Perhaps today was a day for burying a few clichés. That the League Cup “doesn’t matter any more” has become one of the mantras of the modern game, but this is a viewpoint that looked somewhat bedraggled as the full-time whistle blew at Wembley Stadium this afternoon. As the Birmingham City players celebrated this most unlikely of victories, the Arsenal players slunk to the floor, shattered by defeat. It didn’t feel as this was a result that “didn’t matter” at five minutes to six this evening. For the first time since before the assassination of John F Kennedy, Birmingham City Football Club could celebrate taking a major trophy back to St Andrews.
Birmingham’s previous major trophy win also came in this competition, but the League Cup has changed a lot since 1963. Much as the competition is decredited by its critics nowadays, it remains a competition that has come a long way over the last five decades. A Wembley Final and a place in Europe weren’t on offer in 1963. As such, today is a day that will enter the shared consciousness and folklore of Birmingham City Football Club. The DVD of the match will become a comfort blanket, to be pulled out with a bottle of whiskey when times are tough. They have a fight on their hands ahead in order to maintain their Premier League place after the end of this season, but this is a day that money couldn’t buy. Possibly a once in a lifetime experience for a club that has had its fair share of times spent in the doldrums in recent years.
On top of this, today’s match was a clash of cultures. Birmingham City are often held up by the witless as being an example of some sort of anti-football, as if there is a way of playing the game that is somehow aesthetically “superior” to others. It would be unfair, in the case of this match, to pin that label upon Arsenal supporters. In the media, however, a narrative has become accepted that places some clubs as being artistically “better” than others. Birmingham’s supporters may well take as much pleasure as giving this particular perception a bloody nose as from their win this evening. Some wag had, before a ball had even been kicked, listed their club as the runners-up in the 2011 League Cup on Wikipedia before a ball had even been kicked. Revenge can be a dish best served cold, but sometimes serving it fresh and piping hot can be even more satisfying.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this afternoon’s match was this was a victory that Alex McLeish’s team thoroughly deserved. Within three minutes, Lee Bowyer was brought to the ground by the Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny but was saved by an erroneous offside flag when the alternative might have been a penalty to Birmingham and a red card for Szczesny. It may have been understandable if Birmingham had decided at that point that today wasn’t going to be day, but they maintained their composure and grabbed the goal that their performance had deserved when Nikola Zigic headed in from close range after twenty-eight minutes. Their lead didn’t last for that long. Arsenal were level before half-time with a stylish sweep from Robin Van Persie that guided the ball wide of Ben Foster. Was this to be the point at which Birmingham’s chance passed?
Well, the answer to that was, of course, no, although it looked at points during the second half as if this might not be the case. Arsenal pressured and harried and Ben Foster put in a masterful performance to keep them at bay, but there was something impressively masterful about Birmingham when they did break. They were playing without the fear that seems so commonplace when clubs play against those that habitually make it into the Champions League and such confidence seemed to unsettle Arsenal, who were sloppy and played if stuck between two tactical stools. Even prior to the dramatic and faintly absurd denouement, this was a weak performance by Arsenal and it always felt as if something could go wrong.
Then, with two minutes to go… It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny. It was an error that the training ground can’t correct, or even that partially thought-out theories relating to concentration can explain. This was a moment at which two players simply froze and forgot their lines. Anybody that has ever walked into the kitchen to get something and then stood there for five minutes trying to remember what it was they went out there for in the first place will know the feeling. Foster’s long clearance was, predictably, hoisted in the general direction of Nikola Zigic, but his flick on seemed benign. This, however, reckoned without the intervention of Szczesny and Koscielny. Both went for the same ball, then neither did and, in a split second that may have felt like twenty lifetimes for all concerned, Obafemi Martins rolled the ball into an empty goal.
Much is made of Arsenal’s six year long run without a major trophy, but this pales in comparison with Birmingham’s forty-eight year wait and, quite regardless of this, they still have an opportunity in the Champions League and ther FA Cup. How much like Arsenal, their supporters might reckon, would it be to follow up a draw with Leyton Orient, a drab win against Stoke City and defeat in a cup final to Birmingham City by knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League? It remains a tall order, however, and their FA Cup ambitions may be tempered by the knowledge that beating Leyton Orient will mean a trip to Old Trafford in the quarter-finals of that competition.
Today, however, is not Arsenal’s day. Clubs like Birmingham City have had their ambitions largely derailed by the gap that has grown between the Premier League’s haves and have-nots, but cup competitions stand and fall on individual moments of brilliance or horror and today they were the beneficiaries of such a moment to collect a trophy that their overall performance thoroughly deserved. Arsenal will be back – we can be reasonably certain of this – but it may be a last hurrah for some of Birmingham’s older stagers on the pitch (such as Stephen Carr or Lee Bowyer) and the overwhelming majority of their supporters will never have seen anything like it. They may or may not again. For Birmingham City Football Club, this was a day for living for the moment. After forty-eight years, having kept right on for so long, the end of the road appeared. It is a memory that no-one will ever be able to take away from them.
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