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Nationwide Division One, 1/10/00
Birmingham City
Wolves Mk II
By Ian Grant

Ah, Birmingham. Our familiar, if strangely accented, friends. Welcome back, with your song that has fifty-seven verses of proudly but unintelligibly mumbled nonsense. Welcome back, with your fully developed sense of "sleeping giant" superiority that gets you nowhere at all and turns you into Wolves Mk II. Welcome back, with your manager who seems to have a permanent cold and a permanent bad mood to go with it. Really, we've missed you.

Because, when it comes to pure entertainment, there's no substitute for the insane delusions of the "biggest" First Division clubs, all of whom have a right to be in the Premiership...and yet, through some grand conspiracy, still find themselves looking up at Southampton and Coventry. So, naturally, Birmingham lost this game because the referee didn't award them two penalties, both of our goals were miles offside, and none of our players committed fouls sufficiently vicious to merit red cards. Keep the excuses coming, Trev. Keep 'em coming, because we'll keep on winning while you do.

Two brutal results for the rest of the division to digest, then. For a start, Fulham's casual, fly-swatting dismissal of Bolton on Saturday did us a mighty favour. After all, we don't need to bother ourselves with thoughts of the Championship until promotion's secure, so getting rid of the chasing pack has to be the priority. This is the time when we can start to stretch things out and break our opponents. Five points clear of third, eleven points clear of seventh...and still only two points behind the "runaway" leaders.

Unlike Fulham, we don't appear to be a side that'll put a run of ten straight wins together. In keeping with Graham Taylor's traditional approach, however, we do appear to be a side that can prepare for each game thoroughly and, by concentrating everything on the immediate task, do enough to take the three points. Then move onto the next test, and the next, and the next. That's why nobody's really noticed us.

Long may it continue, frankly. Our first televised game of the season was largely unmemorable and that's fine - we don't need the attention and pressure that spectacular success brings, we don't need to become consumed by our own hype at this early stage. This won't have terrified any of our rivals. Not until they take a look at the league table, anyway.

The first half was right ropey and no mistake. In our general lack of confidence and the crowd's increasing impatience, you could see the hangover from Tuesday. Birmingham are a Quality Street kind of side, with the countless dull, box-filling toffees never quite compensating for the all-too-rare purple brazil nuts. You suspect that they'll be more thereabouts than there at the end of the season. They attempted to take advantage of our general depression and ultimately failed, partly due to solid defending and partly due to hopeless finishing. It was a half of many shots and few saves.

For twenty minutes, the main entertainment was provided by unedited Sky coverage on the big screen. Unedited, so that we were able to see all the moments of controversy that we'd usually be denied - a feeble, laughable dive in the area by Burchill; a debatable offside against Helguson; a scything foul on Wooter. In the latter case, you tended to feel that the referee might've had his yellow card out if he'd had the opportunity to see the incident again... and, right on cue, the replay confirmed the point and the officials were roundly abused by the better-informed spectators. All of which gave proceedings a rather surreal quality, until someone noticed that the club was breaking regulations and the screen reverted back to its usual, edited coverage.

With quarter of an hour gone, Sky must've been questioning the wisdom of their decision to show the game. Birmingham dominated without any particular purpose. Eaden and Sonner shot well wide from distance; Horsfield - a delicate, frail, Pat Nevin-ish player, very much in keeping with Trev's cast-iron footballing principles - got in a tangle when given the opportunity to shoot from six yards; Burchill fell over, as we've already mentioned. It wasn't very good, especially for Watford fans who'd expected to see their team rise to the occasion...although it has to be said that the support from the stands was rather feeble too.

It took us thirteen minutes to string some passes together. When we did, though, it was a warning to the visitors - we can score goals, so you'd better take your chances. Lovely move too. Gifton Noel-Williams on the right, with Neil Cox up in support. When Nordin Wooter received the ball, he wheeled round towards the corner flag and whipped in a fine cross - Noel-Williams was on the end of it at the near post and headed wide.

But, even if the first real excitement of the game came from Watford, it was Birmingham who nearly scored. Somehow, Horsfield was allowed to break the offside trap and, when he crossed, the excellent, dynamic Lazaridis was arriving to meet it. He slammed the ball goalwards from five yards and was dismayed to find that Alec Chamberlain's legs had managed to keep it out. Too close for comfort, that.

Reading back through my notes, it all sounds rather thrilling as chances come thick and fast to both sides. That's not the way that I remember it, though, so perhaps general Sunday laziness or the effects of a seven o'clock alarm took their toll. Or maybe it just wasn't a particularly good game.

There were some outstanding things hidden away, mind you. Heidar Helguson, to name one. If anyone was going to win this for us, it was him. As it turned out, that wasn't the way that it actually happened - even so, two disallowed goals and one assist, plus numerous other contributions, represent an extraordinary return from a striker who was working with an inconsistent quality of service throughout the game. In the middle of our frequently muddled attacks, he looked absolutely deadly - waiting for his chance, poised in readiness to pounce. Offside or not, aware of it or not, his finish after eighteen minutes was astonishing - an instant, instinctive lob from fully thirty yards that drifted magnificently over Bennett's head and bounced into the net. The headlines were about others...but, for me, Helguson was the star of this show.

There were brief flurries of activity, yet the game had still to come to life. Noel-Williams battled to get onto the end of a stray backpass but, having done brilliantly to barge a couple of defenders out of the way, couldn't control his shot. Hughes - like Lazaridis, a really neat player - flicked the ball across the face of goal from Grainger's cross. Defensively, both sides were coping without really being in charge - for example, the general mess that led to Grainger shooting wide after twenty-three minutes was indicative of a nervousness that always returns when we're not quite on top of things.

Really, it petered out completely towards half-time. The goal attempts were sporadic and erratic - Noel-Williams drove well wide; Tommy Mooney, who was having one of his over-eager days, went a bit closer from a similar distance; Eaden couldn't keep his shot down from the penalty spot. The result was everything, of course, and it's unwise to measure Premiership credentials on the basis of Nationwide fixtures...but, bearing in mind the league positions of the sides, this was still a very average game. As if to emphasise the point, the half finished with Darren Ward deflecting the ball across his own goal after Lazaridis had torn past Cox on the wing.

The second half was altogether more convincing, albeit after a serious scare. Within two minutes, Hughes had shown his dangerous qualities once again, firing in a drive from twenty-two yards that, with the aid of a late deflection, found Chamberlain at his very best. The save, pushing the ball wide at full stretch, was superb enough to compensate for an otherwise shaky performance.

At last, we went on the attack. Even if it took some time before we did so with any real conviction. There were moments when it seemed as if we were just too tentative to make an impact in the final third, when even Wooter's darting runs lacked a little belief. Bennett saved comfortably from Nielsen's volley after the ball had bounced around the area for a while, but some of the other attempts were a bit desperate. As on Tuesday, Page trying a volley from outside the area speaks for itself. The same applies for Cox's blast over the bar from thirty yards.

We're not easily discouraged, though. We keep going and, assuming that we're not playing as atrociously as we did in midweek, we usually get there in the end. No particular surprise that it was Helguson who got there first, picking up a corner that had travelled right through and bashing it back into the danger area. And there was Allan Nielsen, loitering in the six yard box, to stab the ball home and celebrate despite (incorrect) offside appeals from the City defence.

Naturally, Trev doesn't regard that as the turning point of the game. Quite rightly, since goals only ever have a slight effect on results, right? Instead, he'd prefer to concentrate on the penalty appeal that followed immediately, as Lazaridis ended a fine passing move by going down under challenge from Page as he ran towards goal. The referee ignored it and it was impossible to make any kind of judgement from the other end. Clearly, though, Trev was in the best position to see it. That we scored two goals is obviously irrelevant.

Whatever Trev might think, it was the goal that lifted us. Sure, an immediate equaliser undoubtedly would've taken the wind out of our sails...but that's just speculation. Having taken the lead, we marched fearlessly on. Not playing the best football of our lives, perhaps, but certainly doing enough to make sure of an extremely valuable three points.

With the game suddenly more open, we were in our element. The breaks were swift and punishing, and there probably should've been more goals. Certainly, Helguson was extremely unlucky to see his wonderful, towering header into the top corner from Cox's free kick ruled out by the linesman's flag. He deserved a goal. Although he didn't get it, you suspect that he won't have to wait very long. Palmer tried a couple of unsuccessful efforts from distance, before substitute Johnson's improvisation produced a low shot that, with the element of surprise on its side, nearly caught out Chamberlain.

So we were in control. We were ahead and the likelier scorers, which is all you can ask for when you're playing promotion rivals. Even so, the second goal came out of nowhere. Sure, there was momentary excitement as Helguson's first-time ball over the top sent Wooter on a chase. But his control, while neatly taking him away from defenders, left him with his back to goal and nearer to the halfway line than the opposition area. So he turned and went. The run took him into the box, down to the by-line and there it seemed destined to end - surrounded by two or three defenders, there was nowhere to go and the best possible outcome seemed to be a corner. Instead, he conjured up a goal. A bit of trickery bought him some space and suddenly a perfect cross was taking the entire City defence out of the game, leaving Cox with the simple task of heading in at the far post. If anyone's wondering what exactly the full back was doing there, it's simple - he'd seen the whole thing unfold and, from deep within his own half, had simply charged forward to get there. In every way, then, this was a tremendous bit of football.

That put the result beyond doubt. It left Birmingham in the hopeless position of numerous previous opponents, pushing forward and leaving great holes at the back for us to exploit. At long last, our passing clicked and we looked thoroughly comfortable with ourselves. As with the goal, some of our football was quite splendid. There was the passing move that ended with Mooney shooting wide, for instance. Even better, there was Paul Robinson's brilliantly precise tackle and subsequent run down the left that was picked out by an absolutely gorgeous pass from Helguson. When the cross came in, Noel-Williams was all on his own...but it was just beyond him, making him stretch to make contact - even then, he damn nearly scored and was unfortunate to see his volley flick the top of the bar rather than crash into the top corner.

We'd done it. There was always the possibility that a late City goal might lead to some nervy was a pretty remote possibility, though. Only Hughes' snapshot after some general confusion in the area troubled us as it whistled past the post.

As so often this season, you can't argue with the result. You can suggest that we weren't always at our best, that there were times when City were rather more impressive. When it came down to it, however, there was an extra ruthlessness about our attacking play - Helguson's brilliance, Wooter's moment of utter magic, Cox's decisive run, and all the rest. That's what Birmingham didn't have, that's why they lost.

So you can't argue with the result. Unless you're Trev, of course.