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Nationwide Division One, 2/3/01
Birmingham City
By Ian Grant

At 6:55pm, we enter St Andrews. It's a bit like walking into the Chamber of Horrors when the lights are switched on and the caretaker's dusting the instruments of torture. Not scary.

Moments of reflection. Casting our minds back to last time, when we arrived just five minutes before kickoff to be flattened by noise, we remember terror and tension and crippling dehydration and eventual celebration. It was an epic night...and, precisely because it's so incredibly unwelcoming, St Andrews was the perfect venue. Months later, I can still bring back the sound that hit us when Birmingham scored that early goal. It was the sound of planets colliding.

Back to the present, and there's nobody here. Occasional shouts echo around the ground, a few clusters of people shiver in the bitter cold and wrap their hands around hot drinks in plastic cups. Empty football grounds always feel slightly odd, buildings temporarily divorced from their souls. This one feels downright ghostly. What follows is equally unreal, in many ways.

Perhaps we should start with the most important thing. Which is that this should never have been played. With a fifteen yard width of one flank of the pitch frozen solid, it's a miracle that the match ended without someone breaking their neck. Quite how a referee could carry out an inspection without coming to the conclusion that the surface was very, very dangerous is total mystery.

Not that it affected the result in the slightest. In truth, nothing affected the result. Not Birmingham, not Watford. The result was there when we left Brighton in the bright sunshine of the early afternoon, it was there as we crawled up the M1 on the coach and peered nervously at the snow showers outside, it was still there as we parked in the safety of the fenced-off away end. Like a match between two sides whose fate has already been decided, the ninety minutes of football seemed unrelated to anything of importance. It was 2-0 to Birmingham. It had been so since the final whistle against Stockport.

A few hundred Watford fans were here because Graham Taylor has never been one to accept such inevitability. His current crop of players, on the other hand, seem only too willing to ride the wave, whichever way it happens to take them. While this performance represented a marginal improvement from the shambles against County, it did nothing to lift the general mood. Again, we were beaten by a side that didn't have to extend itself at all.

The switch to playing three at the back, presumably designed both to accommodate David Perpetuini in place of Paul Robinson and to give extra strength in midfield, met with mixed results. For spells in the first half, we were in the ascendancy and showed signs of getting our passing together at long last. Equally, though, the lack of width meant that those spells generated only sporadic half-chances, with set pieces offering the only real hope of a breakthrough. Possession never became danger.

In contrast, our defence was often stretched by the City forwards. Within two minutes, Horsfield couldn't quite get a touch to Hughes' cross from the right, despite being unmarked at the near post. Shortly afterwards, Eaden headed the ball across goal and Hughes volleyed over from six yards - under challenge this time, at least. There were fewer howling errors here - even if the lethal combination of ice and divots made it impossible to do everything perfectly, we recovered from most mistakes before any damage was done - yet we still failed to look particularly secure.

As the game progressed, however, we gradually began to push ourselves into contention. A subdued match suited our requirements and, during brief patches of constructive football, you began to sense that we were growing in confidence. Tommy Mooney and Tommy Smith fought gamely for an opening, while the midfield pushed forward with the aim of supplying them with a killer pass. Paolo Vernazza had a shot deflected wide, Mooney mis-hit a volley so that it span up in the air. It didn't quite happen.

As previously noted, the problem is that any tentative revival requires time. If your defence can't keep the opposition out for long enough, then it's doomed to failure. While unable to claim any measure of dominance, City still carried an altogether more tangible threat in the final third...and that, ultimately, was enough to provide the mundane conclusion for the evening. They scored two goals, something which seemed utterly beyond our reach throughout.

Oh, there were moments when we defended extremely well. Darren Ward's outstretched boot blocked Andy Johnson's shot just at the point where it appeared that the striker had got beyond the defender, certain to score. But that incident was preceded and created by Purse's unchallenged run from the halfway line. As individuals, all are capable of brilliance and incompetence. It's as a unit that they really fail.

After twenty-three minutes, Bennett made the only remarkable save of the match. Neil Cox's free kick from distance achieved, for once, the dual aim of avoiding the wall and avoiding the fans at the back of the stand. It left Bennett to deal with a ball that bounced awkwardly off the hard surface and headed for the bottom corner. The keeper got down to it, turned it around the post, and spent the rest of the ninety minutes idly reflecting on his moment of glory.

It's probably unnecessary to point out that it wasn't a particularly good game. It is, however, possibly worth noting that I'm currently describing its most entertaining passages. At the other end, Baardsen collected an attempt at the top corner from Hughes, before Andy Johnson wasted a chance that he created for himself with a swift turn against Steve Palmer by blazing a shot over the bar from eighteen yards. Grainger's free kick, whipped over the wall with real intent, flew wide by only a matter of feet as the half drew to a close.

None of us would've complained about a blank scoreline at half-time, obviously. It would've been something to build on, at the very least. Our defence was presumably thinking the same thing as Atherton's throw drifted into the box, since they certainly didn't appear to be thinking about defending. Palmer's glancing header only took the ball further towards the danger area, where it bounced around for a while like a stray balloon before Eaden steered a low shot past the unsighted Espen Baardsen. Inevitability loomed large.

The second half offered nothing to distract us from the sinking temperatures. Veterans of Barnsley might've been at pains to point out that the weather was positively balmy in comparison...but, for the rest of us, that our feet had lost all feeling was a fact beyond debate.

The match became a complete non-event, with Watford attacks faltering long before they reached the City penalty area. Despite the space afforded to our midfield as the home side threw people forward to press home their dominance, we really couldn't string more than a couple of passes together. Just two shots in forty-five minutes - from Tommy Smith after a purposeful run that demonstrated his willingness to take the burden of creativity on his young shoulders and later from Allan Nielsen, both sliced well wide of the target.

For long periods, Birmingham were content to cruise along in a low gear. While the vast majority of the football was played in our half, it only occasionally troubled Espen Baardsen. Aware that their opponents were struggling to produce anything at all, City didn't bother to break sweat.

Nordin Wooter came on and barely got a touch, which has become something of a custom. Neil Cox back-heeled Andy Johnson's low cross away from the six yard box in a rare pulse-quickening moment. As a contest, it was all but over, only footballing tradition dictating that single goal leads can be fragile. Even if sod all had happened in the preceding eternity, it was no particular surprise when Hughes collected Eaden's cross from the right and nipped sharply past Page to score with an angled shot. It was hard to pretend that this put the result beyond doubt, since it had been so for bloody hours.

Apart from Adebola skinning Page and smashing in a swerving drive that flew impressively and inaccurately past the goal, what remained gave new meaning to the word "pointless". Our performance had been pretty pathetic, so hopes for just a consolation goal to give us something to jump around for were slim. So it proved.

There's nothing more to add, beyond noting that the referee showed an excellent willingness to allow both teams to play on whenever possible. It was a game so utterly passionless that he wasn't required to get his cards out.

This was, by and large, terrible. Perhaps not as entirely clueless as some of our recent lowpoints, yet still the same lack of true fight and purpose, still the same depressed, nothingy acceptance of our fate. Those who call for a change of management need to consider that Graham Taylor has proved himself time and again over the course of more than quarter of a century. When these players can claim the same thing, then the argument will be different.

At midnight, the coach pulled into Vicarage Road, heavy snowflakes brushing the windows as they drifted through the night air. We collected our car from Occupation Road, looking up through the wintry gloom to see the sloping roof of the main stand covered in a layer of snow. In any other circumstances, the transformation of my second favourite building into the centrepiece of a winter wonderland would've led me to gazing silently at its beauty for an age.

We went home.