We have been here before, of course.
The last time Arsenal played at Valley Parade the score was the same – 1-1 – although that was not settled by penalties. The time before that, Bradford City won 2-1. Those were Premier League games.
We have also beaten better teams than Arsenal at Valley Parade. In my first season back in 1980, a Liverpool team that did more in Europe than the Gunners lost 1-0 in that corner of BD8 to the then Division 4 Bantams.
So, we have been here before: but the afterglow of Bradford City’s 1-1 draw and penalty victory over Arsenal seems to offer a different message in the crispness of a Yorkshire morning where the world’s attention shifted focus, briefly of course, to Valley Parade.
Tuesday night was like a birthday for Bradford City fans; the party was shared by everyone and everyone was welcome to join in patting Phil Parkinson’s team on the back and raising the cheer. But last week 140 City fans watched us beat Port Vale and that is the reality of League Two football.
Few people had a view on the abilities of James Meredith after that Port Vale game, but over the last two days opinions on our players have not been rare. Much of it has centred around the relative values of the teams; some have put price tags on the likes of lively striker Nakhi Wells.
Along with that, there is anger around Arsenal supporters following what they consider to be the humiliation of losing to on penalties in the Capital One Cup Quarter Final. Two days after the ill deserved equaliser which forced extra time, and then penalties, the supporters of the North London club were still picking over the scraps of the game. An often ugly introspection.
They talk about why it happened and how it happened and – to their credit – very few say it should not have happened, and mostly they talk about what will become of the club now that it has happened. Bradford, it seems, has become Arsenal’s Vietnam.
You could stretch the metaphor to talk about turning up with expensive equipment and expecting the other side to lay down, but football is not war, and never should be. Arsenal supporters feel ashamed, embarrassed; and perhaps they should not be so concerned by suffering such a common ailment: with nine penalty shoot-out victories on the bounce, one in ten English professional football clubs have lost on penalties to City in the last two years.
It seems though that the anger of Arsenal – certainly the questions asked by the Arsenal Supporters Trust – revolve around some £70m sitting in some bank account unspent that has come from the many moves from North London to Manchester. “Why has that money not been spent?”, it is asked, with the inference being that if it were then evenings like a loss at Bradford City would be avoided.
The argument is counter-intuitive but important. When a side costing well over £50m to put together are beaten by one which cost £7,500 – which was raised by a supporter and not the club – then it is hard to follow a path of logic that leads to the solution that is to spend more money on players. If cost of assembly was the decisive factor this game would have been a walk over.
It is easy to consider this juxtaposition in such a case of extremes: but that thinking – that spending more money will bring more success – is endemic in the professional game. The ethos of professional football is based around the idea that one can recruit “better” players, the term being interchangeable for “more expensive”. Perhaps we have a generation of Football Manager and Championship manager players to blame for this. As sophisticated as those games get they are still based around the idea that players have a rating of how “good” they are an the most readily usable assessment of that comes in sorting your team by value.
Indeed, showing a characteristic inability to understand what is going on in front of his eye, Bradford City (joint) chairman Mark Lawn suggested that the money raised from a semi-final appearance would be spent on new players: such a reward for those who have just beaten a side in the last sixteen of European football. One can only assume that if you are, say, Will Atkinson, hearing your chairman say that that the man who takes your place will be capable of beating Barcelona while you have only taken a piece of the Gunners’ scalp.
This is no minor concern either. The fact that Lawn has a club to hang his Sword of Damocles over is due to the hard work of groups of fans who twice had to beg and borrow and beg again to make sure that there was a club to survive periods in administration. Three years ago Lawn told all that he had decided on a Saturday night after his car was vandalised that he would withdraw his loan to the club and send Bradford City onto the canvas for the third time in ten years; he changed his mind on Monday morning.
And in both these occasions, and the need for Lawn’s loan, the club had decided that it wanted “better”, or rather more expensive, players than they could afford. All of Bradford City’s time in League Two has been characterised by a fluctuating wage budget that meant squads had been assembled and butchered in the space of weeks. The infamous £7,500 spent on centre forward James Hanson is less than the £35,000 the club spent on a player from Chile called Willy Topp who, unsurprisingly, did not light up English football.
The Bradford City team which manager Phil Parkinson has built has been very deliberately been assembled around character rather than an abstract concept of ability (read: cost). I interviewed Parkinson just over a year ago and he told me – and I hope he does not mind the story being shared – that when he was Colchester United manager he allowed top scorer Scott McGleish to leave because, while he liked him as a bloke and thought he was a good footballer, he did not fit in with the mentality of the team he was building which would eventually go on to promotion.
Parkinson has built that mentality at Bradford City: Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies may not be as notable names to be missing as Theo Walcott, but they are Bradford City’s first two picks for central defence. Carl McHugh is a 19 year old who played on Tuesday night and while Stoke City once paid a few million for Davies it is not a concept of ability that McHugh shares with him, but an attitude.
Maybe we go back to that Football Manager/Championship Manager mentality again. It’s easier to play with concepts of “good” and “bad” rather than “willing to work hard” and “mentally tough”.
These are the things we think and do not say. That the single defining concept in modern football – that a player is born better than another and thus costs more – is not the conclusive factor. That there are other factors as players which are less exciting than a massive price tag that The Sun can blaze on its back page, but more important.
The difference between Parkinson’s side and Wenger’s was in attitude, in work rate and in determination – and not to be counted in pounds, shillings and pence.
Something to think about the next time your team unveils its next big money signing.
This article was kindly edited by Adam Hepton.