Asides from the incredible scenes at the Madejski, last night’s League Cup action proved how potent the competition still is for those teams outside the top tier. Overshadowed by Arsenal’s comeback, the greatest shock of the night was definitely Bradford’s penalty victory over Wigan, a gap of three divisions, and definitely the stand-out result of what has been a fairly miserable recent few years for Bantams fans. Away from the DW, Swindon very nearly staged a comeback of Arsenal proportions, striking two goals in three minutes to draw level with Aston Villa, only for the Premier League strugglers to strike a late winner.
Asides from the much-needed financial boosts that these ties offer, the League Cup still gives lower-league teams the opportunity to show off their wares. Remember Northampton sensationally dumping Liverpool out a few years back? That was heralded as one of the greatest results in their history (although the team then went on a catastrophic winless run culminating in near-relegation, a position from which they have still not yet recovered…)
Swindon vs Aston Villa was the night’s most eye-catching tie, with Paulo di Canio’s young and bombastic team looking to pull off a shock. Fresh from an incredible 4-0 away triumph over high-fliers Stevenage at the weekend (a game DiCanio had said beforehand mattered much less than the Villa game), hopes were high for an upset. And they did not disappoint, with a classic cup game ebbing and flowing, with two goals for youngster Miles Storey nearly making him the hero of the night. Premiership class may have won out in the end, but DiCanio’s exuberant gesturing at the final whistle (which seemingly appeared to suggest that the two teams might be playing each other next year in the Championship due to respective promotions and relegations) showed how much it meant to him, and to the fans.
But ultimately the shock of the round was at the DW, where League Two Bradford held Premier League Wigan 0-0 over 120 minutes before triumphing on 4-2 on penalties. Whilst not of Northampton-Liverpool status, this result still demands incredible respect. Bradford have been many pundits (including mine) tips for promotion from the division for the last few seasons, based mainly on the size of the club, with their ex-Premiership stadium and large loyal fanbase. But mismanagement and luck has gone against them in recent seasons, often leaving the Bantams mired in mid-table. This season, however, stewarded by Phil Parkinson, Bradford have begun strongly, and have some handy players in Nakhi Wells, James Hanson, and captain Ricky Ravenhill. Let’s hope that this result does not usher in a collapse of the like seen by Northampton, and they can push on and take the spirit forward. The boost to the clubs coffers as well, especially if they draw another Premier League team in the next round, will probably help cover wage bills and maintenance for the rest of the season.
So don’t denigrate the League Cup just yet. Arsenal may have made 11 changes to the team that started last weekend for last night’s tie – but look at what a game it produced! And for the lower-league teams, it is not always just a chance to visit a top-tier ground, sometimes it is the chance to produce the performance of their lives.