At what point last night did you realise that this was a game destined to finish goalless? Opinions seem to vary. The gentleman stood to my right was convinced throughout that City were going to score the goal that’d have won the game – whether this was conviction or wishful thinking is difficult to discern. Meanwhile, the consensus in the high-spirited car on the way home was that a nil-nil draw looked probable a long way out.
I’d lean towards the more cautious analysis. This was a game neither side would have been overly dismayed at drawing, and it showed. What also showed it was an absolute delight this City is to watch. Secure defending robs the opposition of possession and momentum, transfers it to the fulcrum of the side, Paul McKenna – he finds the team’s passers and movers, who spy the runs of the willing forward line. It sound simple, and looks simple, and is therefore anything but. To watch this sophisticated brand of football every week is a treat indeed.
Bouyed by the victory against Bristol City at the weekend and wary of Birmingham’s threat, Nick Barmby made a single change from the weekend as he demoted Cameron Stewart to the bench in favour of Aaron Mclean. Naming the side is the easy bit – it was: Mannone; Rosenior, Hobbs (c), Chester, Dawson; McKenna, Koren, Evans, Brady; Fryatt, Mclean. Deducing the formation is much more difficult, with Mclean doing the work of two, Koren gliding wherever he felt like it and Brady swapping wings repeatedly – only Evans and McKenna held the midfield together, Fryatt was a one-man forward-line, the rest was just improvised.
For Birmingham, Saint Boaz was in their goal and received the obligatory adulation from the Tiger Nation, while Nefarious Evildoer Marlon King was fit enough to lead their attack, and received dog’s abuse throughout.
The match began with the Tigers attacking the goal at the far end to us, and attacking it rather well. Birmingham’s hopes of a rapid start were dashed by City’s terrific ball retention, and although it ultimately yielded nothing more than a shot from distance by Corry Evans that flew well wide, it set a positive tone for the evening.
As the game settled down and Birmingham worked their way back into it, perhaps the best chance of the whole evening fell City’s way…and from a corner, too. Sort of. Koren’s deep delivery from the right was nodded back by Mclean to Chester, who stole ahead of his marker and sent the ball towards the near post – it beat Myhill but not the defender he’d stationed on the line, who cleared the ball to safety.
It was already an evening of nearlies and almosts. These are two sides with formidable defences, but were at least attempting to break each other down. The home side fought their way towards rough parity, though City’s passing always looked just a little slicker – maybe the lads were enjoying the rare chance to play on a reasonable surface.
Nothing much else happened in the half in either penalty area. Dawson was just beaten to a through-ball by Myhill, though City’s left-back’s sense of adventure illustrated the Tigers’ attacking intent. As half-time neared, the impressive Jordon Mutch blatted a free-kick from an optimistically long way out into the City wall, but the interval arrived with neither defence looking too worried. The seven hundred City fans’ response was tellingly more enthusiastic than the rather grumpy home supporters, whose eerie silence throughout the first half suggested all isn’t quite right at St Andrews.
Things nearly improved for them after half-time, however. Chris Hughton had presumably given his side something of a ticking off for the way in which they were bested in the first half, and they started off in the way they probably wished they’d started the first. A decidedly ambitious penalty appeal was curtly dismissed by referee Fred Graham, before a much more authentic threat arrived.
Birmingham forced a few corners, belatedly rousing the home support and prompting a chorus of “keep right on to the end of the road” (confession: I quite like this) – the corners caused real alarm as Curtis Davies won two of them and sent headers over. The first was tough, the second he’ll have been disappointed to miss. A couple of let-offs for City.
This flurry of activity from the home side abated however, with the game’s previous pattern re-establishing itself. Birmingham’s passing was very much slacker than City’s, meaning they simply failed to find a way through on the ground, and anything aerial was dealt with by Jack Hobbs, who to this observer’s mind is in the best form we’ve yet seen at the club.
Not that City’s defence had much to deal with, for it was being lead poorly by Marlon King. Aaah, Marlon. You’re a bit shit now, aren’t you? His latest spell in prison hasn’t done him any favours. Where once a genuinely powerful forward threat trouble defences at the very top of the game, now we see a much diminished figure – metaphorically, at least. Physically he’s put on a few pounds, his pace has gone, balls ricochet from his shin, even the loathsome snarl has dulled. What a loathsome specimen. He was abused with great venom throughout, and rightly so.
On the pitch, Mannone made a comfortable low save from Murphy before City made their first substitution with an hour gone when Cameron Stewart dropped Brady, who recent improvement and dedication to team over self had continued.
Birmingham were perhaps slightly on top at this stage, though they too were creating little of note – neither side could get in behind the other and even creating the space to have a long shot was proving difficult. Perhaps to the neutral this’d sound dull, but it was oddly compelling.
On 64, Birmingham nearly grabbed the opener when a superb low cross by Stephen Carr found Wade Elliott at the far post, but his desperate lunge wasn’t enough to fashion a clean connection and the chance was missed. Five minutes later City nearly did get in behind the Blues when a chipped ball over the top found Fryatt in a pocket of space. He set off towards goal, only to be impeded by a clear tug of his shirt. Red would have been exceptionally harsh with no little distance to goal and a covering defender, so Steven Caldwell rightly saw yellow.
The game meandered a bit for ten minutes, though at least the noise levels in the away end hadn’t dropped – 700 is a modest turnout given the undaunting distance and importance of the game, but it was a lively affair in the away end. Birmingham’s latest squall had blown itself out and City now looked quite serenely in control once more, though it took another five minutes for a chance to arrive when Mclean dragged a 20-yard show wastefully wide after finding space on the right.
Birmingham swapped Elliott for Redmond with twelve minutes remaining as they too strove for a goal, but there were to be just two more chances: a Davies header from a left-wing cross that seemed to take a slight deflection en route to Mannone’s hands, and a long-range effort by Koren that flew well wide of Myhill’s post. And that was that.
As we strode cheerily into a Midlands night, the greater sense of satisfaction was undoubtedly ours. In truth, neither side can regard it as dropping points when pitted against equally strong opposition with equally fearsome defences. City rather unluckily dropped to seventh on the back of this result, and could fall even lower by Saturday night with an enforced break.
Nonetheless, this is a point gained, and a point we very rarely looked like not obtaining. City looked strong, fit and confident. With that Mad March fast approaching, we’ll need all of those attributes to sustain an assault on the top six. However, last night’s capable and assured display suggested that that hectic schedule may make rather than break us. Well played City.