It was a typically grey morning on 28 February 2010 as I boarded the coach that stood proudly outside my local pub, eagerly awaiting my first trip to Wembley. I was 15 years old. Sitting alongside my Dad and Grandad, the eldest among us had last made the trip to the ‘Home of Football’ when Villa upset the odds to win the FA Cup against Manchester United 1957. That was the omen I clung to in the days before the then-Carling Cup Final, now known as the Carabao Cup. This Villa side were good enough to win trophies. Only United, who boasted three consecutive league titles, remained in their way.
I wasn’t the only one on my way to Wembley filled with the inflated hope of past glories.
Villa fan, Ian, had just about been old enough to remember the club’s most recent cup successes:
“I went to the game with my Dad, I was about 23. At the time we were living in Rugby. We met a whole heap of different people on the day, between the different pubs, and then sat at the game with one of my best mates and his Dad.
“I was lucky enough to be at Wembley in ‘96 when we beat Leeds and I have vague memories of winning in ‘94. I was also there in 2000 when we lost the FA Cup Final in the last final at the old Wembley. Dad always taught me about the magic of the twin towers of the old Wembley and I think English football lost a bit of magic when they knocked it down.
“I live in Australia now and have lived overseas since 2011, Dad still gets to most home games. This year I’ll be watching in a Casino in Perth, Western Australia at 12:30am, hoping we can get it done!”
I vividly remember my own journey to Wembley, even a decade later. Surrounded by others of a claret and blue persuasion, my nerves and excitement grew as the morning wore on. The coach carrying the Pheasey Lions roared towards Wembley in a blur of palpable anticipation, bullish pre-match predictions and beer (though not drunk by me, of course). Growing up, I’d watched my Grandad’s VHS recordings of the 1994 and 1996 League Cup wins countless times. Travelling to Wembley felt like a rite of passage. Villa lifting another trophy was inevitable, wasn’t it?
To a teenager, not well-versed in away days, this felt like a true voyage to see my team. But among the 31,000 fans in the Villa end was 7500 to Holte Editor Kirsten Schlewitz, who inadvertently travelled thousands of miles to watch her first-ever Villa game, at Wembley:
“I was heading to Europe, and my friend said I should just stay with them for a month. I knew the League Cup game was sold out, but I thought maybe I could buy one from a scalper. When I realized that most refused to sell one ticket, I paired up with this Welsh guy and got two tickets... for 600 quid total.
“I went to the ATM but it wouldn’t even let me take out that much at once so, Arwel, if you’re out there, I still owe you plenty of pounds. It was fun sitting with you though!
“The atmosphere was incredible; before that day I’d never been to a more important sporting event. I still can’t believe it, jumping and screaming and hugging everyone nearby wearing claret and blue.
“I know we didn’t win, but there I was, less than two years into being a Villa fan, getting to see them for the first time while they played in England’s grandest stadium. All that was just so thrilling to me that I would pay those 270 pounds (again, so sorry Mr Welshman, I’ll PayPal you!) all over again for the chance to be there.”
Despite facing Alex Ferguson’s all-knowing, all-conquering United side, parts of the Villa team remained an enviable prospect, even when compared against their superior opposition.
The tempo of Martin O’Neill’s side was dictated by the superlative pairing of James Milner and Stiliyan Petrov in midfield, supporting the wing wonders of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. The overlapping Carlos Cuellar and Stephen Warnock flanked Richard Dunne and James Collins, who were at the peak of their indomitable centre-back partnership. In attack, both Gabby Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey looked to impress the onlooking Fabio Capello in a World Cup year. Milner, Warnock and Heskey all boarded the plane, just over three months later, as England jetted out to South Africa.
Unlike this weekend, a Villa win against the current title holders would have barely registered as a shock. It would merely have been just deserts for an exciting team that had captivated the Villa faithful.
As 88,000 fans began their descent on to Wembley Way – my own excitement close to fever-pitch as I posed in front of the famous arch – Villa fans around the world were preparing to watch the match from the supposed comfort of their own homes.
Mark Jirobe, co-founder of Under a Gaslit Lamp, had not long been awake as he readied himself for another standard 10am kick-off in Pittsburgh:
“My memory of the 2010 League Cup Final is a bit of a different tale from the view of an American AVFC supporter. I remember the day vividly, which is amazing for how hungover I was the day of the match. I was fairly new to the world of football and Aston Villa at this stage, but I realised just how big of a game this was for Villa.
“By now, we all know the final score, but I will go to my grave scratching my head over how in the world Nemanja Vidic was not sent off for his tackle on Agbonlahor early in the contest.
“The goal that came seven minutes later for United will always stand out in my mind as well. Richard Dunne takes a piano note too long on the ball, which results in a Michael Owen goal. Yet another moment that makes you think what may have been if things were just slightly different.
“To this day, I wear the white Villa shirt featured in this match often as it is truly a beautiful kit that makes me think of more successful times for Aston Villa Football Club.”
With less than an hour to kick-off, Martin O’Neill answered his one major selection dilemma by picking Brad Friedel over cup keeper Brad Guzan. Friedel’s understudy had played in every round – including saving three penalties in a shoot-out against Sunderland – and would later describe the decision as “the worst moment in my career.”
The build-up finally ceased at 3pm and the game got underway. No Villa fan could’ve predicted a brighter start. Within just 205 seconds of kick-off, Nemanja Vidic brought down Agbonlahor for a clear penalty.
Played in behind the centre-back, via a looping ball from Ashley Young on the left-hand side, Gabby tussled with the panicked defender. Vidic could only succeed in clearing out his man with a slide tackle, as Agbonlahor pushed the ball beyond his marker.
The next few moments would write Phil Dowd’s name into Aston Villa folklore. Agbonlahor was the last man; it was a clear goalscoring opportunity. Four minutes into a Cup Final, Villa looked certain to be facing ten men. Yet, no card – not even a yellow – was forthcoming.
Dowd’s reasoning being that it was too early in the game for a red card. A Cup Final dictated by the football cliché that it would spoil the spectacle. Absolute bull**it.
Milner struck the perfect penalty low into the corner to give Villa the early lead and mayhem ensued. Hugging strangers, falling down rows of seats. The moment we had all dreamt of in the hours before, the embodiment of pure joy.
Former 7500 to Holte Editor James Ruston watched the final at his Dad’s place, more than 100 miles from Wembley, but perfectly captured the feeling of every Villa fan around the globe, as the ball hit the net: “All I know is that when James Milner scored, I thought Villa were turning a corner. This is it. I’m going to see my team lift something. Something glorious. Something that shines.”
But as adrenaline subsided, an air of injustice lingered on. Having barely broken a sweat, Vidic was spared his early return to the dressing room, denying Villa the ultimate advantage.
Minutes later, and the sinking feeling hit for the first time. Stuck in possession for a split second, the otherwise colossal Richard Dunne had the ball stolen by Dimitar Berbatov. His recovery tackle rolled it into Owen’s path, with the striker producing an instinctive finish from the edge of the box to put United level.
Wayne Rooney, who replaced Owen in the first half, completed the comeback with a superb arching header on 74 minutes.
Villa fans have likely blocked the remainder of the game from their memory – but the team was impressive. Making runs out wide to leave Heskey occupying the centre-halves, Agbonlahor used his pace to target United’s vulnerable right-back, Rafael, with great success. Young and Downing changed wings fluidly, seemingly beating their man at every turn. Heskey often dropped deep to gift possession to Milner. Villa’s talismanic midfielder roamed forward, whilst working tirelessly alongside Petrov to reduce Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher to long-range shots. In the end, United were just more clinical.
As the game concluded, resentment began to fester among the Villa supporters as patches of empty seats quickly spread throughout the United end. The trophy hadn’t even been lifted before their fans started their journeys home.
Upon leaving the stadium, Villa fans voiced their obvious displeasure towards all opposing supporters who crossed their path, just as the Wembley speakers announced the 2010 Carling Cup winners. Discounting Community Shields, it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25th major honour as Manchester United manager. Their fans simply shrugged their shoulders and carried on.
To United, it was a stepping-stone to bigger things. For Villa, it was a missed opportunity and the defining moment for a team that promised to be special, but consistently fell short.
James Rushton shared how this result had a long-term effect on him as a Villa fan:
“I remember feeling so bitter. Manchester United didn’t care. It was business as usual. I was hurting, and Villa continued to hit hard in the years following. If I’m honest, it truly affected my support of the team. I can’t have been much older than 17 at the time. It was all wonder and optimism and glory. Then that happened, then the summer. It didn’t feel the same for a long time.”
As time has passed, this game has come to symbolise something bolder than a League Cup Final. It represents the highest peak that Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa ever reached, before his shock resignation in August 2010 – and the beginning of the club’s long decline.
Though, even as a downhearted 15-year-old travelling back to Birmingham, I remained full of optimism. I had faith in the team. The intangible rush that all football supporters continue to chase into adulthood. Hopefully, if Villa manage to shock the world against Manchester City on Sunday, I’ll feel some of the same childlike awe and wonder, once again.
In 2010, the Villa team had captured my imagination and consumed my teenage years. Sitting on that coach, alongside my Dad and Grandad, anything still seemed possible.