusted with how his team had dealt with this threat, with all three goals coming either indirectly or directly from corners.
They were fragile at Bradford - as a side and in confidence. Lambert has trusted to young players but it is a trust that proved misplaced here.
Villa are a side lacking a leader in any part of the pitch. Once Bradford survived spells of pressure at the start of each half, Villa seemed a team wracked by self-doubt.
Lambert's position is not in question. Owner Randy Lerner has dictated the terms under which he operates but there is no doubt the manager stands to lose much of the goodwill he is understandably being allowed should Villa lose over two legs in a major semi-final to a team 60 places below them on the league's ladder.
Villa, once they have cleared their heads from the harrowing night in Yorkshire, will uncover evidence as to how they can still reach Wembley, even after this abject offering.
For all of Bradford's heroics, it took an outstanding display from keeper Matt Duke to keep Villa out.
He thwarted Christian Benteke on three occasions, Gabriel Agbonlahor twice and watched with huge relief as substitute Darren Bent headed over from six yards after he failed to hold Charles N'Zogbia's shot.
Villa will cling to the belief that these chances will be taken next time around; that Duke's luck will not hold.
They can also look to history. They lost a League Cup semi-final first leg to Tranmere Rovers by the same score in 1994 but were able to recover at home and win on penalties.
Bradford will trust to the ability and determination that has taken then to the brink of Wembley Way - and the growing feeling around Valley Parade that it may just be their destiny to write the most unlikely story in English football this season.
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