Manchester City supporters could barely believe their luck in September 2008 when the Abu Dhabi Group arrived to transform the fortunes of the club.
The arrival of Brazilian striker Robinho from Real Madrid was a sign of things to come but, more immediately, Mark Hughes’s side had a midweek trip to Withdean to negotiate.
The mood amongst Albion fans heading into the Carling Cup third round tie was a little less enthusiastic than their City counterparts, following a 1-0 home defeat against Walsall four days earlier.
“Not only that, Walsall were down to nine men after half an hour!” recalled defender Adam Virgo of the League One encounter. “We then faced a City side that had Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany and Richard Dunne in their back four, Daniel Sturridge was an up-and-coming striker and the Brazilian, Jo, had been brought in for big money.
“When we saw they’d rested Robinho, Micah Richards and Shaun Wright-Phillips we felt we had a better chance, but the belief came into us more when we saw them looking at the portable changing rooms, the temporary seating and the wide open spaces of Withdean. We got the impression they didn’t want to be there.”
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City, however, took the lead on 64 minutes through Gelson Fernandes, against an Albion side that included future top-flight stars Glenn Murray, Tommy Elphick and substitute Steve Cook.
“To that point, they had missed a few chances and Michel Kuipers had pulled off some good saves, but even going a goal behind, we felt we still had a chance. With ten minutes left we threw everything at them and I was sent up front.”
With just seconds remaining, Albion were in the last-chance saloon. Virgo won a header against Tal Ben Haim, which fell into the path of Steve Thomson. His shot was then parried by a young Kasper Schmeichel and Murray was on hand to tap home. Cue pandemonium among the near- 9,000 crowd.
Once the excitement had settled down, the focus was on extra time and it was Albion who continued in the ascendancy. Micky Adams had sent on Joe Anyinsah with 20 minutes of normal time remaining and he repaid his boss by meeting a Dean Cox cross, then dragging the ball back before drilling low past Schmeichel.
He then almost put the tie out of reach, only for a last-gasp interception from Dunne, and there was a sense that Albion had missed a real opportunity to finish the tie. That certainly looked to be the case when some sloppy defending allowed Stephen Ireland to take full advantage with 12 minutes remaining.
“It was disappointing as Stephen managed to get between myself and Tommy Elphick,” recalled Virgs. “At that stage we were pinning our hopes on the lottery of a penalty shoot-out, but if I’m being honest, I wasn’t confident.
“He won’t thank me for mentioning it, but Kuips had a pretty poor record when it came to saving penalties and with their quality, you thought City might edge it.”
In keeping with the excitement of the evening, the first seven penalties were scored – with Virgo netting before City defender Michael Ball stepped up for his spot kick.
“[laughs] Kuips went and made a crucial save which left Matt Richards with the chance of sending us through. Despite the pressure, he held his nerve and scored. It was one of the great nights at Withdean and one of my favourite moments in an Albion shirt, definitely.”