O, this was good. Unexpectedly, borderline astonishingly so. But good, really good.
Birmingham arrived with a Spring-tinged sniff of the Play Offs in their nostrils, and left chastened. Harried to perdition, outperformed all over the park, beaten and subdued.
At the end of November, 19 games into this wildly uneven season, we sat morosely marooned in the relegation places, with just 17 points. Right now, having gobbled up 33 points from 16 games since the start of December, we’re tenth (eighth equal, if you prefer to set aside goal difference) and already up to 50 points. Safe from relegation and, absurdly, just four points shy of the Play Off places.
Lots of players deserve credit, but I am going to limit myself to one name alone in allocating praise for this remarkable upturn in not simply the team’s fortunes but in the whole mood and spirit of the squad (if not the club more generally). Nigel Adkins. I’ve had harsh words for him in the past. I don’t care for the needy salutes the very instant his name is chanted, and I can’t warm to the torrents of maniacal exuberance he conveys to press and radio. Most of all, I spent most of 2018 with no faith that he could improve an admittedly thin squad. I was wrong. The formation he’s chosen works, every player looks better now than he did at the beginning of the season, some immeasurably enormously refulgently so, and Mr Adkins, for sure, is doing a Very Good Job. Bless.
Off we go, on a mild afternoon though one unadorned by the glorious Spring sunshine of earlier in the week:
Kane Burke de Wijs Lichaj
Bowen Pugh Grosicki
That’s the same side that began against Millwall on Tuesday, and confirms the removal of Ridgewell, McKenzie and Kingsley from the defence that operated with such sullen lack of distinction at Brentford last week. That 5-1 thrashing could have been season-ending. Two subsequent games, two subsequent wins, and the season is still very much alive.
The game begins in an appealingly open fashion. I like our formation. I don;t trust all of those deployed within it. Pugh is a quick-thinking mobile player who I already like a lot, and he fully grasps the importance of bringing our two speedy wide men into the game as quickly and as frequently as possible. This trio would be enough to lay waste to most Championship defences if, ahead of them, a moderately mobile Championship-level striker was able to pull defenders out of position, hold the ball up and release it. Fraizer Campbell, for example. Chris Martin, a willing if limited professional for a decade and more, could have been that man a few years ago. He’s still willing. But he just can’t run, can’t lose a man, can’t run a channel. I don’t blame him – I blame Ehab. But it’s a toil and a trial to watch Chris Martin doing his best, yet struggling in a formation that is almost destructively incisive, but, for want of a better front man, isn’t quite as exciting as it could be.
We’ve still got enough to best a competent Birmingham side. On 19, Pugh shoots, deflection, saved by Lee Camp. 21, Bowen on the break, left foot shot, stopped. And then we score. It’s an intricate bit of play following a free-kick awarded deep inside the Birmingham half, and Pugh’s quick feet do brilliantly well to claim possession and switch the ball inside for Bowen to carefully lift the ball up and over the advancing Camp and into the roof of the net.
The subsequent play is largely in our half as Blues seek to assert themselves, but there are no serious alarms anywhere near Marshall’s net, except for a scary moment on 34 when Harlee Dean, monster central defender, is left in space at a set piece but contrives to send an inviting free header high over the crossbar. The City defence was entitled to look mutinously in the direction of Chris Martin, who should have been back covering aforementioned Harlee Dean – who sounds as if he should be doing the full Easy Rider thing across the plains of Wyoming while downing hooch and tripping on acid, but a little research advises me that in truth he was not born to be wild, he was born in Basingstoke and once played for Braintree Town.
Grosicki, haring down the left, sets up Pugh, who shoots low but straight at the ‘keeper, but the finest moment of the half, outshining even the goal, is an astonishing lofted crossfield pass from Markus Henriksen which condemns the defence to irrelevance as Grosicki is able to scoot free of its collective attention. A goal is deserved as a result of Henriksen’s touchingly crafted tribute to the sublime passing range of the late great Bobby Doyle, but the Pole is a little clumsy in bringing the ball under control and ultimately he screws his shot wide of the near post.
The people of Norway seem to be transfixed by their favourite son and his slightly wobbly vowels taking charge of Manchester United this season, but they should come take a look at the Sword of Trondheim. Henriksen has been consistently outstanding this season, on the ball and off it, and in his leadership capacity too. Birmingham City, your boys, like so many others these last three months or so, took a hell of a beating.
Half time. 1-0.
Birmingham begin the second half with a little more vigour and application. On 47 a ball spins away dangerously in our box, corner. On 51, a stramash, we survive. Lively football, though largely broken football, as both sides strain in vain to take command.
Next goal is crucial. And, on the hour, we get it.
Not in entirely satisfactory circumstances, I confess. A slick passing move involving Henriksen, Bowen, Martin and Irvine permits Bowen himself to drive powerfully forward through the heart of the visiting defence and into the box, but he pushes the ball just a bit too far in front of him. The goalkeeper’s challenge is a bit clumsy, but Bowen goes down under it with practised (and understandable) ease. I think that Lee Camp got his gloves to the ball in the same instant as Bowen’s boot, and Camp protests his innocence. Over to you, referee Harrington. He is very well positioned, has a clear sightline, but, surprisingly, gives it.
A pleasing outbreak of resentment, outrage and protest and, from our side, derision and glee interrupts proceedings, and a good old-style set-to develops. A couple of yellow cards are waved, but eventually the fury abates and Bowen has the ball on the spot. He sweeps the ball calmly into one corner of the net while Camp leaps like a young salmon towards the other corner, and that is 2-0.
We’ve squandered two goal leads twice of late (at Villa and at home to Rotherham), so the matter is not yet settled. But we take a secure grip on this one. After the hubbub surrounding the penalty award, a subsequent red card or two seems a safe bet, but the heat quickly dissipates. Birmingham are not exactly resigned to their fate, but they’re second best and appear to know it. Their main man is burly free-scoring frontman Che Adams, who sounds as if he should have emerged from the South American jungle with a grimy bandana round his head and a knife between his teeth, but was in fact born in Leicester and has played for Oadby Town. But Adams is dealt with by stopping his service at source. Our defenders don’t have a lot to concern them because our midfield spends most of the game making sure Birmingham’s never gets chance to supply Adams with bullets or, for that matter, knives. There are some decent larkers in that Birmingham midfield – Gary Gardner, Kerim Mrabti (who sounds as if he should be a handsome Turkish prince on horseback but is in fact an anagram) – but they’ve been schooled by Irvine and the sublime Henriksen today.
On 65, Burke is unusually reticent and Marshall is pulled out of position, and Adams, for once, has a glimpse of our goal, but the shot slices wide into the side-netting. The same fate at the other end on 78, when a quite brilliantly deft pass by Martin frees Bowen beyond the central defence, but here too the side-netting is the recipient of the ball. Then Pugh weaves through a static defence with absorbing skill, only to fire his shot straight at ‘keeper Camp. Lots of pleasing football.
Ridgewell on for De Wijs. McKenzie replaces Lichaj.
On 87 Marshall makes a fine save to his right and then, shortly afterwards, an inviting opportunity is spooned harmlessly high into the air. Nothing for you today in Hull, Bluenoses.
Four added, a deflected corner which draws a save from Marshall and the game is done.
So. The stadium was barely one third full yesterday. The Allams remain in charge, and the babble about a takeover, always a rust-stained polluted trickle, has dried up and evaporated. We are stuck with the gruesome twosome for the foreseeable, and I suspect that even now Ehab is planning a summer of sales followed by last-minute loan signings and hauling in vaguely remembered out-of-contract plodders which he will expect Nigel Adkins to convert into a presentable Championship squad. The miracle is that Mr Adkins might well be able to do just that. I yearn for a post-Allam Hull City, but for the time being I don’t ignore what a remarkable job Nigel Adkins has done and is doing in such forbiddingly difficult circumstances.
Steve Weatherill (first posted on the Tiger-Chat mailing list)