We did it.
We only bloody well did it!
136 years on from the formation of the club that I love, Birmingham City finally own a piece of silverware that cannot be derided as either ‘Mickey Mouse’ or ‘tinpot’ by anyone from the outside looking in. And those that do still come out with such small-minded nonsense reveal ultimately more about themselves than about what we’ve gone and won.
But that’s not to dilute the unbridled joy and disbelief that all Bluenoses felt when Mike Dean blew his final whistle to signal that the League Cup was ours. 2-1 was the final score – a score that I had predicted along with many other fellow supporters, and that wasn’t based on blind allegiance or temporary madness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d spent the day before the final watching Wolves dismantle 10-man Blackpool 4-0 at Molineux for talkSPORT and then thumped my motor up the M6 to play drums with Dizzy Lizzy at Moses Gate in Bolton in the evening. I should stress (following a previous blog) that I knew about the gig with the Lizzy boys WELL in advance!
What I did need to do homework on was a selection of tunes recorded by Gary Moore during his tenure in Lizzy that the lads wanted to add to the set as a tribute to the recently deceased guitarist. Songs like ‘Black Rose’ and ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ are ones I’ve played many times, but ‘Back On The Streets’ (off Gary’s first solo album with Lynott on bass) needed revisiting by my ears as I drove up the motorway – must’ve played it 15 times in succession on my iPod between Wolverhampton and the M61! But learn it I did, and it was a highlight of our set. I always enjoy playing as ‘Brian Downey’ to be honest – ‘Live And Dangerous’ is one of my earliest musical memories from my brother’s record collection and he became one of my earliest drumming influences with his lovely rock/swing style, which is so much fun to replicate and yet takes loads of concentration.
I guess I was concentrating so much on doing a good job with Dizzy Lizzy that I didn’t allow my mind to wander to Wembley and therefore panic about what was to come in the final against Arsenal. I’d seen most of Blues’ route to North West London – the comfortable night against MK Dons; the penalty shootout tension versus Brentford; the high drama of Zigic’s late winner to oust the Villa and then the yet more extraordinary night of the comeback against West Ham in the semi-final 2nd leg that went to glorious extra time.
Having played Arsenal on New Years Day and been totally outplayed in a 3-0 home defeat, the pundits and the football writers who looked at that result in isolation gave Blues no hope of success. Patronised beyond belief, we were told to just enjoy the day and make up the numbers. But I knew different, and so did the writers and broadcasters who see Blues more than once a year. Colin Tattum, Tom Ross, Neil Moxley etc etc – these folks knew, like me, that odds of 6/1 against Blues in a 2-horse race at a neutral venue were not at all skinny. Even Blues legend Trevor Francis, who spoke to me at length in the press room at Molineux the day before, was convinced of a 2-1 scoreline in our favour.
I’d written a short piece for the talkSPORT website on the Friday before detailing 5 reasons why I thought we would triumph. Looking back at those notes now, every single reason was born out by what happened on the Wembley pitch.
• I mentioned Ben Foster, and how he was relishing his role as our ‘keeper as well as being expertly coached by Dave Watson…he won Man of The Match.
• I predicted that Nikola Zigic would cause Arsenal’s leader-less back 4 no end of problems and would definitely score…he got the opener
• I alluded to our defensive solidity and how well Martin Jiranek had settled in at centre-half after being a sub for most of the season before it…he was immense
• I fully expected our midfield to try and counter-act Arsenal’s 3-man system, close space down and rely on Barry Ferguson to take control of the game…he and they did just that
• And I pointed to the notion that Blues’ players knew they had an opportunity to write themselves into the club’s folklore with a win, something Arsenal’s players probably wouldn’t have thrust upon them if they had succeeded…that responsibility and that desire to make history shone through.
And that only tells part of the story of the day – arriving at Wembley around lunchtime, the pleasantries and banter began between rival broadcasters; Guy Mowbray, my favourite MOTD commentator, took the time to acknowledge how nervous I would be feeling and wished me well; Tom Ross and my old boss at BRMB Adam Bridge were chatty and friendly with all and sundry; Jon McCarthy, who played for Blues in a League Cup final in Cardiff a decade ago moaned that he was frozen solid 3 hours before kick off thanks to Tom being stopped for pictures all the way up Wembley Way before cheering up at the sight of the lamb casserole on offer…and 5 Live’s Alan Green did his usual thing of not being pleasant to anybody. At all. Apart from his own reflection.
It was also nice to see John Cross from the Daily Mirror, a dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal supporter, who I’ve got to know well through his paper reviews on talkSPORT breakfast shows I’ve presented. He was, to be fair, well aware of the threat Blues posed and the jibes and pokes went back and forth for a few minutes before I had to start my talkSPORT duties, getting pieces with the Blues fans who’d arrived at the stadium WAY before Arsenal’s supporters.
In amongst 31,000 rabid fans, it’s always nice to see a familiar face, and I saw loads on my trips around the perimeter of the pitch with my wireless mic. I met Cameron Jerome’s little 10-yr-old cousin who’d travelled down from Huddersfield that morning with his Dad as well as numerous folk who I’ve bumped into at St Andrew’s from time to time in my capacity as Blues’ stadium announcer or as a local/national radio broadcaster over the last 15 years.
20 minutes before kick-off I dashed upstairs to the TV gantry where talkSPORT’s commentary team were set up and ready to go. My job was to add some colour pieces to Sam Matterface & Stan Collymore’s commentary, but there were the pre-match formalities to go through first.
I had wondered in the lead up to the big day whether my emotions would get the better of me, particularly when it came to the memory of my Dad & Grandad – two massive Bluenoses sadly no longer with us who would have been so proud to see this day regardless of result or performance – and I duly had my first ‘moment’ during God Save The Queen. Don’t ask me why I welled up then…I just did.
Composure recovered, I settled in my seat, headphones on and ready to interject as and when with our commentary. I didn’t expect to be on air whingeing about a poor decision as early as the 3rd minute when the ref’s assistant flagged Lee Bowyer onside when the lad was at least a yard on, before Wojcech Szczesny brought Bowyer to the ground for a certain penalty…only for the flag to bring play back for a bad bad call. “Robbed…we’ve been robbed…” I opined as Sam asked me for my opinion – didn’t even need a replay to see that Lee was onside, and myself and all other Bluenoses thought the same thing instantaneously…that it was not going to be our day.
How foolish we all were – Blues settled far better than Arsenal, which was something of a surprise in itself as we’ve been notoriously slow starters all season, and were passing the ball extremely well. Barry Ferguson was in control of central midfield, full backs Stephen Carr (why did he retire before?) and Liam Ridgewell were getting forward often and making use of the wide open spaces, whilst Nikola Zigic was already causing consternation in the Gunners backline.
Blues’ opening goal was a set piece – one the anti-football brigade will have lapped up no doubt – but it was fully deserved all the same. Roger Johnson cleverly ran backwards to the edge of the box to connect with a left-wing corner and headed towards goal – enter Zigic, who was strong and purposeful in muscling his way onto 6 yards out to divert Johnson’s header past the flapping goalkeeper.
Cue utter pandemonium to my left – and in my brain. The Blues fans were beyond delirious and I was right there with them as possibly the only person on the TV gantry to show any emotion at Blues scoring – my producer Villa Matt sat impassively to my immediate left (he must have been seething inside!) and even Stan looked a little perturbed at my over-exuberant reaction – punching the air wildly and pumping my fist at the Blues fans around us who somehow now sensed I was on their side :o)
And it could’ve got even better not long after, when Craig Gardner neatly slipped the ball through from the edge of the D for Zigic to bear down on goal for a 2nd time. However Szczesny was equal to it on this occasion and before long we had been pegged back. And to be fair, we were architects of our own downfall, messing up an attacking free-kick of our own and getting caught on the break. Despite Jack Wilshere’s fierce left footed screamer rattling the crossbar, Blues never recovered their composure from the rebound and the ball was eventually fed from the byline on the right for Robin Van Persie to volley Arsenal level. Cue the first occasion where Arsenal supporters had made themselves heard all afternoon!
Half time arrived soon after and I tried to make sense of where we stood in the game. The match was still there to be won obviously, but you sensed Arsenal would come out all guns blazing at the restart and peg us back incessantly. The Arsenal fans in our team on the gantry, James & Laurie weren’t so sure, and Arshavin came in for particular stick, which I was happy to join in with!!
The relentless attacks did come, but not instantly as the 2nd half began. It was after an hour when Blues midfield started to lose its grip on the game, and despite the introduction of fresh legs in Keith Fahey for dead-leg sufferer Gardner, the Londoners seemed to go through the gears and it became ‘circle the wagons’ time. This was where Ben Foster earned his MOM award, bravely saving from every angle to keep us level – one stop in particular from Bendtner with Rosicky thundering in at him was particularly impressive.
And then it came as extra time seemed, like another appaling pun from The Moose, inevitable. Foster struck a free kick forward from his won half using every last sinew to propel the ball long towards the Arsenal 18-yard line for Zigic to contest with Djourou.
There is a gag doing the rounds that goes “This French bloke walks into a pole…and Birmingham City win the Carling Cup”. Funny and damn succinct too, as Laurent Koscielny inexplicably got in a mix up with his keeper from the Zigic flick on, which looked routine for Szczesny. Not so, as their impromptu game of ‘After You Claude’ saw the loose ball squirm into the path of recently-introduced substitute Obafemi Martins about 8 yards out.
Now when I tell you that the world froze and time stood still at that particular moment, you’ll just have to believe me. Subconciously, I must’ve imagined 15 different things could’ve happened at that moment, not because the ball was at Martins’ feet, but just because this was Birmingham City. A weak shot wide, ballooned high over the bar, hitting the corner flag – we’ve all seen it as Blues fans down the decades. So to see the Nigerian calmly roll the ball into the onion bag with a minimum of fuss was manna from heaven, and off we all went again going totally hatstand.
I was rabid. Beside myself. My body possessed by something it had never entertained up to this point in my life – the realisation that we were going to succeed in a trophy quest, and that the ‘end of the road’ in our club anthem was in sight and careering towards us. That full time whistle not long after was greeted with that sort of outpouring of happiness and joy that can only come with the knowledge of what’s come before – the FA Cup final losses in the ‘30’s and 50’s; the potential in the 70’s under Freddie Goodwin’s side that was dismantled piece by piece; the hopes in the early 80’s under Jim Smith that turned to dust as the club plummeted through the leagues and the stadium rotted; the partial renaissance under Lou Macari & then Barry Fry in the 90’s that at least made it fun and noteworthy to be a Birmingham City fan despite more relegations; and the Trevor Francis team that had the League Cup swiped from under our noses a decade ago on blessed penalties.
These incidents, stacked up like 18-wheeler lorries maintaining a French roadblock in Blues fans’ collective minds, were released to the four winds upon hearing Mike Dean’s shrill blast and all the disappointments that spanned generations of us were gone in a heartbeat. God it felt good. We were winners – worthy ones too – at last. And so, I had another ‘moment’
But I had to quickly dry my eyes & get to the other side of the stadium to rendezvous with the bike that was to speed me back to talkSPORT towers for my post-match phone in show at 7pm, but my only exit was wonderfully blocked by the Blues players coming down the stairs to pitch level, cup and medals in hand. Apparently I could be seen on Sky Sports giving Alex McLeish a big hug as he came through the gate last to start the lap of honour – I’ll bet 31,000 other nutters wanted to do just the same…as well as possibly around 3 million fans floating around in the ether like my old man and his old man. At least that’s what I’d like to think, even though I’m not the spiritual type at all.
I flew up the steps to head back through the press room and outside, but not before I’d made certain of seeing people who I needed to see - Messrs Ross, Tattum & Moxley for a congratulatory hug. Mox was in floods when I saw him, bless his heart; Tom was still broadcasting but gave me a bear hug nonetheless…and Tatts, hard at work as ever on his laptop broke into a rare, rare toothy grin. That in itself spoke volumes for what had just been achieved. Hugs sought and proffered, I was off skipping my way towards the Wembley Plaza Hotel to meet Ceri, my bike chauffeur.
Nice to have a Spurs fan in Ceri take me across London to Waterloo. He was almost as made up as I was…not really, but you get the gist. Before you knew it we’d weaved our way through Swiss Cottage and Regents Park to get across the river and into the office just in time to start my phone in. and you can imagine how joyous those 2 hours were in the company of Blues fans ringing and texting in their hundreds to big up the lads, as well as a gracious (for an ex Villa) Ray Houghton and a programming floor full of well-wishers including Bobby Gould and Andy Goldstein.
I haven’t shut up about it since, and it’s Thursday night as I type this blog. I may never shut up about it, who knows? All I know is, I kept right on – and now we’ve reached the end of that road, there are bigger and better roads to head off down.
So who’s coming with me?.....(sings) “Thursday night – Channel 5! Thursday night – Channel 5!” (repeat ad nauseam)