The ambition behind the vast corporate suites at Valley Parade and the names that embellish them, McCall and Hendrie, speak of better days at Bradford City. Then again, have there really been better days or greater achievements than this? A club scarred by tragedy and close to liquidation several times are at Wembley for a major cup final. One more Premier League scalp and a team assembled for £7,500 plus a friendly against Guiseley, lying 11th in League Two, will have qualified for Europe. "Imagine that," says Gary Jones, the Bradford captain. "Inter Milan away on the Thursday, Dagenham away on the Sunday." And with that he dissolves into laughter.
They have known enough of the bad times to appreciate the good in Bradford. The club shop is low on stock and for once that is not evidence of a lower-league side struggling to pay its suppliers. Fans queued overnight outside the Coral Windows Stadium – to use the official, commercial title – when the last remaining tickets went on general sale for the Capital One Cup final against Swansea City. The 31,852 allocation has gone. Supporters from Australia, Canada and Tahiti are descending on London to witness potential football history. It is a journey no one saw coming.
Bradford have entered administration twice since the former chairman Geoffrey Richmond, in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to remain in the Premier League in 2001-02, spent heavily on players such as Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore, Ashley Ward and Dan Petrescu. The club's debt reached £36m in 2002 and only in the past five years, thanks to the largesse and determination of the joint chairmen, Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn, has balance returned to the books. But even the threat of closure can be placed into perspective in Bradford.
Stuart McCall and John Hendrie are not recognised in Valley Parade suites only as loyal servants who won promotions with Bradford and, in McCall's case, took the club into the Premier League. They were both part of the team presented with the Third Division championship before the game against Lincoln City on 11 May, 1985, a game abandoned shortly before half-time when fire engulfed the main stand. Fifty-six people died, 54 Bradford supporters and two from Lincoln. Phil Parkinson's team will wear tracksuit tops embroidered with 56 and "Always With Us" before kick off at Wembley. This final, free of the usual suspects and tired plot-lines, has rekindled football's ability to galvanise a community.
"Everyone has gone crazy and I think more so because of what has happened in the past," Jones says. "People come up to you and say this is the best thing that's happened in Bradford in years, that we are a credit to the football club. It's quite humbling with the plight they've had. Just in the last few years Bradford have had administrations and relegations so to reach a Capital One Cup final, a major final, is quite incredible.
"It's great to put a smile back on the Bradford City fans' faces and it is great to put the club back on the map and for people to be talking about Bradford positively again. It was only a few years ago that the club was in the Premier League . It has been nothing but down for the last few years but this is a massive lift for everyone associated with the club and the city. Hopefully we can end this fairytale on a magical note."
Fairytale has been mentioned frequently since Bradford overcame Aston Villa in the semi-final, one of three Premier League teams beaten in the cup run. A club from the fourth tier of English football have not come this far since Rochdale's appearance in the 1962 League Cup final.
The competition was in its infancy back then, the final played over two legs at Spotland and Carrow Road, where Norwich confirmed a 4-0 aggregate victory, and it was only in the semi-final that Rochdale met top-flight opposition in Blackburn Rovers.
Bradford's feat is the equivalent of a regional team in Germany or Spain defeating three Bundesliga or La Liga clubs en route to a final. The impact has resonated beyond those old enough to remember difficult times.
Matt Duke, the Bradford goalkeeper, explains: "I saw what this means to the people of Bradford at a school presentation I did a few weeks ago. The kids were buzzing about, playing football, and they were talking about Bradford players, not Premier League stars. They knew who we were. Last year half of them wouldn't have known. If this has given a group of kids the incentive to play football, then that is the bigger picture. Some of them might play for Bradford in years to come."
Bradford's last outing ended in a 2-1 defeat at bottom-of-the-league Wimbledon before a crowd of 4,320 last Saturday. Since beating Arsenal in the quarter-finals in December, Parkinson's team have won twice in 10 league games and have fallen eight points adrift of the play-offs. Jones says: "Our league form has suffered in parallel with the cup run and, whatever happens at Wembley, we have a game against Dagenham on Wednesday that we need to win. That says it all really. Even if we win the Capital One Cup, the season could be viewed negatively if we don't get out of this league."
For Jones, given his professional break by Swansea when the former manager Jan Molby spotted the Birkenhead-born midfielder playing for Caernarfon Town, Bradford owe their progress to three factors. One is luck. "If you go back to the first round against Notts County their lad knocked one over the bar from a yard out," he says. Another is fitness. "A lot of credit goes to our fitness coach, Nick Allamby. We have matched the Premier League boys and haven't come up short even when it's gone to extra time." The third, of course, is penalties. "Our party piece," as the captain describes the remarkable run of nine successive shootout victories.
"All I can say is that the day before every cup tie the manager gets us to practise one penalty each in training. That's it," Jones says. "You just have one, you pick your spot and, if it comes to a penalty shootout the next day, you don't change your mind. It has stood us in good stead with four wins this season alone and nine on the trot. Someone told me that was a world record."
There has been no offer from the Bradford hierarchy to revise and improve the bonus scheme agreed with Parkinson's players at the start of the season. "The chairman has mentioned Vegas," Duke says. "We will try to get some chips out of him if we win the cup." But money, says the towering goalkeeper who will appear at Wembley five years after undergoing treatment for testicular cancer, is for once the least of Bradford's concerns.
"The main thing we are interested in is winning," adds Duke, dispelling the notion that the final at Wembley is just a grand day out.
"I would play football if I was getting 100 quid a week. I've done that before and I would do it again. The money is important because it is your job and you've got bills to pay but the bigger picture for me personally, and I think most of the lads would agree with this, is the achievement."