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A football fairytale: The lower league minnows who shook up the establishment

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In 2012, Bradford City FC was a football club in the doldrums. The former Premier League side, much like the city itself, had been in decline – dropping three leagues in 12 seasons.

The huge gap between the wealthiest clubs and the lower tier sides, epitomised recently by the attempted creation of the Super League, was felt even back then. But with a team that cost just £10,000 to assemble – Bradford would strike a blow for the lower league minnows and shake up the football establishment. This is “A Football Fairytale”.

Former Bradford City striker James Hanson and Sky Sports journalist Tim Thornton have shared their story in the seventh episode of StoryCast ’21, a Sky News podcast series telling 21 extraordinary personal stories from some of the biggest news events of the century.

Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Spreaker.

James Hanson had always dreamed about scoring the winning goal at Wembley.

The striker had been a promising youth player with Huddersfield Town and Bradford City, but in 2009, as the 21-year-old stacked shelves in his local Co-op supermarket – his Wembley dream seemed to be light years away.

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As a child, Hanson had lived just a few minutes from the training ground of Bradford City FC – ​a club with a deep connection to its fans and the local community.

The city had been united in grief in 1985 when 56 supporters were killed in a fire at the club’s stadium.

James Hanson, centre, celebrated during Bradford City's fairytale League Cup run between 2012 and 2013
Image: Former Bradford City striker James Hanson, centre, has shared his incredible story in the latest episode of StoryCast ’21

More than a decade later Bradford City FC would achieve promotion to the Premier League – only to slide down the divisions to the Championship and then League One.

In 2009, the side had slipped all the way down to League Two when they paid £7,500 to sign Hanson from non-league Guiseley.

Bradford City FC was a football club in the doldrums and the coaching staff wanted to bring in Hanson to help turn their fortunes around.

A memorial service took place at the ground after the fire
Image: A memorial service took place at the ground after the fire

There was much optimism and fighting spirit, but nobody predicted they were three years away from the kind of “Roy of the Rovers” experience so rarely seen in football.

In 2012, Phil Parkinson was manager and things were looking up for Bradford.

The team were fighting for promotion to League One and were also have a decent run in the League Cup – a knockout tournament open to any club in the top four leagues.

James Hanson, right, plays against Premier League side Wigan Athletic in 2012
Image: James Hanson, right, plays against Premier League side Wigan Athletic in 2012

The club had won their first three games of the tournament, but when they came up against Premier League side Wigan in the fourth round everyone, maybe even the players themselves, assumed the dream was now over.

Speaking in A Football Fairytale, Hanson now picks up the story: “It was an unbelievable feeling just to be playing against Premier League players.

“We won on penalties, the feeling after that was just unbelievable.”

Hanson attempts to control the ball near Arsenal's goal during the League Cup clash in 2012
Image: Hanson attempts to control the ball near Arsenal’s goal during the League Cup clash in 2012

Sky Sports News reporter Tim Thornton, who covered Bradford matches at the time, continues: “Suddenly the fans were invested in this cup journey.”

Premier League giants Arsenal were pulled out of the hat for the next round and the tie was set for 11 December 2012.

Tim continues: “Arsenal were one of the biggest clubs in English football at the time, one of the biggest clubs in Europe.

“They had a charismatic manager in Arsene Wenger and lots of superstar players at well.”

Arsenal star Gervinho, centre, was one of the London club's many highly-rated players
Image: Arsenal star Gervinho, centre, was one of the London club’s many highly-rated players

Any hopes that Wenger would rest his top players, as he had done in previous tournaments, were quickly crushed before kick-off at Bradford’s Valley Parade stadium.

Hanson said: “When the team sheet came in it was just international after international.”

The manager told the players to enjoy themselves and that their reward for reaching this stage in the competition was to play in front of a stadium packed with Bradford fans.

Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen takes a penalty during the tie in 2012
Image: Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen takes a penalty during the tie in 2012

But for Hanson this was more than just another football match – if he was ever to achieve his dream of scoring at Wembley he was going to have get past Arsenal first.

Listen to James Hanson’s incredible story in A Football Fairytale, the latest episode of StoryCast ’21.

You can listen to the episode here.