The European history of Birmingham City

By Stephen Brandt – @StephenCBrandt

Birmingham City has a history in European and Domestic Cup finals. They also have very good to great players in their history, albeit the players have gone onto other clubs. Such is the case for clubs out of the top division. Not every club can become Leeds, Nottingham Forest or Derby County of course all three had Brian Clough. We all know why he didn’t succeed at Leeds, it’s very well documented.

​Before there was the UEFA Cup there was the weird Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. So how did clubs qualify for this? The club could only enter if an international trade fair was in their city. And only one club could represent the city. That is it, but this is the fifties and sixties, which were different. The  cup wasn’t sanctioned by UEFA. The tournament was conceived by three people from FIFA: Ernst Thommen from Switzerland, Ottorino Barrasi of Italy who looked after the Jules Rimet Trophy during World War Two, and Sir Stanley Rous from England. 

​The first one was on June 4th 1955 and was between a combined London XI and a side that was mostly Basel players. There wasn’t any rule against players being born in London, just players from London clubs. So you had a team with a Scot, a Welshman, a South African Italian International, but the most famous player on that side was Fulham’s Johnny Haynes. That first match was a 5-0 win with Cliff Holton of Arsenal scoring a hattrick. To add some more strangeness to this, when the group phase ended two and half years later London was still the winner at the end beating Lausanne 3-2.  

So now that’s out of the way, where does Birmingham City come in? Well the city of Birmingham had the international trade fair and the other club Aston Villa refused to merge with their rivals to play in the tournament. In declining this, the Blues became the first English club to play in Europe. The Blues played a Barcelona XI on October 23, 1957 which had mostly FC Barcelona players with an occasional Espanyol player thrown into the mix.

​The first leg was at St. Andrew’s and it was a 4-3 win for Birmingham, which set a real nail biter at the newly opened Camp Nou. This was another tight affair going 1-0 in the 88th minute.  Of course with the legs being tied, no penalty kicks or away goals there had to be a deciding match on neutral turf. In Switzerland Barcelona beat Birmingham 2-0 in 33rd and 83rd minute goals.  This stopped an all English final as the London XI got through to the final.  Barcelona was able to easily win and they claimed their first piece of European Silverware. 

​The first experiment was good, but like all things changes had to be made. In the new format there would not be group stages, no combined city teams, and straight knockout format. Chelsea was now acting as the capital’s representative, but were dumped out in the quarters. Birmingham City went to better their previous run by making it to the finals, meeting Barcelona again. However, a 0-0 draw at St. Andrew’s was followed by a 4-0 drubbing at Camp Nou. 

Eventually the tournament fell in line with the European season. Birmingham were finalists again, in 1960/61 but lost to Italian side Roma 4-2. This was a major step in Birmingham’s growth. In 192/63 the one city, one team rule was dropped. The Fairs Cup was now established as the second tournament, which eventually was renamed the UEFA Cup, and more recently the Europa League.

​This isn’t the end of the good times for Birmingham. Not long after making their last final in the Fairs Cup Final, Birmingham was back in a cup final. This time it was the FA League Cup, and it was an all Birmingham final between Aston Villa and Birmingham City on May 23, 1963 and May 27, 1963. In the first leg on May 23, 1963 at St. Andrew’s a crowd of almost 32,000 to see the city sides take off.  Blue’s manager Gil Merrick named an unchanged side from the previous match against Leicester City. Villa on the other hand wasn’t new to this competition having won the first ever League Cup two years early. 

​Scottish striker Bobby Thomason crashed into Blues goalkeeper Johnny Schofield to the horror of the hometown fans. This wasn’t the only hard tackle as future Portland Timbers manager Vic Crowe brought down Ken Leek with another hard tackle. While Villa may have been the harder playing side, the Blues played better. 

Jimmy Harris for the Blues got a shot off on Villa goalkeeper Nigel Sims but it hit off the crossbar for no goal. The Blues supporters didn’t have to wait long as Harris fed a ball into Bertie Auld on the left who crossed it into the penalty area for a Ken Leek goal in the fourteenth minute. The Villains kept using lumping high balls into the Blues area tactic that was easily repelled by Trevor Smith, Birmingham’s captain. 

Four minutes before the interval Villa launched an attack on the ground getting the ball to Gordon Lee, then to Harry Burrows who hit it to Thomsom, who put it past Schofield for the tying goal.  

Birmingham was level at half, but in the second half they really started to take the game to the visitors. Harris, Auld, and Leek combined again for great effect getting the later his second goal of the match. With the home side being up 2-1 tempers began to flair up again. Crowe got hit with an elbow from Auld, Charlie Aitken pushed Blues winger Mike Hellawell in the chest, and then John Fraser and Harris squared off for an actual fight.

While Merrick’s men were getting rough and tumble play going, they could still play the free-flowing offence when they needed to. Bloomfield started to show some magic with the ball, tiptoeing past two Villa defenders like they weren’t there pushing a ball passed between Sims and the post for the third goal. The score could have been worse if Sims hadn’t pulled off two more great saves. 

The second and deciding leg was on 27th of May across town at Villa Park  and this could be the stuff of legends. Trevor Smith, the Blues captain could not only end the cupless draught for his club but win it at the hated rivals stadium. Merrick, who wasn’t one for squad rotation, did not change anything for the match.  The Aston Villa manager Joe Mercer kept the side pretty much the same to watch a nil nil match up for the match. 

When the final whistle came at the end thousands of Blues fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate the first cup in club history. The man of the match, as he’s always everpresent Trevor Smith who also picked up the cup from Football League vice-president Joe Mears. Instead of celebrating on the field Smith took the cup back into the dressing room for a club celebration. Many years later in another century Birmingham City captured the League Cup again, this time against Arsenal in 2011.

Published by Stephen Brandt

Stephen Brandt is the host of the Subs Bench on He has written many articles on the sport over the last 15 years. His first book Boca Juniors A History and Appreciation of Buenos Aires's Most Succesful Futbol Team is out in the fall. He currently lives in Buffalo New York, USA.

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