Following another weekend of FA Cup fixtures, the magic of ‘the cup’ has once again been enthused upon by pundits. Every football fan knows that the FA Cup is ‘the cup’ – the one that you wait your whole life in the hope that one day you’ll see your team lift.
But what about the lesser mentioned Carling Cup. Regarded as worthless by some, a waste of time by others, does it still have a place in the sporting calendar?
Having witnessed my team Birmingham City lift the Carling Cup last year, on what was one of the best days of my life, I argue unequivocally yes and take a look back on my personal experience as a fan of a Cup-winning team.
27 February 2011 wasn’t my first experience of a Cup final. In 2001, I travelled to Cardiff to see the then Worthington Cup Final between Liverpool and Birmingham. Birmingham lost 5-4 on penalties, and I cried all the way home. I may have been young, but I appreciated that the chances of getting to another final any time soon were slim. So you can understand why when Craig Gardner fired home the winner against West Ham in the semi-final of last year’s Carling Cup, I was somewhat ecstatic to say the least.
The journey to the final alone had been fantastic – nothing beats knocking out your local rivals, followed by the club now owned by your former owners. But the excitement of going to Wembley, having never been before, was something else.
Immediately on arriving in London, the differences between the two sets of fans were notable. Arsenal fans were looking forward to a nice day out and a distraction from the league, but they were hardly what I would call excited. They saw the win as being a given, and almost wanted to get the game over and done with so that they could put their trophy drought behind them.
I’m not often lost for words, but I was genuinely speechless and awestruck when entering the stadium. Having not experienced the old Wembley I have nothing to compare it to, but it really was a sight to behold.
The match kicked off and strangely I found I wasn’t nervous. Who has time to be nervous when you’re singing song after song, revelling in the moment and soaking up the atmosphere. Even when Birmingham took the lead the nerves didn’t set in – it’s not that I was convinced they would equalise (they soon did), more that I still couldn’t really believe that it was happening.
When Obafemi Martins shot into the Birmingham City legends book by netting only his second goal for the club, the Blues fans naturally went ecstatic. Then the shock set in. We were winning a Cup Final. At Wembley. Against Arsenal.
And there began the longest two minutes of my life. I’m not sure what I did after the final whistle – crying, laughing, singing and jumping up and down all at once – generally making some sort of garbling sound, while hugging a variety of strangers. But eventually it was over, and we’d done the impossible and won.
Watching the players collect the Cup and their on-pitch celebrations was as good, if not better, than watching the match itself. As the stadium emptied of Arsenal fans and the Blues fans continued to sing their hearts out, there was a surreal feeling – a ‘pinch me’ now kind of moment.
Time stood still as we made the most of the celebrations – knowing that such moments for a club like Birmingham are few and far between. Even a year later, the euphoria felt when remembering that game hasn’t faded and I doubt it ever will. In fact, I still get a shiver every time I hear someone mention it – and believe me when Blues fans get together, it isn’t long before someone starts to reminisce about our day at Wembley.
Obviously it would have been different if we’d lost. I would have naturally been upset, if unsurprised. But it’s the hope that the Carling Cup provides that makes it so special for the ‘smaller’ clubs.
That delicious ‘what if’ anticipation before the game, the chance to battle it out against the biggest names in football and the opportunity to show the world what you’re made of make the competition special.
Cup games in general have a different feel about them to league games. Anything can happen in 90 minutes and not a year goes by without a cup upset at some point. Obviously if we played cup games all the time, the novelty would soon wear off. However, I think we need the Carling Cup in the fixture list – we need that extra bit of cup excitement and we crave the opoprtunity for the supposed underdog to grab their moment of glory.
Cardiff fans are a little more used to Wembley than us Birmingham City fans, but I’m sure they will be delighted to be returning and will revel in every moment their team has in the limelight. As with Birmingham no-one is expecting the South Wales club to win against Liverpool, so the fans can go along and have a fantastic day out with anything else being a bonus.
Even for the big clubs, and I’m not sure whether Liverpool are still classed as a ‘big’ club, winning the Carling Cup, or indeed any cup win, can be vital in generating revenue and exposure, not to mention a positive boost to the team ahead of the tough latter end of the season. Arsenal’s season nosedived after their loss last year.
Finally, seeing Birmingham win the Carling Cup not only gave me one of the best days of my life, it also gave me the opportunity to see my team do something I never thought I’d see them do – play in Europe. The Europa League may also be belittled by some, but for the majority of us it is the one opportunity we have to see our team compete against the continent’s elite.
So good luck to Cardiff and Liverpool, I hope it’s a fantastic match but more importantly I hope that both sets of fans have a brilliant day and leave London with memories that will last a lifetime.
Follow me on Twitter… @charl_blue