The ‘magic of the cup’ is a tag most-frequently reserved for the FA Cup in domestic football in England. Non-league sides get their fairytale draw away to Manchester United having started their cup campaign back in August and negotiating four qualifying rounds.
This week though, the term has come to fruition in the League Cup, or Carabao Cup, in its latest sponsorship merry-go-round, with plucky Burton Albion reaching their first ever quarter-final.
Burton have only been in the Football League since 2009, Nigel Clough and Roy McFarland leading the Brewers out of non-league football and it was Brian‘s son who had them pumped for a fourth-round home clash with Nottingham Forest on Tuesday evening.
Aitor Karanka made no fewer than 10 changes for the trip to the Pirelli Stadium but Burton were in another league and survived a late fightback to secure a 3-2 victory and a quarter-final clash with Middlesbrough.
Brewers fans will be dreaming of Wembley and a League Cup final and there is no reason why they shouldn’t. Having triumphed 2-1 away at Shrewsbury in round one, home victories against Aston Villa, Burnley, and now Nottingham Forest offers confidence that a Wembley trip is not an unreal expectation.
The last club from outside the Premier League to reach the League Cup final was Bradford City back in 2013 and lifelong Bantams fan Calum Cullen claims it was one of the best days in their history.
“Looking back, and particularly given our current situation, the cup run was epic. It was a golden time to be a fan. Despite the weather and the result, the whole experience was one to savour.
“It’s anyone’s competition this year. Burton will need a bit of luck, but it’s doable. We actually beat them when we went on our cup run, and then again in the play-offs.”
Bradford became the first club from the fourth tier to appear in a League Cup final for 50 years when Phil Parkinson’s side faced Premier League Swansea City in 2013.
They went into the match having as winners, regardless of the result. They reintroduced the magic into a competition which many had rated as a Mickey Mouse Cup and the whole country sat up to take notice.
The cup run started against Notts County back in August with a 1-0 win at Meadow Lane and continued with a 2-1 away win at Championship side, Watford.
At 2-0 down in their third round tie against Burton Albion, it looked like curtains for Parkinson’s men but Nahki Wells scored twice in the final seven minutes to send the game into extra-time. Stephen Darby had Valley Parade rocking with a winner five minutes from time.
Premier League Wigan Athletic awaited in round four and after playing out a 0-0 draw, the Bantams recorded a seventh consecutive penalty shoot-out victory, Alan Connell slotting home the winning spot-kick for a 4-2 triumph.
Arsene Wenger‘s Arsenal were the visitors to Valley Parade in the quarter-finals but the now revered Bantams had built up a head of steam and were not going out without a fight.
Garry Thompson put Bradford ahead before a Thomas Vermaelen goal sent the game to extra-time and eventually penalties. Vermaelen turned from hero to villain for Arsene Wenger’s side when his spot-kick ricocheted back off the post, sending Parkinson’s men through and the crowd into ecstasy.
In the semi-finals, Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa were drawn from the hat but with two legs to play anything was possible.
Heading into the new year, the expected magic of the FA Cup returned as plucky Oldham ousted Liverpool and non-league Luton Town defeated Norwich City, but the hype was all about Bradford City’s run to the League Cup semi-finals.
Going into the second leg, the Claret and Ambers found themselves 3-1 up thanks to goals from Nahki Wells, Rory McArdle, and Carl McHugh. Lambert’s Villa were still favourites to reach Wembley and went 1-0 up but James Hanson levelled on the night to write a new chapter in Bradford’s season.
Although Andreas Weimann bagged a late winner for the Villains, Bradford held on for a 4-3 aggregate win as they became the first fourth-tier side since Rochdale AFC in 1962 to reach the League Cup final.
It wasn’t to be for Parkinson’s men as Swansea, who had upset favourites Chelsea in the other semi-final clash, swept them aside 5-0. Cullen added:
“To get to round three would have been amazing for us normally! But it was untrue.
“For a club like Bradford City to be going to Wembley, the home of football was amazing. The whole city was buzzing with excitement, we had not had it easy over the last decade or so and that gave everyone a huge lift.
“Financially, the club had been taking steps over recent years to make sure we were on a sound footing and the cup run put the worries to bed somewhat.”
Since their heroics though, Bradford have not been able to maintain their momentum and currently find themselves languishing at the bottom of League One, with just three wins from 16 matches.
Cullen claims a toxic environment at the club has not helped their peril:
“There’s a number of reasons for our demise – an arrogant ‘my way or the highway approach’ attitude, sacking a manager who had our best win ratio in 20 years, and terrible recruitment – and they are creating a divide between the fans and owners.
“It’s toxic at the moment but something’s got to give.”
It remains to be seen whether Burton Albion can go all the way to Wembley but with a tie at Championship side Middlesbrough to come, Clough will fancy his chances of at least a semi-final, and from there, anything can happen.