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'Fairy tale': Soccer team assembled for $10,000 slays English giants, wins over Dalai Lama

Bradford City supporters take to the stands before their fourth-tier team's win against English giants Arsenal on Dec. 11.
Bradford City supporters take to the stands before their fourth-tier team's win against English giants Arsenal on Dec. 11.Jon Super / AP, file
Gary Jones, left, and JamesClive Brunskill / Getty Images, file

Updated at 3:05 p.m. ET on Feb. 24: Bradford City FC lost 5-0 to Swansea.

BRADFORD, England -- It is the sort of "fairy tale" story that sounds made for Hollywood. 

Led by the unlikeliest of heroes, a passionate team of underdogs emerges from the shadow of near-bankruptcy to go an improbable winning streak, eliminating a series of big-name (and huge-budgeted) rivals and bringing hope to their poverty-stricken hometown.

But the real-life story of Bradford City Football Club might be too unbelievable for even the most cliche-loving studio exec who's watched "Hoosiers" and  "The Bad News Bears" one too many times.

Assembled for just $10,000, the team's extraordinary exploits have spirits soaring in the Yorkshire city and far beyond.

Currently lying in 79th place out of the 92 top clubs in England, Bradford City will on Sunday contest a national cup final after a succession of thrilling, giant-killing triumphs over teams including Arsenal, the London-based club valued at $1.5 billion last year.

One of Bradford's biggest stars was stacking shelves in a local supermarket not long ago. Now James "Big Jim" Hanson will find himself playing in front of 90,000 fans at London's iconic Wembley Stadium and a television audience of millions.

A representative of the Dalai Lama even wrote a letter to say the exiled Tibetan religious leader wished Bradford City's fans "every success in the big match." 

Lying in wait for "The Bantams" will be Swansea City, currently eighth in the top English league, and its star striker, Miguel Michu.

Michu is third in the Premier League in goals this season and Swansea's manager has warned rivals it would take $47 million in compensation for the club to let him leave. By contrast, Bradford are currently 11th in the fourth level of English professional soccer.

Mark Lawn, Bradford City's co-chairman, can hardly believe the transformation in fortunes that has seen Bradford reach the Capital One Cup final -- a competition traditionally known as the League Cup.

The self-made businessman put money into the 110-year-old club to help it survive after debts of about $55 million saw it threatened with bankruptcy at least twice. It has been "a labor of love" that at times prompted him to question his own sanity.

'We've created history'

Lawn, 52, recalled vomiting on the team bus on the way back from a defeat at Morecambe amid fears the club was on the verge of financial collapse. After another loss, his car was attacked by angry Bradford City fans.

"It's not really sunk in," Lawn said. "We are the only fourth-tier team to get to Wembley ever. We've created history. The town is buzzing. It's amazing … it's just lifting the town."

"It's nearly got me believing in God again. I lost faith in God or religion in general when I lost my mother and father," he added. "I thought if we win then there's got to be summat ('something' in the Yorkshire dialect). I've said if we did do it, I will look at finding religion again."

Sitting in the club's 1911 room -- named for the year the club last won a major trophy -- Lawn played down his team's chances.

"I just hope Swansea are easy with us … They are a great side," he said. "I think they'll beat us, being realistic. But it's not about that for Bradford fans and Bradford City."

Once a thriving industrial city, Bradford is now one of the most deprived places in the U.K. Nearly a quarter of all households are jobless, long-term youth unemployment rates are soaring, local government spending is being cut dramatically.

Lawn grew up in Bradford's rundown Thorpe Edge area, where many houses are owned by the local government and rented out cheaply, and recalled as a child sneaking in to watch the team play without paying.

Thorpe Edge is a place with few reasons to celebrate. Annice Brearley, an outreach worker at Thorpe Edge Community Project, runs a program for children in which they wash cars and pack bags in local stores to raise money for trips to parts of England they would otherwise be unable to visit.

The neighborhood, she said, was "not a wealthy place … there's a lot of people who don't have much."

But Brearley, 46, said that the team's soccer success has "nobody thinking about stuff like that." She spent 11-and-a-half hours in line to buy a ticket for the final. 

"It's something like 102 years since anything good like this [the 1911 cup win] happened in Bradford," she said. "Nobody thinks Bradford City is going to lose. We're all really positive. It will be a brilliant day."

Not far from Thorpe Edge is the small Co-operative supermarket where hometown hero Hanson stacked shelves for two years before joining the club in 2009. 

"He used to work at the Co-op" has become a chant among supporters.

Former colleague Ruth Taylor said Hanson was "really lovely, a really gentle, nice lad."

"He always talked about his football," she recalled. "He loved it. We knew he were going to make it."

She insisted the 25-year-old striker would not choke after stepping into the national spotlight. "He takes it all in his stride, he's quite a laidback chap is James."

"I think he'll be really excited. It's like a big dream come true for him. He deserves it so much." she added. "They haven't had a lot to celebrate recently have Bradford. This would be a great morale booster, especially for this area. It would just go crazy."

Hannah Postles, 27, a journalist with Bradford's Telegraph & Argus newspaper, has been covering the growing excitement in the city in articles and a live blog.

'Big, burly men crying'

She recounted going to a bar to report on people watching the second of two semi-final games against top-tier Aston Villa on television.

"In the last four minutes, I swear I didn't breathe. It was so close, and you could see Villa firing on all cylinders," Postles said. After the final whistle, the emotion came. "Big, burly Bradford men crying is not something you see very often."

"It's hard not to find yourself getting swept up in it," she said. "It's been a massive inspiration to everyone in Bradford."

Her blog for the paper has been filled with reports of fans traveling from all over the world to attend Sunday's game. 

One, Mike Hitch, a ship's captain originally from Bradford, said he was planning to spend more than 21 hours in the air to fly halfway around the world from Tahiti to watch the game. 

"This will never happen again in my lifetime," the 46-year-old said Thursday by phone from the Pacific island. "If anything goes wrong, then I'll be looking for a sports bar in an airport."

Bradford City beat six teams to get to the final, reaching the quarter-finals by triumphing over Premier League team Wigan on penalties after a 0-0 draw. They then drew 1-1 against Arsenal but were victorious in the penalty shootout.

The semi-final against Aston Villa consisted of two games, ending in a 4-3 aggregate victory for Bradford.

Bradford City FC manager Phil Parkinson said that although his players earned "peanuts" compared to counterparts on the Premier League teams they had knocked out of the competition, they possessed "incredible desire."

"Bradford has had some tough times over the last few years -- and not just the football club but the city," he added. "People are now walking around with a spring in their step."

The unlikely success has left many Bradford fans confident of another victory on Sunday.

"We haven’t come this far not to win it,"  said Mark Neale, a member of fundraising group Friends of Bradford City who has supported the team for 50 years. 

But he said that "the mere fact they've got to Wembley means this team of players will always be legends in Bradford."

"There's not a lot of pride in Bradford, but the pride in Bradford City (soccer club) is immense and it's rubbing off on people who are not normally interested in football," said Neale, 59.

Alan Carling, of Bradford City Supporters' Trust, said they had beaten three Premier League clubs "so we are not phased by a fourth. Bring it on."

"Everyone has been going round Bradford with a big grin on their face. City's achievements have caught the imagination of the world, and lifted the image of Bradford, which is often subject to condescension from southern England," he added.

But people with little connection to the area have also been attracted by success of a true underdog. 

Carling said he was interviewed by a Japanese television crew on Wednesday, while Neale received the letter from the Dalai Lama ahead of the game. 

Neale's supporters' group had previously presented the Buddhist spiritual leader with a Bradford jersey while he was in the area, after noticing the similarity between the team's colors and his robes.

In a telephone interview, Tenzin Taklha, one of the Dalai Lama’s secretaries in Dharamsala, India, said while His Holiness was "not really" a soccer fan, Bradford's success was "a fairy tale." 

"Everyone likes these stories and likes to follow that,” he said. "May the best team win … we’ll keep our fingers crossed."