Alex McLeish 'We weren't given a prayer but we never stopped believing'
Birmingham manager praises players' courage and impact of Martins after cup triumph
Monday 28 February 2011
Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish described his team's Carling Cup final victory over Arsenal as "titanic and heroic", while goalkeeper Ben Foster claimed it was the underdogs' greater team spirit that saw them emerge triumphant.
Birmingham claimed their first major silverware since 1963 when substitute Obafemi Martins scored the winner in the 89th minute, knocking the ball into an empty net following a terrible mix-up between Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
McLeish, who won seven trophies with Rangers including two Scottish Premier League titles, described the victory as the sweetest of his managerial career. The Scot said: "We had a game plan and we stuck to it. We had some luck but we deserved our luck. It was a titanic performance by the players. Heroic. I thought if we could keep it as close as possible then the quicker players like Martins could come on and win it for us.
"At Glasgow Rangers I was expected to win trophies, even though we were against big rivals Celtic. To come to England, my first trophy for a small club like Birmingham to beat the might of Arsenal is a dream come true. It is the best achievement ever for me, as a manager."
McLeish said the spirit of his side made the difference. "No one gave us a prayer, we were massive underdogs, but sometimes bookies do not get it right. We proved that with phenomenal belief, courage and good football," he said.
Foster was voted man of the match for several fine saves, including a reflex stop to deny Nicklas Bendtner, and had words of sympathy for his opposite number Szczesny. The England goalkeeper said: "Apart from the birth of my two children that was the greatest feeling of my life, unbelievable. I think it was our team spirit. It's amazing. They have quality players but they haven't got the team spirit we have and it showed.
"It's been a long time coming for Birmingham. We deserve it. Wojciech has done a fantastic job since he came into the Arsenal team. He has to put this behind him because he is an amazing prospect."
Birmingham took the lead in the 28th minute with a header from 6ft 7in striker Nikola Zigic, but Arsenal equalised 11 minutes later with a volley from Robin van Persie. The Dutch striker, however, injured his knee in scoring and is now a doubt for Arsenal's Champions League knockout stage second leg with Barcelona in the Nou Camp.
Birmingham, whose owner Carson Yeung celebrated his 51st birthday yesterday, were then under siege for much of the second half until Martins' late winner, and at the final whistle the players celebrated in front of their raucous supporters.
Birmingham captain Stephen Carr said: "We knew if we got right in their faces that we could get the result. There's a lot of belief in that dressing room. You could say there's more quality in their dressing room but there's not more heart. It's amazing, such a long time that the fans have been waiting for. This will make their year, maybe their lives."
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger admitted that Koscielny and Szczesny were "destroyed" by their errors and had apologised to their team-mates in the dressing room afterwards.
Wenger said: "I am bitterly disappointed, like the whole team. The goal was a lack of communication and determination to clear the ball. When the ball is in no-man's land someone has to take responsibility. Both of them are destroyed. We have to lift them and help them. That's what a team is about. We had enough opportunities to kill the game off before that."
Wenger backed his team to put this devastating blow behind them. "I'm confident we are strong enough mentally to come back from this and win things this season," he said. "We don't deny it's a massive disappointment. But we have massive challenges in front of us. We can be proud of our attitude. We will face questions now about out attitude but this is an opportunity to show we have the mental strength. I am confident we will do it."
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