At the final whistle Arsenal’s players stood, sat or knelt on the lush emerald turf like figures in a tableau of despair. Motionless, traumatised, suddenly drained of the last vestiges of belief and hope and even pride, they looked dismayingly like Bayern Munich after Manchester United had finished with the German side at the Camp Nou in 1999.
Jack Wilshere hit the crossbar here and Robin van Persie was the author of one of the most beautiful goals ever scored in a Wembley final – surely, at least, the best ever scored by a player on the losing side – but Tomas Rosicky’s bungled attempt to backheel a clear chance into the net with 10 minutes left somehow epitomised Arsenal’s display on an evening when they failed in the attempt to win their first trophy since 2005.
So stunning was the defeat that they will find it difficult to recover their morale, although the press of events in the Premier League and the European Cup over the coming weeks may serve to take their minds off a disastrous day. Pointing to the enforced absence of Cesc Fábregas, Thomas Vermaelen and Theo Walcott will not help. A club with Arsenal’s ambitions and resources – they have 19 players out on loan – should have acquired the capacity to ride such misfortunes.
On paper, this was a mismatch: thoroughbreds versus mongrels. Of such contrasts are cup classics made, and in the eyes of more than one neutral the two sides produced arguably the best football match yet seen at the new Wembley. To make it so, the occasion required not just Birmingham City’s honest effort, dogged persistence and resilient structure but Arsenal’s insecurity and anxiety, a neurosis born of the weight of the expectation, conscious or otherwise, that they would ease their way to victory by virtue of their superior class.
It would not be too harsh to suggest that Arsenal got exactly what they and their manager deserved for a performance that began with the most blatant piece of undeserved good fortune, contained enough individual mistakes to fill an entire season and ended with the sort of defending that a team produces when not enough attention is paid to constructing a side equally strong and self-confident in all areas.
Of course they had their moments. At half-time, with the score at one apiece, it was tempting to feel that had Lee Bowyer been wearing the Arsenal No7 shirt, rather than the ineffectual Rosicky, the north London side would be two or three goals up and on the way to ending that wait for another trophy.
Yet they should have been a goal, and a man, down after two minutes, when a fine pass from Keith Fahey found Nikola Zigic. The angular 6ft 7in Serb, whose control with his feet is customarily wayward enough to make Peter Crouch look like Alfredo di Stefano, played what may have been the best pass of his entire career, a delightfully perceptive and carefully weighted ball for Bowyer, who ran smoothly on to it with only the goalkeeper to beat and was promptly upended by Wojciech Szczesny, only to be given offside, quite wrongly. A correct decision would inevitably have led to the goalkeeper’s expulsion.
The West Midlanders did not dwell on the injustice but profited from the knowledge of their opponents’ vulnerability. Arsenal’s defenders were never comfortable with the threat of Zigic, who scored Birmingham’s goal in the visitors’ 2-1 defeat at the Emirates Stadium in October. Szczesny, who lacks only two inches of the Serb’s height, could not get close to him when Roger Johnson headed a corner back towards the six-yard box, and Birminghan took the lead.
Arsenal had started to put their attacking game together but they discovered Ben Foster in a mood to show what Manchester United and England missed. Of the goalkeeper’s nine saves, the last two were truly exceptional. When Nicklas Bendtner’s shot was deflected in the 76th minute, Foster was already diving but reacted by throwing up a hand to turn the ball aside. Four minutes later he flew to his left to tip away Samir Nasri’s goalbound drive.
In the absence of Fábregas, Nasri had been expected to provide the goalscoring threat from Arsenal’s midfield. But rather than attempting the sort of incisive dribbles that often reached their climax with a goal in the first half of the season, he tended to loiter on the fringe of the Birmingham penalty area before transferring the ball and the responsibility to a team?mate.
Andrey Arshavin, whose dribble ended with the cross that Van Persie volleyed home before the interval, was more incisive, and it came as a surprise when the Russian was withdrawn, rather than the pallid Rosicky, to make way for Marouane Chamakh in the closing stages.
“We have to take a lot of pride and encouragement for the challenges ahead,” Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said, having witnessed a collapse less protracted but potentially more damaging than the tossing away of a 4-0 lead at St James’ Park three weeks ago. Wilshere was one of the few Arsenal players to emerge with credit, going about his work neatly and unobtrusively alongside the dreadfully inaccurate Alex Song. It was his uncharacteristic error, however, that led to the opening from which Fahey hit the post early in the second half.
Birmingham City will not waste too much time on sympathy for Arsenal and their six-year search for something new to put in the trophy cabinet. For the winners, ignoring the Leyland Daf Cup and the Auto Windscreens Shield, the result ended a drought going all the way back to 1963 – between Lady Chatterley and the Beatles’ first LP, as a certain West Midlands poet might have put it.