McLeish power behind Birmingham glory
Alex McLeish may have forgotten that Carling Cup victory brought European football as a fringe benefit - but he remembered how the game's prizes can be won and lost.
One small detail revealed in the euphoric after-glow of Birmingham City's dramatic Wembley victory against Arsenal hinted at McLeish's meticulous planning to win the club's first major silverware in 48 years.
The outcome of a thrilling final ultimately hinged on a catastrophic communication breakdown between Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny that gifted Obefami Martins the winner two minutes from time.
But as Birmingham manager McLeish lavished justified praise on Ben Foster for his latest Carling Cup Final heroics, the Scot spoke of how training ground work on improving the accuracy of the goalkeeper's kicking to keep Arsenal under pressure formed part of his game plan.
A small detail maybe - but the sort of careful attention and diligence that characterised a perfect day for the Scot, his team and those he labelled "the long-suffering Blues fans."
The sight of a tearful Birmingham fan dodging through lanes of gridlocked traffic on Empire Way to get to Liam Ridgewell as he strolled on the opposite pavement bore testimony to the emotions generated by this win.
McLeish made it the ideal 51st birthday present for Birmingham owner Carson Yeung by delivering a Wembley victory on a day that will live forever in the memories of supporters who have spent enough time in the shadow of neighbours Aston Villa.
And to think there was a time not so long ago when questions were being asked about McLeish's long-term prospects at Birmingham. Not any more.
The Arsenal images could not have been more contrasting. A desolate Arsene Wenger, gracious in defeat, Koscielny and Szczesny "destroyed" in the words of their manager and Robin van Persie and Jack Wilshere offering apologies to supporters via the Twittersphere.
In the time it took Koscielny to hesitate over a routine clearance and Szczesny fatally failed to command his area, Arsenal extended a trophy drought that stretches back to 2005's FA Cup win against Manchester United and old questions about defensive vulnerability, goalkeeping frailty and weakness under pressure were revisited.
Wenger claimed victory at Wembley would be regarded as a step forward for Arsenal. The question of whether defeat represents a step back will shape the rest of their season.
For Birmingham there were only emotions at the top end of the scale, all on show as McLeish and his players chewed the fat with fans outside Wembley as they made their way away from the scene of this triumph.
McLeish's only mistake of the day may have been to call Birmingham "a small club" because on this evidence they have real capacity to grow given the feverish backing they received and their prime location. Everything else he called spot-on.
The giant and often-derided figure of Nikola Zigic was central to McLeish's plan to play on Arsenal's nerves. It paid off handsomely with Birmingham's first goal and an important contribution from the Serbian.
And this was no "park the bus and hope for the best" win. It mixed discipline, determination and positive intent in equal measure. McLeish's 4-5-1 formation offered protection in the face of Arsenal's attacks but also allowed Lee Bowyer and, in the first half at least, Craig Gardner to advance in support of Zigic.
Van Persie equalised Zigic's goal but the manner in which Birmingham approached the game and the physical and mental courage they displayed in hanging on in the face of a late Arsenal surge made this a win that was well-merited.
It was achieved in the face of early injustice when Bowyer was brought down by Szczesny in the area after being wrongly flagged for offside. The goalkeeper may have escaped a penalty and possible red card in the first few minutes but his punishment was saved until the last.
No-one summed up Birmingham's spirit better than the magnificent Roger Johnson, limping and grimacing from the pain of a calf injury but refusing to give way in challenges in the air and on the ground.
On every occasion I have watched this natural born defender he has never been anything other than excellent and England coach Fabio Capello, who was watching on, will surely have been impressed.
McLeish said: "We had a brilliant game plan, or should I say we had a game plan that was executed brilliantly by the players. For a small club like Birmingham to beat the might of Arsenal is like a dream come true and I'm so happy for everyone."
Birmingham's celebrations will be low-key and held next weekend, but the memories will live forever on a day that is perhaps the greatest in the club's history.
Arsenal boss Wenger, who never set much store by the Carling Cup until this season, looked shell-shocked as he raked through the wreckage of this lost opportunity to shift attention away from his years without a trophy.
He told BBC Sport: "A little misunderstanding had a great consequence on the game and both players are destroyed. I blame no-one. When these things happen late in the game there is no time to rectify it. We have to wait a little bit longer for a trophy. It is very hard to take."
Wenger added: "The two players are destroyed and I don't think it is good for me to add anything to that. We have to lift them up and help them. That's what being in a team is about.
"What can you say? You have to be positive because he (Szczesny) is a young boy. He has to pick himself up from that goal and hopefully he can do that."
Arsenal may feel destroyed now but will surely be soothed by the bigger challenges that lie ahead in the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup, presenting the perfect chance to illustrate the strength of character Wenger insists lies inside his team.
The manner of Birmingham's winner was an object lesson in how not to defend a routine situation and raises again the spectre of Wenger's failure to strengthen his goalkeeping and central defensive resources.
It is a valid point, but the irony is that in recent weeks Szczesny has emerged as a goalkeeper of great potential and Koscielny, especially against Barcelona, has started to look like more at home. How much of that good work and progress is undone by the awful moment that handed Birmingham the silverware remains to be seen.
Arsenal's players looked drained and devastated at the final whistle. No signs of the Carling Cup being low on Arsenal's list of priorities. This hurt and recovery time will be needed.
Context is also required, however, and Arsenal are well-placed in the title race as well as holding an advantage over Barcelona in the Champions League in the battle for a place in the last eight. So much remains that could yet make this campaign a rich one.
For those goals to be pursued they will need Cesc Fabregas to make a quick recovery from his hamstring problem. Arsenal's captain was sorely missed at Wembley.
Wenger's side lack leaders on the pitch and there was a shortage of direction and inspiration at Wembley as they were confronted by the focus and fierce desire of Birmingham. Fabregas may not be a natural leader in the eyes of many but he is the best Arsenal have got and they cannot afford to be be without him.
Birmingham had leaders all over Wembley, particularly in the technical area in the shape of McLeish. And the manager now has a trophy to back his case for added investment from owner Yeung in the summer as they prepare for European combat.
The St. Andrew's anthem of "Keep Right On To The End Of The Road" shook Wembley at the final whistle - and this Carling Cup win may only be the start of the journey under McLeish.