When Swansea City and Bradford walk out at Wembley this Sunday, an array of emotions and memories will come flooding back for Kristian O’Leary.
As a player, O’Leary experienced it all during his 15 years as a player with the Swans.
From near extinction financially as a club and a successful fight to stay in the Football League to a dramatic rise through the divisions with promotions and even silverware at the Millennium Stadium being added to the trophy cabinet.
For the Port Talbot product, playing for the Swans had always been his dream.
That dream came true in 1996, when O’Leary, who was still a Youth team player, was given the nod by Jan Molby to make his debut.
The opponents? Bradford City.
“It was some shock,” recalls O’Leary. “Youth team players very rarely played for the senior team back then.
“I had travelled up with the team for a few away games before that, but I didn’t play and neither was I expecting to at that point.
“But it was a time where a few of the senior players had disputes over their contracts, so I was drafted in.
“It’s quite funny thinking back, because the physio doubled up as the kit man and I would help make the tea and coffee for the players during the journey to games.
“One day the physio told me to help him prepare things for the next game, but Jan Molby said I couldn’t do that as I was going to be with the First Team.
“I can still remember the feeling of running out for the first time in the kit – it’s something that stays with you forever.”
An unforgettable day for O’Leary was a day to forget for the Swans, though, as they were beaten 5-1 in a game which Lee Chapman made his scoring debut. Later that season, relegation followed to the fourth tier of English football.
Eleven years later, and the Swans met Bradford in another day O’Leary remembers with mixed emotions.
“Everything happened in that game,” he reflects. “We went 1-0 down but I equalised soon after.
“Then Bayo (Akinfenwa) put us ahead, but I was sent off after Dean Windass claimed I had punched him. That was completely untrue.
“I was sent off, they had a penalty and scored with a few minutes left to draw 2-2.
“It was a shame as I had been playing well after returning from a spell on loan at Cheltenham and the club was on a high as we had beaten Sheffield United in the FA Cup at Bramall Lane the week before.”
That FA Cup victory over the Blades was a giant-killing act in the competition – a third-tier club comfortably beating the Premier League side on their own patch 3-0.
This Sunday, the Swans will be looking to avoid a major giant-killing as they take on Bradford, now in League Two, in the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley.
For O’Leary, who played over 350 games for the Swans and is now a coach and Under-21s manager at the club, it will be a proud moment.
“I was thinking to myself the other day about what this club has achieved over the years, and I said loudly: ‘Swansea City are playing at Wembley in a major cup final’,” he added.
“They are simple words, but it just sunk in how far we have come, from the battle against the drop in the fourth tier to a top-half position in the Premier League and a cup final. It’s incredible.
“It has been amazing journey for us, and Sunday’s final with Bradford really is a fairytale.
“It’s not a normal final, and I think neutral supporters will love that.
“Both clubs have experienced the same highs and lows over the last couple of decades, but it makes for an intriguing final.”
Throughout the game, O’Leary admits he’ll experience a mixture of nerves, tension and a flow of adrenaline.
He added: “I’m just like any fan really. Of course, I stay focused but I’ll be kicking every ball throughout the game.
“To see the boys lift the first major trophy in the club’s history will be amazing, especially for guys like Leon Britton, Garry Monk and Alan Tate
. They are role models at this club, and the Youth players can look at them and realise that nothing comes easy in football – you have to work hard.
“We know it will be a very difficult game against Bradford. There’s no doubting their quality in this competition as they’ve beaten three Premier League sides.
“But hopefully we’ll be the ones celebrating on Sunday evening.”