BRADFORD, England (Reuters) - An excited youngster stocked up on flags for his Wembley trip and the players spoke of fairytales as Bradford City prepared for the last chapter in a giant-killing run that has lifted the gloom around the club.
A fourth-tier team featuring a former supermarket shelf-stacker, a cancer survivor and players released by top clubs are hoping to beat a Premier League outfit for the fourth time this season when Bradford take on Swansea City in Sunday’s League Cup final.
“It’s going to be the biggest game we’ve played in our lives,” right back Stephen Darby told Reuters on Tuesday.
“Over the last few years the football club hasn’t had a lot to shout about but it’s going to be a massive day for everyone, it’s great for Bradford City and the people of Bradford.”
The Bantams are the first fourth-tier side to reach a major English cup final for 51 years and will be making only their second Wembley appearance - the previous one being the 1996 third-tier playoff final.
After several miserable seasons since relegation from the Premier League in 2001, including two spells in administration, the feat of a fourth-tier team beating Arsenal, Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa en route to Wembley is the stuff of dreams.
The club, whose only major silverware is the 1911 FA Cup, is also probably best known for tragedy rather than glory after a 1985 fire at its Valley Parade ground killed 56 fans.
It is not just the football club that has lived under black clouds. The West Yorkshire city has been harder hit than many by the economic downturn, it has higher-than average crime rates and is also still remembered for race riots in 2001.
“Bradford is known for bad things like riots. There are no shops, there’s a lot of negative,” fan Julia North said after giving her 12-year-old son Liam money to get the club’s claret and amber flags.
“It’s great there’s now something positive.”
Thrilled Liam added: “It means the whole world to me. When we beat Villa (in the semi-final) I just went mental.”
There is a buzz around the city with stalls selling anything from paper masks with the face of manager Phil Parkinson to T-shirts emblazoned ‘Bradford City Giant Killers Marching on Wembley Way’.
One pub near the train station was advertising being open from 0430 on Sunday for anyone wanting ale or food before heading south while the local newspaper is printing cut-out-and-keep posters of the players.
The cup run will provide the club with a cash injection of more than two million pounds - an amount that would pay one of the Premier League’s top earners around eight weeks’ wages but for Bradford that should mean long-term financial security.
“It’s the owners’ job and my job to make sure this extra revenue is used to keep improving the structure of the club and make sure our supporters have got a football club in years to come that is going to flourish,” said Parkinson.
“That is really important. Much as we are all going to enjoy this weekend, on the back of that it does give us revenue which we wouldn’t have expected to make so we are going to have to use it very wisely.”
Lying mid-table in the fourth tier, with 44 points from 31 games, Bradford are punching well above their weight with a group of players who have made up for their lack of big transfer fees with a huge show of determination and a slice of luck.
There are no household names, only the likes of striker James Hanson who used to work in a local supermarket and headed the goal that booked the place in the final or Reading reject Carl McHugh who almost never made it as a professional.
Their most experienced player is probably goalkeeper Matt Duke, who made Premier League appearances for Hull City and who has recovered after being diagnosed with testicular cancer five years ago.
Victory over Swansea would earn Bradford a place in the Europa League, their first continental appearance since the now defunct Intertoto Cup in 2000, and a concept that some players could not get their heads around.
“It would be crazy, it would be mental but it would be unbelievable for the club,” said McHugh who is taking 111 friends and family with him to Wembley.
“We’re going to be underdogs. It’s going to take Swansea having an off day and us being right at the top of our game and having a little bit of luck to win it.”
The lack of expectation is what forward Alan Connell reckons has been the key to Bradford’s successful cup run and that could help them against Swansea.
“I honestly haven’t even thought about winning it. It’s all a bit of a fairytale,” he said.
“Being the underdogs has helped us, we’re just very relaxed and very disciplined as a team. We’ve got a game against 11 players, let’s go and play.”
Editing by Tony Jimenez