I have a strange affection for the Football League Cup. (Or, as it’s been in my time as a football fan, the Milk Cup, Littlewoods Cup, Rumbelows Cup, Coca-Cola Cup, Worthington Cup, Carling Cup and, as it currently stands, Capital One Cup.)
I shouldn’t be so fond of it. My beloved Torquay United, after all, have only got past the first round a handful of times in the three decades I’ve worshipped the yellow and blue.
But despite often being perceived as low priority by the bigger clubs – particularly those competing in Europe – the League Cup always seems to find a way of creating a good tale. A good tale that, one day, you’ll bore your grandkids with.
The ‘Magic of the Cup’ is a phrase often reserved for its elder sibling, the FA Cup, but this year’s finalists, Bradford City and Swansea City, have written their way into football’s treasured folklore for very different reasons.
League 2 side Bradford have become the first team in the lowest tier of the Football League to reach a major cup final since Rochdale did it in this very competition some 51 years ago.
It caps a dramatic few decades for the Yorkshire side. In 1985, 56 fans were killed when fire engulfed a whole stand of their Valley Parade stadium – a disaster which haunts the club to this day. Fast forward 15 years and the club was riding the crest of a wave, gaining promotion to the Premier League for the first time.
Naturally the wave crashed and between 2001 and 2007 Bradford City experienced three relegations, tumbling from the top tier of English football right to the very bottom, as well as being placed in administration on two separate occasions, racking up debts of more than £30million. For the past two seasons, they have finished 18th in League 2, their lowest league position in more than 50 years.
Bradford City isn’t the first club that has splashed the cash in order to reach the big time and it won’t be the last. The trigger-happy businessmen who sign the cheques will come and go, but the fans will always be there – and that is who suffers the most. But while the cup final appearance won’t heal the wounds of a decade of hurt, it will certainly provide a temporary antidote.
Swansea won’t be interested in any of the sentiment, of course. They have their own history to make having reached their first ever cup final in what is the club’s centenary year.
“This final is an example of the beauty of cup football,” says Swansea’s manager Michael Laudrup. “For a team like Bradford from the lowest league – to make the final is a message to all those other clubs in the lower divisions that what seems impossible can be done.”
Humble words from the Dane, but he’ll be warning his team in the build up to this match. Swansea can ill afford to be complacent – not against a Bradford team who has had the football purist salivating at the manner in which they have carried out their feat, plucking the feathers from Premier League sides Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa to earn this Wembley showdown with the Swans.
“To win for ourselves will be wonderful,” adds Laudrup, “but to win the cup for the club and for the fans – that will be fantastic.
“For Swansea, the cups represent a chance for a club like us to win a trophy. We have to be honest enough to know we cannot win the Premier League.”
Like the manager, Swansea’s fans won’t be taking the match lightly, either. The prospect of a cup final debut meant so much to them that all 33,000 of their allocated tickets were snapped up within hours of going on sale.
And every one of them hoping the match doesn’t go to a penalty shootout, with Bradford having won their last nine games decided by spot-kicks.
It may be a cliché, but just by reaching the final both teams have already won. And from a neutral perspective I will be delighted for whichever team is lifting the trophy come 6 o’clock Sunday. But I can’t let my heart overrule my head on this one and I expect the Premier League side to run out comfortable winners on the day.
Call this competition what you like, it will always create extraordinary stories. And I look forward to telling the grandkids…
The League Cup Final between Bradford City and Swansea City kicks off at 4pm on Sky Sports 1, with coverage from 3:30pm