LONDON – The problem with English football is that it is so predictable.
We knew last August the title would be won by Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea.
It was pretty obvious that Robin van Persie would again be the dominant goal scorer.
Roman Abramovich has fired a manager, Sir Alex Ferguson has given assorted referees and assistants the hair dryer treatment, Arsenal continues to concede goals from set-pieces and Mario Balotelli’s future remains an almost daily subject.
Then along comes Bradford City, 10th in League Two so statistically ranked 78 in the 92-team senior English football pyramid, to prove how wonderfully unpredictable the game can be.
In reaching the League Cup final, where it will play Swansea on Feb. 24, Bradford is one win away from a place in next season’s Europa League.
It is the most unlikely success for half a century, though when Rochdale met Norwich City in the 1962 League Cup final over two legs, the competition was in only its second season and a number of top clubs declined to play in it.
Bradford has traditionally been a rugby league stronghold, the Bradford Bulls winning the World Club Challenge three times in the last 11.
Bradford Park Avenue dropped out of the Football League in 1970 leaving City as the lone representatives.
Its population of around 300,000 makes Bradford the 11th biggest city in England, but it has never been a hot bed of football. Until now.
For Bradford City, the road to Wembley has been a real fairy tale, beating Notts County, Watford (it was a goal down with 10 remaining), Burton (it was two goals behind with seven minutes left), Wigan, Arsenal (on penalties) and in the semifinals Aston Villa.
The Bantams’ team cost £7,500 to assemble — Premier League players have shoes that cost more.
Joint-chairman Julian Rhodes said: “If somebody had given you a film script of what we have done, it would be thrown out. Rocky was more believable than this.”
In 1985, a fire at their Valley Parade ground cost the lives of 56 people. For 19 months City played its home matches at Odsal Stadium, the local rugby league ground, Elland Road (Leeds) and Leeds Road (Huddersfield).
Remarkably, Bradford won promotion to the Premier League in 1999, rubbing shoulders with the elite of English football for two seasons.
By 2007, and after two administrations it had nose-dived three divisions to League Two and when it finished 18th last season, another season of struggle was predicted this time around.
Under the inspired management of Phil Parkinson, Bradford is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame, but it has been a rough and tumble ride for the 45-year-old who has never been in the national limelight before.
In 2005-06 he led Colchester to promotion to the Championship, but resigned, taking over at Hull where he lasted six months.
In January 2007 he was appointed assistant to Alan Pardew at Charlton, becoming manager on New Year’s Eve 2008. Under Parkinson, Charlton was relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in almost 30 years and in January 2011 he was dismissed.
Eight months later, Parkinson took over at Bradford, and when joint-chairmen Rhodes and Mark Lawn sought advice from inside the game, Parkinson’s name kept cropping up.
A deep thinker, Parkinson is the most qualified manager outside of the Premier League, holding all the UEFA coaching badges. He has a BSc degree in social sciences from the Open University, which may explain his ability to deal with the highs and lows of a precarious occupation.
Parkinson’s contract, which pays him £1,000 a week, runs out this summer and Bradford will have to at least double this to keep its manager, who turned down the chance to talk to Blackpool earlier this month.
JUST WHEN you think football has run out of gates Chelsea (who else?) find another one —ballboygate.
It follows Terrygate, handshakegate, Calttenburg-gate and too many others, but the latest underlined that the European champions have no rival when it comes to gutter football.
Charlie Morgan, the 17-year-old son of Swansea director Malcolm Morgan, was slow in returning the ball to Chelsea during its 0-0 League Cup semi-final second leg at Swansea.
But for Eden Hazard to kick Morgan in the ribs as he attempted to retrieve the ball was unforgivable, and rightly earned him a red card for violent conduct.
Many will find little difference between what Hazard did to the ballboy and what Eric Cantona did to a Crystal Palace fan which earned him 120 hours community service
Time-wasting is something players do regularly, so perhaps it is not surprising such bad habits have been picked up by those on the periphery of the game. Whatever the delaying tactics of Morgan, Hazard’s reaction was not that expected of a player who cost £32 million.
In attempting to free the ball Hazard knew he had to kick the boy’s ribs — thankfully the player and ballboy both apologized and apart from the three-game ban, the Belgian will also be punished by Chelsea.
Apart from the fact ballboygate overshadowed another superb display by Swansea as it reached its first major cup final, the saddest comment on the affair is that before the incident Morgan had 11 followers on Twitter. Post-kick, the figure was 80,000,which is more than Swansea City’s official account.
SIR ALEX FERGUSON labeled Newcastle a “wee club.” In fact, it is becoming more of a “oui” club as the French connection at St. James’ Park gathers momentum.
Newcastle has benefited from the French market in recent years, notably Yohan Cabaye (Lille) and Haten Ben Arfa (Marseille), and chief scout Graham Carr has again been busy recruiting from Ligue 1.
Earlier this week, manager Alan Pardew sealed the signing of defender Mapou Yanga Mbiwa from Montpelier. Nancy fullback Massadio Haidara and Bordeaux forward Yoan Gouffran are set to follow with midfielder Moussa Sissoko another probably recruit.
These signings would bring the total of Gallic players at Newcastle to 11 — Cabaye, Ben Arfa, Romain Amalfitano, Sylvain Marveaux, Gabriel Obertan, Mathieu Debuchy and Mehdi Abeid already there, plus the French-speaking Africans Papiss Cisse, Gael Bigirimana and Cheick Tiote.
However good these players are, 14 French speakers will create an imbalance in the dressing-room which cannot be helpful.
When he was manager of West Ham, Pardew had this to say about a French-heavy Arsenal: “I saw a headline saying Arsenal are flying the flag for Britain. I kind of wondered where that British involvement actually was when I looked at their team.
“It’s important that top clubs don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s the English Premier League and English players should be involved. Foreign players have been fantastic. We have learned from them and from foreign coaches. But, to some extent, we could lose the soul of British football — the English player.”
Newcastle will need to play some fluent football in the coming weeks as it is only two points off the drop zone.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.