It all started on that cold night in August where just under 6,000 Bluenoses turned up to watch us play Rochdale in the second round of the Carling Cup. We don't exactly have a brilliant record in the past few years so when Rochdale went 1-0 up it seemed like same old, same old. Never did I imagine at that point, that just six months later, Birmingham City would be walking out at Wembley.
Even when we comfortably beat MK Dons 3-1, the thought of a Carling Cup final didn't even begin to enter my mind. We could have got more that night, especially considering we scored three goals in ten minutes, but it was convincing enough – although, still not convincing enough for me that I started to believe we would make the final – far from it.
In the next game, against Brentford, we were two minutes from being knocked out. It's strange to think that if Kevin Phillips hadn't scored that last minute equaliser Wembley would still just be a dream. Thinking back to it now, he is the reason why we are here. Sure, those battling performances in the three games that followed against Villa and then twice against West Ham were the key to our success, but had Super Kev not been in the right place at the right time – like he so often is – then we wouldn't have even got to the quarter final stage.
The penalty shoot out in that game was nerve racking enough but the draw for the quarter finals was just about as scary. I knew ours and Villa's numbers so as soon as theirs was pulled out I knew we had them. And then for a whole month, everything leading up to the 1st December was about the big derby. It wasn't going to be a game in which both sides could come out quite happy with a draw and the bragging rights and blushes could be put on hold: it was a game that someone had to win. So with three potential banana skins averted, we had a quarter final tie with our nearest but definitely not dearest rivals.
Fortunately, it was to be our night, and I think it's safe to say the match on the 1st December couldn't have gone better. The fact we won it within the last ten minutes too with no way back for them made it all the more sweeter. Despite events being marred by the aftermath of the match, we were in the semi-finals, and we could start to dream of a Carling Cup Final becoming a reality after one of the best nights at St. Andrews for many years. Walking back from the match everyone was getting texts: "You've got West Ham!" read the one I received, and that was the start of the build up to two enormous games in which we finally triumphed.
I think that when you're just two games from Wembley you really, really start to believe. You have to – or the team never will. It was like that last season in the FA Cup, and although we faltered then we were determined to go all the way this season. Despite losing the first leg against West Ham in circumstances we'd rather put behind us, we were still confident that the home leg would see us score enough to book us a place at Wembley on the 27th of February. I'm not sure as many Bluenoses still had that same belief when we went in 1-0 down at half time at St. Andrews, meaning we were 3-1 behind on aggregate. An impossible task for some, but if there's one thing you can never take away from this battling bunch of players is their spirit and their belief that they can – and that they will.
And then the second half performance that we should be famous for by now came. And true to the anthem sung at them numerous times every game, they kept right on to the end of the road. Lee Bowyer's goal gave everyone a lift; Roger Johnson's goal gave everyone belief; and Craig Gardner's goal made it all come true. I cannot tell you how it felt when that final whistle went. It was a mixture of relief, adrenaline, excitement and pride. Singing 'Que Sera Sera' for a good few minutes after the final whistle only added to the emotion of what was happening. We'd done it. We'd go to the Carling Cup Final and booked a place at Wembley. Forget about beating Villa being one of the best nights down St. Andrews: this was the best night at St. Andrews. The best.
And now I'm sitting here, typing this, just one day before the Carling Cup Final with the biggest smile on my face. All preparation has been done now, all the talking will cease after tonight, and all it comes down to is 90 minutes of football in which we hope to come out on top of.
I can't put it into words what it would mean to this club to win on Sunday. I wouldn't say that we 'deserve' to win it, but you try living a lifetime of disappointment and living in the shadow of others, and then even to be reminded by every single team you play that “you've never won fuck all.” It's all laughed off and classed as banter at the time, because that's who we are. We enjoy supporting Blues... well, you have to don't you? We've learnt to laugh at ourselves because otherwise we'd cry. Those stupid things that could happen “only at Blues” are what make us, us. Our Brummie humour, our ability to stare adversity right in the face and tell it where to get off, and of course our belief in our team.
And belief is what has got us here. Like I mentioned before: if you don't believe, you'll never do it. When a chance like a Carling Cup Final came around as a club we had to take that opportunity, grasp it by both hands and say "you know what, we can do this." We had the chance of Wembley last season but fell at the final hurdle against Portsmouth; last month we put that right by finally booking a place at the home of English football – because after everything last season, the blood, sweat and tears the players gave for the shirt: the least they deserve is a day out at Wembley.
But the thing is, we don't just want it to be a day out. We want to win it just as much as Arsenal do, maybe more in fact. We've done relegations, we've done promotions, we've done establishing ourselves, but now we're about to go into the cup final business again. But to win this would be brilliant. It would give the whole club a massive lift and give us something to shout about. To a lot of you it's “only the Carling Cup”; to Arsenal it's a stop to the trophy drought and the chance to get a really annoying monkey off their back; but to us it's something major for the City as a whole. It's not just a day out for us, it's a real chance to win something.
All the talk in the build up has been about Arsenals six year trophy drought. For a top team I suppose that is quite a long time to wait, but for a team like us who have endured a long trophy-less 48 years, six is nothing. That's why I believe it means a little bit more to us than it does to Arsenal. Just a little bit. And if you don't believe me, take a look at the full time whistles at both Arsenal v Ipswich and Blues v West Ham. Now, you watch those and then tell me what club it means more too. The club with the fans and players who are walking around applauding; or the club whose fans are hugging random strangers next to them, and the players who are taking part in a mass grope-hug going absolutely mental.
You never get handed opportunities: you always have to work for them. Some people say we had an easy cup run, but lets not forget we had three potential banana skins (one of which was two minutes away from knocking us out) before we had to play our local rivals and then two legs against fierce relegation rivals who had beat Manchester United 4-0 to get the privilege of being in the semi final. What we did was no easy task, especially because we were 3-1 down in a semi-final we one point. We were out of it. But it took passion, bottle and a whole lot of fight, and that's something we have that not a lot of other teams have. The one thing you can't deny us is our fighting spirit that got us our deserved place in the Carling Cup Final.
We are the underdogs in this match. But a lot of the time it's better to be that. No one in this country thinks we can do this other than ourselves. A lot of people hope we can do it, but that's their hearts speaking. In their heads they know – or think they know – that it will be Arsenal's day. I can tell you for a fact it won't go like that. Any big game which Blues are involved in is never straight forward for either team, and Arsenal's result the other night against Leyton Orient should only strengthen our mentality to believe that this can be done.
A win the the Carling Cup final. That would be for the media who have already written us off before the game has even started. It would be especially for the London press who already have their headlines written about how Arsenal sailed to triumph against the hapless Birmingham City. It will be for all those who don't believe that a small team could possibly deny Wenger and his boys a chance at their “much deserved” first piece of silverware in six years. But most importantly, for our club, it's fans and everyone to do with it, it would be a phenomenal achievement that would make even the toughest men shed a tear.
To the fans; just enjoy it. Opportunities like this don't come around too often. Sing till you lose your voice, cry until you have no tears left to cry, and cheer your team on to a victory that they deserve. Give the players everything you have because I know they will give us everything they have. Don't give up because they will be fighting for every ball our there, and they want it just was much as we do.
To the manager, McLeish, and all his staff; thank you for getting us this far. A date at Wembley is a massive achievement and will be a day to remember for all Bluenose there... but to win the trophy at the end of it would be even more special. After events last season a Wembley date was something that would have topped it off, it doesn't matter that it's a year late, all that matters is that we have a real chance and thank you for getting us there.
To the players; good luck. There really is nothing more to say that hasn't already been said. If you fight for everything, give 200%, play through all kinds of different pain barriers and come so close to sweating blood it hurts, then you will come out on top. You have a chance to do what every boy dreams of and that is lift a trophy above your head at Wembley in front of 31,000 adoring supporters and plenty of stunned media, not to mention the pissed off prawn sandwich brigade. You have a chance not only to win something for yourselves, but for your club too. All we're asking is for you to play like you did in the unbeaten run last season; for you to put in 'a second half performance' for the whole 90 minutes. Maybe we can make history.
It's a long, long road and this is one of the joys we will find along it to make up for all those years of sorrow. Having the memories of the occasion is one thing, but having your name engraved into history is another.
Keep Right On
"I can't guarantee that we will win it but I can guarantee that we believe we can."
"I just can’t wait for the occasion. The feeling you get from walking out at a final, nothing beats it, with our 30,000-odd fans there too, it should be incredible."
"Even us as a team, you're thinking that we're coming on the blind side. But that's what makes this extra special, and that it's been so long for the club. We deserve it, you know, we've worked so hard to get here."
"I want to go out there and do the club proud."
"We will go there and try and win the game. It's a one-off, you never know what can happen. We've certainly earned the right to get to the final. It's whether we can give a good performance."
"I will be watching and I really hope Birmingham do it, and go one better than we did all those years ago."
"We are in charge of our own destiny and if we play the right game, I'm sure we will come up trumps."
"Hopefully come six o'clock on Sunday we can bring the cup back."
"We're going there to win, make no mistake."