Exactly 50 years ago today on May 23 1963, Blues took a giant leap towards winning their first major trophy.
It came with a victory against old adversaries Aston Villa in the League Cup. Here we look at the first leg which was played at St.Andrew's
It would be almost half a century before success of that magnitude would be repeated.
A crowd of almost 32,000 - the third highest St. Andrew’s attendance of the season - crammed into the stadium on a Thursday night in late May. The competition, now into its third year, finally took on a whole new appeal to the silverware-staved Bluenoses. In four days time one of the captains would be lifting a shiny cup aloft, with the added ingredient of local bragging rights also up for grabs. The shackles of a relegation scrap now removed, it was the home side that set about the challenge with vigour and no little panache. Unsurprisingly, Merrick named the same side that pulled off the final-day rescue act against Leicester but they looked anything but a team that had only narrowly avoided relegation. Meanwhile, Villa, who had won the first ever League Cup tournament two years earlier, were found lacking in quality on the big stage.
The visitors were up for the fight though, a little overly so during the opening exchanges. Scottish striker Bobby Thomson didn’t endear himself to the home fans as he slid in on Blues keeper Johnny Schofield. And Wales international wing-half Vic Crowe brought fellow countryman Ken Leek crashing to the ground with another wince-inducing tackle. But when it came to the cultured side of the game, it was Blues that produced all the best moves.
Harris was unlucky to see his shot turned onto the crossbar by an inspired Nigel Sims between the posts for Villa. But the fans didn’t have to wait long to see the opponent’s net ripple for the first time. On 14 minutes, Harris fed the ball out to Bertie Auld on the left wing and the Scot’s pinpoint cross was clinically converted by Leek.
Bloomfield became the next victim of Villa’s overly-physical approach as he was forced to leave the action to have his thigh bandaged but Mercer’s side were unable to take advantage of their numerical advantage. The visitors relied too much on lumping high balls into the Blues area, a tactic that played right into the hands of the hosts who could call on the commanding figure of skipper Trevor Smith to repel such unimaginative forays. However, the first time that Villa launched an attack on the ground four minutes before the interval they drew level. Gordon Lee and then Harry Burrows advanced with the ball before teeing up Thomson, who let fly with an instinctive effort that caught Schofield unawares and nestled into the corner.
Blues were unfortunate to find themselves on level terms but in the second-half the hosts made their superiority count. Just seven minutes after the restart Harris, Auld and Leek combined again to terrific effect. The latter was put through on and he kept his composure with a cool finish beyond Sims for his second goal of the game. With so much at stage, tempers began to flare on both sides. Crowe felt the full force of Auld’s flailing elbow, Charlie Aitken shoved Blues winger Mike Hellawell in the chest before John Fraser and Harris squared up to each other and had to be dragged apart by team-mates.
But whilst Merrick’s men were getting embroiled in the unpleasantries, when it came to free-flowing football they were the undoubted masters of the show and carved out a crucial third goal on 66 minutes. Harris slid the ball through to Bloomfield who weaved his magic. He tiptoed past two Villa defenders as if they weren’t there before brushing aside a challenge from Sims and pushing the ball neatly through the narrow gap between the goalkeeper and his near-post.
Blues strolled through the remainder of the game and could have racked up more goals if it wasn’t for the heroics of Sims, as he pulled off two more stunning saves late on to deny Leek and Auld. Harris, who produced his best performance of the season on just the right occasion, admitted that his side should have chalked up a more comprehensive first-leg lead. “It could have been 5-1 at St. Andrew’s,” insisted the striker, who was involved in the build-up to all three Blues goals. “Nigel Sims was outstanding that night. I had a shot which he tipped onto the bar and he made numerous other saves.”
But overall it was a thoroughly satisfying night’s work from Merrick’s men and set them up nicely for the return leg at Villa Park the following Monday.
You can read the second part of this article, from when Blues went to Aston and returned with the trophy on Monday.