The crestfallen expression on Paul Lambert's face said it all. Aston Villa's disastrous season has plumbed new depths. This was humiliation on a whole new level as the shortcomings that have been the story of a thoroughly depressing campaign resurfaced on a night when a former shelf-stacker piled more misery on a club in a state of a turmoil.
James Hanson's goal, early in the second half, brutally exposed Villa's fragile confidence, glaring lack of leadership and chronic shortage of quality. It was alarming to see a Premier League club, dominant in the first half, implode to such an extent against a League Two team that cost £7,500 to put together. For the record, Villa's starting lineup against Bradford cost £45m.
Hanson should have scored a second and Garry Thompson hit the bar before Andreas Weimann struck late on. It was not enough and never came close to papering over the cracks of an evening that will haunt Lambert and his players for years to come.
It would be easy to say that the damage was done at Valley Parade but a Premier League club, playing on their own soil in front of 40,000 spectators, should be capable of turning around a 3-1 defeat against a team from the lowest tier of English football.
It looked as though that would be the case during a first half when Villa took the lead through Christian Benteke and laid siege to the Bradford goal, but the set-piece weaknesses that Phil Parkinson's side identified in the first leg were punished once again.
Gary Jones, whose corner kicks had, either directly or indirectly, led to all three goals at Valley Parade, swung in a corner from the right that Hanson got to ahead of his marker, Ron Vlaar, to head emphatically beyond Shay Given. From that point Villa were unrecognisable from the team that had torn into Bradford in the opening 45 minutes and the players seemed powerless to prevent the game slipping from their grasp.
Lambert admitted Villa have major issues with deal-ball situations. "The set pieces are a concern. We practise them every day in training," he said.
"If you have a man in the penalty area, you have to be prepared to compete with him. We have lost four goals in a semi-final from set pieces. That's where the hurt is."
The Villa manager looked and sounded completely shattered. "I am embarrassed. I am absolutely gutted, disappointed, hurt, everything," he said. "You couldn't repeat what was said in the dressing room. Everyone is hurt. You will never have a better chance to get to a Cup final throughout your whole career, even the young lads. It may take them 10 or 12 years to get even close to one again. That's the hurt."
Fourth from bottom in the Premier League, a point and one place above the relegation zone, Villa are in crisis and there is a real threat that the season could bring further ignominy if Lambert is unable to drag the club clear of the dogfight at the bottom. The Scot insisted that he is still the right person for the job, and the board remain steadfast in their support of him, but the fans' patience is being severely tested.
Lambert, having spoken beforehand about how reaching Wembley could "play a huge part in the season turning", must now reflect on what damage elimination at the hands of a League Two club will do to a group of players whose confidence has looked brittle all season. Villa travel to Millwall on Friday night for an awkward fourth-round FA Cup tie and face their fellow strugglers Newcastle United the following Tuesday. There is, in other words, no respite. "There are two ways – you either lie down or accept it or you come out and fight," Lambert said. "I am certainly not going to lie down. I have never done it. I will come out fighting."
The Villa fans had chanted "we've done it before and we'll do it again" in the early stages against Bradford, alluding to the victory over Tranmere in the League Cup semi-final second leg in 1994, when Ron Atkinson's side overturned a 3-1 deficit. The difference between Villa then and Villa now, though, is that Atkinson was able to call on experienced and proven players such as Andy Townsend, Paul McGrath, Ray Houghton, Dean Saunders, Kevin Richardson and Dalian Atkinson. The harsh truth is that the majority of Lambert's players do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.
Asked whether he had a message for the club's demoralised supporters, Lambert replied: "I am every bit as hurt as what they are. It's my responsibility. I know exactly what it's like and I know exactly what they're feeling because I am feeling the exact same."
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image: © Ben Sutherland