Arsenal and Birmingham are set to contest the Carling Cup Final on Sunday. The first silverware of the season is set out and the spot at the season celebratory table is ready to be claimed. Supporters of every team that’s been eliminated, and – once the sting wears off – those on the wrong side of the result will remind us all that “it’s only the league cup.”
On the morning of Sunday, 27 February 2005, I sat in front of my grandmother’s computer with my coffee. It wasn’t particularly early but I was the only one up. Outside a couple feet of week-old snow was graying beneath low, spitting clouds that seemed to have lost their way heading over to Atlantic. I was listening to a BBC feed of the Carling Cup Final between Liverpool and Chelsea.
Not so long ago there wasn’t much television coverage to be had of English football in that corner of the world, tucked next to the swollen expanse of the Connecticut River before it hits the spillway of the hydro-electric power station a few miles downstream. This is the town where Carlton Fisk grew up and with my Grandfather as his coach dreamed of playing NBA basketball.
The high-quality streams of 2011 that regularly rescue me from agonized boredom at work on Champions League match days had not yet come to fruition. Twitter, the social media drug that helps American footie fans feel less alone during those fleeting 90 minutes, wasn’t created for another year and wouldn’t take off for another 5.
I’d been going to Chelsea fairly regularly at that time. A year earlier, I’d watched Arsenal become the last team to beat us at home for a lengthy stretch that Liverpool eventually ended. Mourinho arrived that summer, proclaiming himself special, and we believed him as he turned the Abramovich circus into real contenders.
After comedic exits and unmet expectations of the previous season, finally there was a chance for glory as the Millennium Stadium roof held off February darkness. But on the first day that season when silverware was on the line, I was returned to the states with my son, his age registering a handful of months.
My window onto the match was a tiny one: disembodied voices out of tinny speakers, constantly hitting F5 to refresh the Guardian’s minute-by-minute report. But there was something exhilarating about blindly feeling my way through a game-winning goal-line scramble with only the commentators quickening voice and the rising volume of the crowd. (I’m only now seeing the best header Stephen Gerrard ever scored bring Chelsea level with 10 minutes left.)
It’s only the League Cup, right? Try telling me that as I jumped up and down celebrating the trophy in a solo victory dance, for any soul to see through the glass panes of my Grandparent’s sun room.
There are a few Arsenal fans I know who’d like a trophy. When your trophy cupboard has run bare for a few seasons, the Carling Cup is as good a place to restart your collection as any. No one will confuse Birmingham for Barcelona, but the vagaries of one-and-your-done cup competition have led them to the final. And as football has shown us time after time, any team can ride their luck to beat any other on any given day. For Birmingham, an upset would be a highlight of a season spent trying to avoid slipping down into the league below.
If Arsenal overcome the adversity of losing their talisman captain, it won’t be any less a victory than winning any other competition. A club with ambitions will always consider the Carling Cup a jumping off point for greater things. Yet the emotions of the singular cup final moment might even rise above clinching the league on the back of a season’s work and a series of results that ran your way on a particular spring day.
For me, winning the League at the end of the 2004-2005 season couldn’t top that Sunday morning in February, alone at the computer. I was instantly transported to Cardiff, to the impossibly green pitch of my imagination, to share in a first taste of the season’s glory.