On 27 February 2011, Birmingham City lifted major silverware at Wembley for the first time.
Alex McLeish’s side pulled off one of the biggest upsets in League Cup history with a 2-1 victory against overwhelming favourites Arsenal.
The Gunners were riding high in second place in the Premier League table and on the tails of Manchester United in the race for the top flight title. In contrast, Blues were down in 16th and only two points above the relegation zone – a fight against the drop that they would ultimately lose.
But, despite the major disappointment of relinquishing their place in England’s top division at the campaign’s end, the memories of the unlikely success at the national stadium ensured that it will always be an historic season to cherish for Blues and their tens of thousands of fans.
The cup run had begun back in late August. It was a decidedly shaky start though as McLeish’s men found themselves a goal down at home to League One side Rochdale. Blues recovered to sneak though to the next round with a 3-2 win, a game that saw 16-year-old Nathan Redmond become the Club’s second ever youngest player after a late cameo performance.
Blues brushed aside MK Dons with much greater ease in round three (3-1) but a third successive tie against League One opponents almost proved a banana skin.
Brentford were seconds away from victory at St. Andrew’s when Kevin Phillips popped up with a stoppage-time equaliser (1-1) to take the game to extra-time, Blues eventually prevailing on penalties with goalkeeper Maik Taylor saving the decisive spot-kick.
The quarter-final draw pitted Blues with their city rivals Aston Villa in a mouth-watering and eagerly-anticipated St. Andrew’s showdown. Giant striker Nikola Zigic provided the perfect climax to a nail-biting contest as his late winner sent the hosts through to the last four (2-1).
Blues took on West Ham in the semi-finals and found themselves 2-1 down after the first leg at Upton Park. The tie was delicately poised going into the return match at St. Andrew’s, but then a first-half Carlton Cole goal looked to have shattered the hosts’ Wembley dream, trailing by two goals on aggregate with only 30 minutes remaining.
But this Blues side was made of sterner stuff and Lee Bowyer and Roger Johnson put the tie back on a knife edge and locked at 3-3 on aggregate after 90 minutes. Roared on by the deafening noise of the home crowd, local boy and self-confessed Bluenose Craig Gardner fired Blues through to the final with a 20-yard winner.
Over 30,000 lucky Bluenoses headed to Wembley, with many more watching on TVs around the world, as their heroes went into battle with a star-studded Arsenal side under the Wembley arch.
Zigic delivered the first blow as he headed Blues in front after Roger Johnson had nodded on Seb Larsson’s corner. But Blues held the advantage for only 11 minutes as Robin Van Persie equalised before the break.
Arsene Wenger’s side had been fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men and concede a penalty within the opening two minutes of the game, when Wojciech Szczesny brought down the onrushing Lee Bowyer inside the area when the midfielder was clean through.
The Gunners escaped courtesy of the assistant’s offside flag, but frustratingly TV replays showed that the former West Ham man was a good yard onside. So Blues deserved any luck that went their way in the second-half when a magnificent backs-to-the-wall display repelled every Arsenal attack.
On the occasions that Wenger’s team did get a sight of goal they found Ben Foster in scintillating form. The Blues keeper pulled off a string of top-class saves to keep the Gunners at bay, before providing the assist for a dramatic 89th minute winner.
Foster pumped a high free-kick into the opposition penalty area and a mix-up between Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny gifted an almost unmissable chance to super sub Obafemi Martins, who had only been on the pitch for six minutes. The Nigerian striker, making only his fourth appearance since joining the Club on loan, had the simple job of rolling the ball into an empty net.
Blues held on comfortably through four minutes of stoppage-time before the referee’s final whistle sparked scenes of unbridled joy, both on the pitch for those wearing royal blue and the thousands in the stands.
Stephen Carr help the trophy aloft to confirm Birmingham City as 2011 Carling Cup winners and set up the enticing prospect of European football at St. Andrew’s.
Foster received the Alan Hardaker trophy as the man-of-the-match, an accolade he’d won two years before with Manchester United, but this victory meant so much more to the Blues keeper. “It was a given at United that you were going to win trophies but with a team like Birmingham it was against all odds as we were the underdogs,” said Foster. “We’re not a fashionable team, but we showed the togetherness and team spirit and we did it.”
Those sentiments were echoed by defender Liam Ridgewell. “You only have to look back to the Brentford game a few rounds back. We were dead and buried but came back, got to penalties and won. We have always given our all to the very last whistle and we’ve done that again.”
We’ll leave the final word to match-winner Martins. He was to make only two more appearances for Blues during his brief stay in the Second City, but his Wembley goal etched him a permanent place in the annals of Birmingham City history.
“It was the easiest goal that I’ve ever scored in my career but it was also the most important,” said the striker. “I think we deserved it overall, and you can see what it means to the Birmingham fans so I’m glad we did it for them.”