The weather was more redolent of the Arctic Circle than the Bull Ring, but Birmingham's followers basked in the warm glow of an overdue victory over neighbouring Aston Villa in last night's Carling Cup derby. Unfortunately for England's 2018 World Cup bid, the match was followed by a pitch invasion by 3,000 home fans and a barrage of ripped-out seats and crimson flares hurled between themselves and sections of the 4,000-strong Villa contingent.
Alex McLeish, who had hoped to be savouring Nikola Zigic's 84th-minute winner and looking forward to a two-leg semi-final against West Ham, instead found himself condemning behaviour he described as reminiscent of "the dark ages". The Scot said: "It doesn't look good when you see fans running on like that. The carry-on on the pitch, and the interaction between the stand and pitch, took us back to the dark ages." Villa's assistant manager, Gary McAllister, said both sets of players knew "the world would be watching" and had conducted themselves well.
An FA spokesman, mindful of the damage that television images of hundreds of policemen forming a barrier to prevent fighting would do to the England campaign, said the ruling body "wholly condemned the actions of any individuals involved in the scenes of disorder". Stressing the importance of Birmingham issuing banning orders against anyone proved to be involved, he went on to claim that "the whole of English football has worked hard to eradicate trouble at games".
The shame was compounded by the fact that the match was a thrilling advertisement for West Midlands football. Sebastian Larsson's early penalty had fired Birmingham's hopes of only their second cup win in 11 attempts against their neighbours.
Villa, last season's beaten finalists, responded before the break through Gabriel Agbonlahor and looked the more likely winners before substitute Craig Gardner set up Cameron Jerome for a low cross which the 6ft 8in Zigic converted.
Birmingham will now meet the club run by their former owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, for a place in a Wembley final against Arsenal or Ipswich. "We now have a great semi-final in prospect against West Ham," said McLeish. "I didn't care who we drew. Arsenal will be favourites to win it but every team has to believe."
McLeish praised his match-winner, yet admitted Zigic might not have been on the pitch to seal his place in Birmingham's history. "He's 29 and an experienced player, a Serb and so a proud man who wants to make an impression. But [English football] has been a culture shock for him, and I was going to take him off before he scored." McAllister said Villa felt "hard done-by and disappointed", adding: "We were the ones pressing for a winner."
Villa's youthful side were behind after 12 minutes, though it was arguably their most experienced performers who were at fault. James Collins ensured the pressure stayed on their defence with a weak header, and after Jerome had fed the ball to Lee Bowyer, Richard Dunne compounded the error by bringing him down. Larsson's spot-kick gave Birmingham the start they wanted.
Villa drew level following a classic counter-attacking thrust. Ashley Young supplied Jonathan Hogg and the 21-year-old in turn found Agbonlahor. A sharp turn and a right-footed, angled finish ensured that the only Birmingham-born player in either starting line-up scored for the third derby in succession at St Andrew's.
Jerome promptly had the chance to restore Birmingham's advantage. However, Friedel dashed out to narrow the angle, forcing Jerome to hurry a shot that flashed wide. Villa, though, began to play the more composed football, Barry Bannan coming inside from a wide-right role to showcase the quick feet that have impressed Houllier.
As if an excellent contest needed any additional spice, an ankle injury to Bowyer gave McLeish the opportunity to introduce Gardner, the boyhood "Bluenose" for whom Birmingham paid Villa £3m. Gardner, almost inevitably, played a part in securing his club's first win over Villa since 2005, but it is his fellow supporters who will be in the spotlight, at home and in Zurich, as England await their moment of decision.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson (Murphy, 88), Ferguson, Bowyer (Gardner, 65), Fahey; Zigic (Derbyshire, 90), Jerome. Substitutes not used Taylor (gk), Michel, Beausejour, Jiranek.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Dunne, Collins, Warnock (Delfouneso, 90); Bannan (Ireland, 72), Hogg (Pires, 90), Clark, Downing; A Young, Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used Guzan (gk), Carew, Cuellar, Lichaj.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside).
Ipswich Town v Arsenal
West Ham United v Birmingham City
First leg to be played week of 10 January; second leg week of 24 January