When Birmingham City overcame Arsenal to win the League Cup in 2011
By most conventional measures, Obafemi Martins’s loan spell with Birmingham City couldn’t be deemed a success. Recruited in the January transfer window of 2011 to help score the goals that would keep the club in the Premier League, he only found the net twice and his season was cut short by injury when he was needed most. Blues were relegated in his absence.
Yet something remarkable, and unexpected, happened in his fourth appearance. A late substitute in the League Cup final, Martins had only been on the pitch for six minutes when a moment of confusion between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczęsny saw the ball spilled at his feet with the goal gaping. He couldn’t miss and Arsenal had no time to recover.
In the strangest of circumstances, the Nigerian striker marked his temporary stay at Birmingham City with arguably the most significant goal in the club’s history. His simple finish secured a 2-1 win and only the second major trophy for a club that had been founded in 1875. The only other had come in 1963.
“The celebrations were huge,” said Liam Ridgewell, the Birmingham left-back. “I think they went on for days. It was just an unbelievable feeling to have actually done it when so many people said we wouldn’t. I think that was probably a big part of it – that we wanted to prove everyone wrong. That we could win against a big team. It was a great afternoon, a great evening, a great night, a great early morning and a great next day. It was well worth celebrating.”
Victory over Arsenal in front of a packed Wembley was a far cry from how Birmingham’s League Cup journey began that season. There were only 6,431 supporters at a rain-soaked St Andrew’s for a second-round tie with League One Rochdale that proved far from straightforward. A much-changed Blues side briefly trailed to Gary Jones’s close-range strike but rallied to win 3-2.
Late in the second half, the crowd were given a first glimpse of the lively Nathan Redmond, who at 16 became the club’s second youngest ever player after Trevor Francis. It was one of the few notable moments of a largely forgettable and unconvincing display.
A favourable draw meant that Blues didn’t face Premier League opposition until the quarter-final and were at home throughout that run. MK Dons were beaten comfortably enough in the third round. The summer signings Alexander Hleb and Nikola Žigić scored their first goals for the club as Birmingham raced into a 3-0 lead. Aaron Wilbraham pulled one back to no avail.
Brentford were the third consecutive League One side to visit St Andrew’s in the competition that season and gave Blues by far the toughest challenge they’d faced up until that point. Sam Wood’s volley put the Bees in control and they were leading deep into injury time when Kevin Phillips grabbed a late equaliser. Penalties were needed to squeeze through to the next stage, where Aston Villa awaited.
“We didn’t play well and we scraped through that. There are always turning points with cups. We just rode our luck there and we got through,” said Stephen Carr, the experienced right-back and club captain. “There are loads of things that happen like that in the cups. It can just change and you think, ‘Maybe we have got an opportunity.’ I think that’s happened to a lot of teams.”
“I get reminded about the Brentford game a lot because one of my best mates is Sam Wood, who scored a volley in that game. I didn’t know him as well then as I do now, otherwise I’d have tried to kick him a bit harder,” Ridgewell said with a laugh.
In contrast to the relatively understated encounters they’d had to navigate thus far, the visit of Blues’ biggest rivals ratcheted up the tension considerably. The atmosphere was transformed from previous rounds ready for the first ‘Second City’ derby to be played under the lights since 2003, when a Birmingham win at Villa Park had featured a headbutt, two red cards and trouble in the stands.
From then on, meetings between Blues and Villa had been consigned to early Sunday afternoon kick-offs in an attempt to suppress any crowd issues, but no such change could be made to the League Cup schedule. So, on a cold December night, a full-strength Blues side were buoyed by a raucous home support. Both teams meant business. “Bloody hell. That was unbelievable,” recalls Carr. “I love derby games – they already have that spice – but to have it in a cup as well… I just remember the atmosphere. How loud it was. Oh my god. My family and all my mates were there. It was just something so special, especially beating them. For players, at the end of the day it’s about getting through to the next round. We know how big the derbies are, but, for us, we have to treat it as another game. For the fans, it’s more than that.”
Blues got the breakthrough after just 12 minutes. Cameron Jerome hunted down the ball and teed up the onrushing Lee Bowyer, who was tripped in the area by Richard Dunne. Sebastian Larsson took responsibility, stepping up to send Brad Friedel the wrong way.
Nikola Žigić thought he’d doubled Birmingham’s advantage soon after as a corner caused havoc and his shot was fumbled by the Villa goalkeeper. It was unclear whether or not it had crossed the line, but the linesman’s flag was raised for offside regardless.
An equaliser came from Gabriel Agbonlahor, who enjoyed an enviable record of scoring in derby games. Being subjected to endless taunts and provocations never seemed to put him off his stride. The ball broke kindly to him in the box and he held off Bowyer’s challenge to find the bottom corner. It was his fourth goal in six games against Blues and sent the teams in level at the break as Jerome missed a glorious opportunity, skewing his shot wide with just Friedel to beat.
Jerome and Žigić, whose substantial wage and ungainly appearance often made him an easy target for frustrated supporters, combined to send Blues through as extra-time beckoned. A low pull-back from the right found the Serbian, who scuffed the ball in off Luke Young to spark wild celebrations and begin his ascent to cult hero status.
“The atmosphere was incredible. Obviously, when we played Villa before I scored an own goal and we lost so I didn’t have great memories of playing against them. Beating them on the night went a long way to rectifying that day. After beating your rivals at home, you start to dream of Wembley,” said Ridgewell, who had started his career at Villa.
At the final whistle there was a pitch invasion from Blues fans looking to goad their Villa counterparts. Rows of police officers tried to hold back the tide as flares were set off by both sets of supporters. Various objects, including seats, were thrown. The stadium announcer’s appeal for a return to order was ignored.
Villa had been beaten for the first time in eight attempts, although an even longer winless run was to follow. A £20,000 fine was later imposed for the disorder, but by then Blues had already won the cup. “Coming to the end of the match, we sort of expected the pitch invasion, so we were quick to get down the tunnel afterwards,” said Ridgewell. “It was such a big win, and the night and the occasion was unbelievable. The atmosphere was incredible, so it sort of went hand in hand with that. It was such a great night. I didn’t get to see too much of the pitch invasion, but I certainly heard about it.”
“The atmosphere. The pitch invasion. It was just old-school football, like it used to be,” added Carr. “The atmosphere was out of this world. You could see what it meant to beat their rivals. It was huge.”
West Ham were the last obstacle to overcome, across the course of two legs, in order to reach the final. Blues lost the first leg 2-1 against the 10-man Hammers and were in dire trouble as Carlton Cole struck again to put them even further behind back at St. Andrew’s. They were 3-1 down on aggregate, with 45 minutes to save themselves, as Alex McLeish decided to roll the dice. Something had to change.
“I still thought it was possible,” Ridgewell recalls. “I still believed that we could do it, just because of the rounds that we’d already been through. I felt we were destined to get to the final and just go all the way. It was an unbelievable strike from Carlton Cole. A one-in-a-million goal that was a bit of shock to the system. But I think it spurred us on a little bit. It gave us a little bit of balls and a bit of bite to go on and get through.At half-time we were like, ‘Right, let’s just go for it. We’ve got nothing to lose. We’re in the second leg of a League Cup semi-final. It’s make or break. Why not just go for it and start attacking them?’ The crowd was willing us on. It was hell for leather. With every goal the crowd got even louder, and the players got more belief. It was unbelievable.”
Žigić came on for Matt Derbyshire and transformed the dynamic. As the West Ham defence sank back to protect its lead, the substitute’s height and aerial threat came to the fore. Blues went direct, seeking out Žigić at every opportunity. The pressure mounted and was eventually made to tell. “You have to make sure that you don’t leave anything out there. You had a good group of lads. They weren’t flash, nothing like that. They worked tirelessly for each other and had a massive determination. This was an opportunity that you might not get again, so just give it everything,” said Carr.
“We came out and went for it. I don’t think they knew what had hit them. We were just relentless. They couldn’t catch their breath really. We were just on them and the fans were getting behind us. We got our rewards in the end.”
From a Larsson corner, the ball fell to Lee Bowyer, who rattled in a half-volley just short of the hour mark. One more goal was needed, and it arrived from another corner. This time Bowyer drilled the ball in and Roger Johnson rose highest to head home. The momentum had swung back in Blues’ favour.
In the first half of extra time, Carr seized possession and surged down the right. Approaching the box, he played the ball back inside to Craig Gardner, who tried his luck from distance once more. It wasn’t the cleanest of efforts, but it was just enough to beat a sprawling Rob Green and send Birmingham through.
“When you have your fans behind you, driving you on, you can feel something,” said Carr. “You could see all the lads had that desire to win the game. You can see how we attacked. It was a special game to be involved in. You don’t get them all the time. At home, to come back and get the result, fans going mad, going to a cup final. Amazing. The players were buzzing.”
The ticket allocation for Blues’ first Wembley final since they beat Carlisle United in the 1995 Auto Windscreens Shield sold out quickly. Fans were desperately redialling the ticket office, trying to log in to an overworked online system or else queueing up outside the ground to secure their seat for the big occasion. Thousands descended on London on a grey February afternoon.
“I realised what a big deal it was when me and Craig Gardner went to a forum with [local radio presenter and Blues supporter] Tom Ross,” remembers Ridgewell. “We sat up on the stage and they opened it up to the fans. They were saying they’d rather win the Carling Cup than stay in the Premier League. Me and Craig obviously wanted to stay in the Premier League, for the club to push forward and get better.
“You always dream about getting to a cup final at Wembley but, unless you play for one of the big teams, do you ever really believe you’re going to get there? Probably not. It was amazing. Getting your suits fitted, sorting tickets, sorting hotels for family. Just the excitement around it was incredible. Even the drive down to the hotel in London was amazing and something to look forward to.”
Despite their recent struggles under Arsène Wenger, as Manchester United and Chelsea pulled away into the distance, this still felt like it would be a relative formality for Arsenal. Silverware had proved increasingly elusive but a win over Birmingham would bring that run to an end and get them back on track. The outcome seemed so obvious that there were even discussions about which player would get to lift the trophy with captain Cesc Fàbregas ruled out through injury.
A brittle yet occasionally brilliant team, Arsenal had shown the two sides to their character in the games leading up to the League Cup final. They’d beaten Barcelona 2-1 in the first leg of their Champions League second round tie, and then conceded a late equaliser to draw with Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road in the FA Cup. Even when they won 1-0 against their ideological nemesis Stoke City, they suffered costly injuries to Fàbregas and Theo Walcott.
For their part, Blues were missing the centre-back Scott Dann so Martin Jiránek deputised. The former Arsenal players Hleb and David Bentley were also absent, one injured and the other cup-tied. A cautious Alex McLeish went for one up front, with Žigić supported by runners from midfield. Few observers gave them much hope of causing an upset. The Blues players sensed that this included their opponents.
“Arsenal winning the Carling Cup isn’t the same as Blues winning the Carling Cup. Would there have been a bit more confidence and arrogance from them? Definitely, I think,” said Carr. “They could say there wasn’t, but I think there was a confidence from their fans that they only had to turn up. When you have that, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, it’s a big mistake. You’ve got players there who aren’t getting the opportunities, like Arsenal, to play in finals. They might never get another one, and they’re going to throw everything on the line to win that game.”
Ridgewell agrees. Whether or not Arsenal were complacent, the thought that the occasion didn’t mean as much to them was used as motivation. “We all turned up in our suits, went outside and looked at the pitch. I always remember Liverpool doing it for the FA Cup final when they had their white suits on. That’s my memory, so we did the same,” he says.
“Then I remember Arsenal walking in wearing tracksuits like it was a normal day for them. A normal Saturday game. At that point I was looking around the boys and they all thought, ‘Hang on a second. They just think they’re going to turn up and walk all over us .I think that was the turning point for everybody to go, ‘You know what, let’s fucking stuff it up them. Let’s go and win the game’.
“Our instructions were to follow who you were up against to the death. You stick with them and man-mark them. Every time they got the ball, the manager wanted us to be centimetres away from them. He wanted us to be tackling them every time. The game-plan was just to get stuck into them and, when we got a chance to get the ball, to stick some crosses in. To get it into Nikola Žigić and play off him. It worked a treat.”
The game started brightly from a Birmingham perspective, as Bowyer was sent through on goal by Žigić. The midfielder was felled by Wojciech Szczęsny as he went to go around him, but play was pulled back for offside. Replays revealed it to be an incorrect decision. A penalty and a red card would surely have followed.
Blues brushed off that initial sense of injustice to take the lead anyway, preying on Arsenal’s frailty from set-pieces. Larsson hung a corner up to the edge of the box and Roger Johnson’s header was flicked on well by Žigić. Samir Nasri desperately lunged to clear the ball off the line but was unable to do so. The blue half of the stadium erupted.
“It was the perfect start scoring the first goal, and Nikola Žigić was magic for us as well. Over the years Arsenal got weaker and weaker on set pieces. They certainly were at that point. We knew they were a better footballing team than us, but we knew that they weren’t going to outwork us and we knew that we could get them on set pieces. We were playing to our strengths,” said Ridgewell.
The lead wasn’t to last, however, as Arsenal engineered a brilliant equaliser. Blues thought they’d survived when Jack Wilshere rattled the bar, but the ball was only cleared as far as Andrey Arshavin, who worked some space on the right and found Robin van Persie with his cross. The Dutchman executed a superb low volley into the far corner of Ben Foster’s goal.
Van Persie was injured in the process and would have to be withdrawn midway through the second half. Former Birmingham loanee Nicklas Bendtner came on in his place, while Marouane Chamakh replaced Arshavin. Both were kept at bay impressively by Foster as Arsenal looked to force the issue. At the other end, a snapshot from Keith Fahey rattled the post.
Then, against the run of play, came Martins'smoment. Stephen Carr helped to alleviate the mounting pressure by winning a free-kick deep in Birmingham’s half and Foster speculatively thumped it forwards for Žigić to challenge. He won his header and neither Koscielny nor Szczęsny were decisive enough in claiming the ball, which fell invitingly to Martins 10 yards out. Even then his shot seemed to take an age to hit the net.
Martins wheeled away, chased by ecstatic teammates, as another roar went up from the Birmingham end. A wonderfully elaborate and acrobatic celebration, one of the striker’s trademarks, followed the most uncomplicated of goals. Arsenal had wilted, twice undone by Blues’ bracingly direct approach.
“At the end of the day, Žigić is a handful. It’s not even Žigić winning the ball, it’s what you get from it, because he’s awkward. Not easy to play against,” said Carr. “That was a strength for us. You’ve got Lee (Bowyer) as well, running off Žigić. A clever runner, getting into positions. We’d got Roger Johnson as well, who was strong in the air. We knew we could get things from set pieces, so we had to maximise that when we did have them.”
The plan worked. Scenes of disbelieving joy amongst players, staff and supporters greeted the final whistle. This wasn’t what was meant to happen. Not to a club like Birmingham City, in such grand surroundings, against as storied an opponent as Arsenal. They were both Premier League sides but the gulf between them remained massive and made victory all the sweeter.
“It was amazing. Even thinking about it now puts a smile on my face. It was an unbelievable feeling to know that you’ve won a huge cup final, against a massive team as well. And scoring so late on was just phenomenal,” said Ridgewell. “That energy rush and excitement was intensified because we scored so late on. It still would have felt good to win 2-1, but scoring right at the death made it even better. It was amazing. I didn’t really know where to run or who to go and celebrate with.”
Carr, who had come out of retirement to sign for Blues on a short-term contract just two years before, led his team up the steps and lifted the trophy. The Arsenal end had quickly emptied but Birmingham supporters stayed behind to savour the whole experience. An occasion like this might never come around again.
On his birthday, the owner Carson Yeung was there to hand Ben Foster the award for Man of the Match after he’d made 11 saves. It was all rather different to the goalkeeper’s first League Cup win with Manchester United, when he was part of a much-changed team that saw off Tottenham Hotspur on penalties. It was little more than an afterthought for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, who were focused on winning the title and the Champions League, but this meant everything to Birmingham City.
The contrast was embodied by Carr, who had won the League Cup 12 years previously with Tottenham. “I was one of the younger players in the team and I was at a club where it’s expected that you win things. Not that they won tonnes and tonnes, but there is more of an expectation. When you’re younger you take things for granted. You enjoy the moment, but you don’t think about it as much,” he said. “When you get older, to have another opportunity of winning it was a completely different experience for me. I couldn’t get a football club, and then to come back and win a cup was like a fairytale. No one would give me an opportunity. Eight months, 10 months out of the game. No football training, just running, doing my own thing.
“Then coming back, being on trial at Birmingham. We went up on the last game of the season, then went on a great run in the Premier League. To not be playing and then to have that chance, with a club where I was never really thinking about winning a cup… I never thought I’d have that, especially later on in my career.”
There would be no open-top bus parade or civic ceremony as Blues sought to focus on their survival effort once the immediate glow of Wembley success had faded. There were 12 league games left to beat the drop, but Birmingham won just two of them, and none of the last six, slipping into the relegation zone on the final day. Nine years on, the fallout from that disastrous run of form is still being processed. The ripples it created continue to be felt.
“I think the big problem was that we didn’t have a massive squad and the further we went in the competition, the more the boys wanted to play. So if you had a knock, or you were struggling, then you just got through it. You just got through it to get to the cup final because you wanted to play and win the game. After that, I think it took more of a toll than we all realised on individual players,” explained Ridgewell.
“After the final, coming towards the end of the season, it was a fight. We were struggling because we had a lot of injuries. People were sort of limping along to get to the cup final and afterwards you suddenly feel a bit drained. I think the squad size was a big struggle for us. We were such a good team, to get relegated was devastating, and certainly in the fashion that we did.
“It took a long time to get over it, if you ever do. I still think about it now. It was certainly a tough one to take because I feel like we had a very good team, and one we could have built on for next season. But, after that, obviously the team was dismantled, and everyone went their own way.
“There were a lot of people who had done a lot of hard work behind the scenes to get the team to where they should be and to go down off the back of winning the Carling Cup was tough to take. People talk about players leaving and that it was easy to go. It wasn’t. It was tough for everybody who left that team because we didn’t feel that we should have gone down, or that we deserved to go down. But, sadly, that’s football.”
Carr is still at a loss to explain what went wrong. “I wish I had the answer,” he said. “It’s a strange thing. It wasn’t as if everyone got carried away and downed tools or anything like that. We just couldn’t seem to get any momentum. We had a few injuries, but even that’s no excuse for it, to not be able to pick up a few results to keep yourself safe. It was such a low, low point in my career from one of the highest points in the club’s history. It was horrible. All of a sudden, it’s a different club.”
A summer of sweeping changes followed. McLeish defected to Aston Villa. Carson Yeung was arrested, and eventually imprisoned, on money laundering charges. Austerity measures were imposed to prevent the club from falling into administration. New owners eventually arrived but have only contributed to the uncertainty, with a raft of different managers, several near escapes from another relegation, a transfer embargo and a points deduction.
Yet, if you ask most supporters, they wouldn’t have it any other way. The concept of genuine, unalloyed success sits uneasily with Blues fans, so some painful consequences were perhaps only to be expected. The League Cup win felt like a seismic moment in the club’s history, and its significance has only grown in stature with the way that subsequent events have panned out.
“Incredible. It even gives me tingles now and puts a smile on my face just to know that we did such an amazing thing. To win a major trophy with Birmingham is unbelievable,” said Ridgewell. “Hopefully we can all meet up again and talk about it, and celebrate again one day, and look back on how incredible it was. It was a great time to be at Birmingham and one that I, and all the other players, really enjoyed.”
“It’s obviously very sad how the club has gone since then. It’s terrible. The fans don’t deserve that, but they’ll have that memory for the rest of their lives,” said Carr. “For us, as players, we’ll always remember. I’m very privileged to have had that opportunity – to captain such a great group of lads and to win a cup with them and give it to the fans.”