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By Martyn Herman
LONDON, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Bradford City have spent most of their 110 years in English soccer in the shadows of the country's northern giants but their continuing League Cup fairytale means the proud Yorkshire club are striking a much-needed blow for the also-rans.
Tuesday's 3-1 victory over top flight Aston Villa in the first leg of their semi-final rocked League Two (fourth tier) Bradford's Valley Parade stadium to the rafters and warmed the hearts of football romantics up and down the country.
The relentless march of the Premier League, where clubs feast on television-fuelled riches, has put genuine cup shocks on the endangered list but Bradford's feats in first beating Arsenal in the quarter-finals on penalties and then out-playing Villa prove there is life in football's wilderness.
It also highlighted that success does not have to come with a multi-million pounds price tag with Bradford boss Phil Parkinson's impressive side costing 7,500 pounds ($12,000) in transfer fees.
He knows the job is only half done and that Villa are still favourites when the second leg is played but his side are now tantalisingly close to becoming the first fourth tier side to reach the league Cup final since Rochdale in 1962.
"We know we have a tough job in two weeks time and they are still the favourites but if Aston Villa are going to get to Wembley they know they are going to have to really earn it," Parkinson told the BBC.
Championship (second tier) Cardiff City reached the League Cup final last season, losing the Wembley showpiece to Liverpool on penalties, but should Bradford hold on to their advantage it would rank alongside the most unlikely cup runs.
Just a few days before their stunning performance against Villa, Bradford were beaten 2-0 at Barnet in front of 2,317 fans - a result that left them eighth in the table.
On Saturday they get back to the nitty gritty of League Two football with a home game against Oxford United.
The euphoric scenes at Valley Parade on Tuesday are a stark contrast to the gloom that has hung over Bradford since their brief flirtation with the Premier League ended in 2001.
Promoted in 1999 under Paul Jewell, Bradford survived their first season in the Premier League on the final day of the campaign but the following season they were relegated with mounting debts as the dream turned into a financial nightmare.
Having built a new stand and saddled with players on Premier League wages, the club went into administration in 2002 leading to 16 players having their contracts torn up and manager Nicky Laws left with five professionals and 16 youth team players.
Bradford were minutes away from going out of business in 2004 but the slide down the ladder continued on the pitch and since 2007 they have resided in the fourth tier.
It is a cautionary tale, and one that has been repeated several times by small-town clubs desperate to mix it in the Premier League, but the signs are encouraging that Bradford are now on the mend.
Whatever happens at Villa Park, Parkinson's side have already stamped their name on the season and provided hope for the clubs the modern game has left behind.
($1 = 0.6235 British pounds) (Reporting by Martyn Herman)