The League Cup.
Every year around October, the B team on a Tuesday night Soccer Special discuss and dismiss the League Cup, labelling it as nothing more than a distraction.
It’s anything but a distraction. It’s a cup where anything can happen, much like the FA Cup. Obviously it’s not as special as - but the League Cup is special to me as a Bluenose.
My first memory of the magic of the League Cup is bittersweet. It was the first match I’d ever experienced between Blues and Villa. We lost 0-1 in a tight game. It was one of the first times I’d ever heard my dad swear. The atmosphere that night was electric.
Over the years, The Gold/Sullivan/Brady regime created a fantastic idea, 'kids for a quid'. It would allow my dad to get a few extra pies at half time as we beat the likes of Gillingham and Stockport. We went to Highbury and lost 4-1. My dad paid full price for the tickets but even if they were a quid, it wouldn’t have been worth crying all the way home and going to school the following day knackered.
A few years later, we were up against Alan Shearer and the Toon army at home in the second round. Even the consistently poor referring of probable secret Villa fan, Uriah Rennie couldn’t stop us that night as we won 2-0. Ian Bennett saving a penalty from England’s main striker in front of the Tilton; doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
Our journey ended in the next round when Joe Cole nicked a goal for West Ham as they came from behind to beat us 2-3 in what was as confusing a loss as it was frustrating.
The following season we beat Newcastle again, our very own Michael ‘Magic’ Johnson scoring a last gasp winner. The next round we were away at Tottenham. I’ll never forget that Dele Adebola goal as we hammered Spurs 1-3. Me and my dad sitting in the kitchen listening to Tom Ross giving us a heart attack with every throw-in taken, it was fantastic.
We went on to beat Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich to reach the final, playing Liverpool and losing on penalties with the image of a crying Trevor Francis consoling a dejected Andrew Johnson after he missed the deciding spot kick, forever etched into my brain and heart.
I’ll never forgive Sander Westerveld and his disrespect to us. Saying the match should never had gone to penalties. He was correct in a way as we were denied a clear penalty in extra time and Bryan Hughes hit the post with a fantastic lob.
We won fans over with our effort though, even casual football fans at school decided to give up part-time supporting Man United and decided to support Blues full-time.
Nine years on from that we faced Villa and beat them 2-1. I attended the game on my own as my dad was wary of night matches against Villa now and other mates sat elsewhere in the ground.
I’ll never forget making friends with Rob and Terry, two lifelong friends who’d experienced far more joys and sorrows than I had but were adamant we’d win that night and they were correct.
I could probably write another piece on the aftermath on the pitch after the final whistle blew but leaving that where it is, I can still see Brad Friedel trying to stretch out as the ball looped over his head and the ground erupted.
The next round came, first leg away at West Ham. One of my friends was the man with the club badge tattooed on his back pictured on the BBC shirtless after Ridgewell scored.
Second leg at home. What was to be my favourite night at St. Andrews - at the time of writing.
After five seconds of pure shock as Carlton Cole – of all people – scored a ‘worldy’ we picked the lads up with a rendition of ‘Keep Right On’. Against all odds we prevailed. We reached the final to play Arsenal. After calling a significant contact and owing a favour for life, I managed to get a hold of tickets for me and a mate who didn’t qualify until general sale.
From seeing friends that I hadn’t seen for years to seeing two teenagers who labelled me and my friend 'The John Smith’s boys' from the semi-final; from seeing Michael Johnson singing 'Keep Right On' with us before the game to seeing Obafemi Martins rolling the ball in, in the closing stages. I’ll never forget that day.
Through winning the League Cup we played in the Europa League. I got to see Blues play in Europe. The only ever time I’d seen us play a foreign team in a competitive fixture was losing 2-3 at home against Genoa in the Anglo-Italian cup but here I was watching us beat Brugge away. Mental.
Even though we lost to Villa in the League Cup this season, it was great to see us turn up there and hold our own. After all, we’re just that small club from down the road, a joke of a club, a club in turmoil with an owner who doesn’t care about the club, a rubbish team, disloyal fans, that’s us isn’t it?
Even after ‘magnificent’ first half tactics from Tim Sherwood, we went in at half-time 0-0.
After a bit of brilliance from Villa’s great white hope, Jack Grealish and a bullet header from Gestede the tie was settled at 1-0.
Perhaps if Maghoma could have struck the ball a bit harder when the chance arose we’d be gloating about beating them. It doesn’t matter though, overall, fair result.
Nevertheless, the League Cup didn’t fail to make me appreciate its magic again. Although I doubt my heart appreciated the advanced acceleration of its beat.
This weekend sees Liverpool take on Man City and although people still think about this cup as a distraction, it’s Klopp’s first opportunity to win silverware and Pellegrini’s chance to maintain a chance of winning all four trophies in his final season. Hardly a distraction is it?