AP Sports Writer
LONDON (AP) - At a time when financial disparity is soccer is widening and racism has blighted the game, England is reveling in a heart-warming story of one underdog's remarkable run.
Bradford has twice fought for its survival in the last decade and plummeted into the fourth division. It is known most by many people for a 1985 fire in its Valley Parade stadium that caused the deaths of 56 people.
Now it will play against Swansea in the League Cup final on Feb. 24 in front of 90,000 fans at Wembley and tens of millions more watching globally on television.
It's the first time in 51 years that a team from the lowest professional league has reached a major English final.
"Apart from being a monumental thing for us reaching the final it does, with the recession worldwide, show if you work hard you can make dreams can true," Bradford joint-chairman Mark Lawn said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, still recovering from a late night of celebrating. "It's not about the money _ it's about working hard and you can achieve your goal."
Bradford hasn't been in a major final since 1911, when it defeated Newcastle 1-0 in an FA Cup final replay following a 0-0 tie. The club certainly has earned its day in the spotlight again by beating three Premier League teams. After knocking out Wigan Arsenal, Bradford ousted Aston Villa on 4-3 aggregate over two legs in the semifinals.
Not bad for a team which is only 10th in the fourth tier, making it the lowest-ranked former Premier League team.
"It just shows if you keep working hard then anything can happen. To score a goal to take us to Wembley is unbelievable," said James Hanson, who headed in the crucial goal that secured Bradford's progress on Wednesday. Bradford lost the second leg of the total-goals series 2-1 at Villa Park after winning the first leg 3-1 at home.
"Three years ago I was working in the Co-op (supermarket) while playing non-league for Guiseley, so it's days like this why you want to be a professional," he said. "Thankfully, all the hard work I've put in has been amazing."
Lawn hopes the club will earn 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) from gate receipts, television revenue and merchandise by appearing at Wembley. Those funds could help to provide financial stability for the club, which is based in the gritty northern county of Yorkshire.
Bradford has been in free-fall since a two-year stay in the Premier League ended in 2001 and has twice been forced to enter bankruptcy protection. An investment of about 2 million pounds by Lawn in 2007 that helped to safeguard the club's existence.
A roster earning less than 2 million pounds ($3.2 million) managed to beat Arsenal, whose wage bill last season was 143 million pounds (about $200 million).
"It's good news for football that the financial situation doesn't always dictate what the financial situation is on the pitch," said Dan Jones of accountancy firm Deloitte's sports business division.
The cup run has provided a lift for the more than 500,000 residents of a West Yorkshire city about 40 miles from Manchester that has been in decline since the collapse of the textile industry from the 1920s. The city is also still scarred by the club's darkest hour when a fire broke out when a discarded cigarette landed in rubbish below a 77-year-old mainly wooden stand on a day fans were celebrating Bradford's third-division championship triumph.
"Sport is playing its part in giving confidence back to the city," said former sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe, who represents part of Bradford in the House of Commons. "The city has been through some difficulties and reaching the final means pride has been restored to the area. It's a great story about a club that's had a rise and meteoric fall and has been able to pick itself up again."
And the journey is not over yet. In head-to-head matchups, Bradford and Swansea have won 20 games each with 14 draws. The winner of the final earns a place in next season's Europa League.
"The underdogs can come through," Lawn said. "Dreams can happen."
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris
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