There is something wonderfully unexpected about Sunday’s Capital One Cup final. Not just because the usual suspects are missing and, according to the Swansea City manager Michael Laudrup, the game against Bradford City will represent the clash of the underdog with the under-under-under dog.
Not just because Bradford are the first representatives of the fourth tier ever to step out at a major Wembley final. Not just because it is refreshing to see a couple of teams whose supporters do not view the competition as the silverware equivalent of something they stepped in on the way to the stadium.
But because of the sheer unlikelihood of these two meeting in such elevated circumstances. If things had gone only marginally different in recent history, neither of these two clubs would even be eligible to play in the competition, never mind contest the final.
In May 2012, Bradford were within 90 minutes of being ejected from the Football League altogether. And in 2001, Swansea faced a similar predicament. Victory over Hull in their final game of the season prevented them sinking down into the Conference. And in all probability into oblivion.
Both teams were driven to the edge of destruction by financial mismanagement. Over-optimism, heavily borrowing, reckless spending propelled the two on a downward spiral, which, in both cases, took years to right. But both did it, both sorted themselves out to the point that they now demonstrate the efficacy of a sensible approach.
Take Bradford. When they were in the Premier League in 2001, their then chairman Geoffrey Richmond had bought the philosophy fashionable down the road in Leeds and was living his version of the dream. That meant borrowing heavily in the hope of maintaining a position in the league from which future funds would flow.
In his desperation to stay up, Richmond signed a deal with the Italian Benito Carbone worth £40,000 a week. To give an indication of how far Bradford have travelled from those giddy times, the entire first-team wage bill of those who will play for on Sunday is less than that figure.
Meanwhile Swansea are doing something very unusual in the Premier League: they are operating at a profit. A sizeable profit too. £16 million surplus was accrued last season, money which has already been ear-marked not for the wages of some marquee signing. But for a new training complex.
“Our aim is to make sure the club is self-financed. We don’t believe in getting that money through borrowing or outside investment. We believe we should only spend the money we have made ourselves,” Huw Jenkins, the club chairman, said this week.
Despite their profitable condition, Swansea are determined to remain one of the lowest payers in the Premier League. Not because they are tight down there on the banks of the Taff. But because, according to Jenkins, the club had been scarred by such a policy in the past:
“It is just common sense again. Don’t pay out more than you can afford. I think that everybody respects we run the club in a certain way. It makes it easier in one way, we can only bring in players into the club who want to come here and play. They don’t come for the money, that’s for sure.”
And yet oddly, the success of Swansea, the careful consolidation in the Premier League, is not a model which has been widely accepted in the game as the way forward. Still clubs borrow recklessly, still they crave outside investment, which generally ends up as bringing on to their board the most ruthless sort of asset stripper.
You only have to look at the manner in which QPR have gone about the attempt to stay in the Premier League to see how current the non-Swansea way of thinking is. At Loftus Road they have 42 senior pros, more than half a dozen of whom are on wages of more than £60,000 a week. This on the income from an 18,000-seater stadium. Every transfer window they buy another load, in the fond hope they might provide the necessary escape.
Going to their training ground is like attending a Where Are They Now convention of forgotten pros. There’s Luke Young in a Bentley, there’s Andy Johnson in a Range Rover, there’s Jose Bosingwa in a Porsche.
At Swansea, it’s not like that.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” says Jenkins of the incipient madness of the many a board room. “And the thing is, they have it within their power to sit down in a room and bring spending immediately under control. They can do it. But they choose not to.”
Which is why this final on Sunday has such a glow, why it should be applauded. At last it is demonstration that doing things properly can bring their reward. What this game proves is that successful football does not need to be financed on the economics of the madhouse.