Bazza starts his season of reviews with a look at Tuesday night’s friendly.
Will called up a couple of weeks back and suggested we should take in a friendly game or two and this fixture seemed to be the most doable given the geography and logistics in mid-week. He picked me up from work in Guildford about 04.30 and having defamed my character irreparably to my staff who are now completely uncontrollable we set off along the A3 to the M25. The kids are on holiday and the traffic actually moves which meant that we made it to Milton Keynes Station by 06.30 to pick up Will’s brother, Chris who had our tickets so we had to find him. We proceeded to the ground where the choice of cuisine seemed to be KFC or McDonald’s both of which I hate almost as much as Bovril which Will keeps ribbing me about. In the end I opted for a KFC zingy burger and hot wings which had enough spice to make them reasonably palatable and as I was hungry went down the hatch better than expected. Couldn’t get a pint anywhere though but never mind.
I’d never been to the MK stadium before and I have to say I was impressed with the facilities, the view, the pitch which was immaculate and the fact that they had warm water in the taps in the toilets and paper towel dispensers that worked. There were plenty of waste paper baskets and the place was clean and tidy with excellent catering areas. Oh for a modern ground – will the day ever come when the City of Birmingham Stadium arises from the ether of fantasy?
On to the match itself; Blues set up in a 4-4-1-1 system with Gardner playing off the lone striker Zigic with McFadden on the left, Bowyer and Ferguson in the middle and Larsson on the right. The back four comprised of Parnaby, Dann, Johnson and Murphy in front of Foster in goal. Things got off to a crackingly bad start when with barely two minutes on the clock, Gardner blocked a fierce shot by Luke Chadwick with his hand. Some may consider the award harsh but frankly I reckon the referee was correct. We see too much of this jumping in front of shots with arms flailing; the defender attempting to make himself big and then complaining when it hits him on the arm that a penalty results on the grounds that it was ‘ball to hand ref!’ I’m sorry, I don’t buy it and nor did Mr Woolmer, the referee. Jermaine Easter calmly slotted the ball into the bottom corner and Blues were one down. It nearly got worse when following sloppy work by Blues in midfield, Baldock was put through by Guy but the striker blasted his shot against Foster’s legs and the danger was averted. MK were playing cohesive, swift and incisive football which threatened to punish their more illustrious but pedestrian opponents further. Only seven minutes had elapsed when Gardner chasing a clever pass from Zigic into the area was felled by a clumsy challenge by Chicksen; a clear penalty which Mr Woolmer gave without hesitation. Up steps our man James McFadden who with the keeper going the wrong way crashes the ball against the angle of post and bar to the derision of the home supporters.
Blues started to show a bit of authority and Zigic hammered a fierce volley at Martin in the MK Dons’ goal which the keeper did very well to save. Bowyer had a great chance to equalise when he appeared at the far post to get on the end of Zigic’s flick on, only to bury the shot into the side netting. The big Serbian was proving a handful for the MK centre-backs and showed good touch and clever use of the ball when he got it and held it up. He had the ball in the net at one stage only for Seb Larsson’s cross to be deemed to have crossed the line before delivery; pity because it was an assured finish. However, it was Easter who caught the eye with another great chance to score for the Dons when Johnson carelessly gave the ball away in midfield to the front man who raced past Dann and both centre-backs had Foster to thank for another smart save with his legs. One nasty incident occurred involving Bowyer whose challenge on Baldock was reckless, petulant and dangerous. He stamped down over the ball in a genuine attempt to win it but the consequences could have been serious for the MK player and in my view was deserving of at least the yellow card that Johnson had earlier received and in my view Bowyer was lucky to stay on the pitch. For some reason the referee decided to be lenient.
Wholesale changes occurred in the second period with O’Connor replacing Bowyer (a wise move in the circumstances) Ridgewell coming on for Johnson and Jerome replaced the impressive Zigic. Within two minutes of the restart MK Dons were 2-0 up due to yet more sloppy misplaced passing by Blues in midfield. This was after Blues had nearly equalised from a left wing corner which found O’Connor at the far post; his snap shot cannoned off the post and from this the breakaway occurred. The substitute, Ibehere powered through in the inside left channel and finished crisply under the diving Foster. Blues at last stated to wake up and began to string some decent passes together. Further changes occurred throughout the half with Valles, Mutch, Michel and latterly Phillips coming on for Murphy, Gardner, Fergusson and McFadden respectively. The changes seemed to greatly improve Blues and Jerome reduced the deficit following an excellent pass from Barry Fergusson which the striker finished well across Martin in the MK goal. Blues started to up the tempo and Jerome again robbed the dithering Woodards on the edge of the box on 77 minutes and lashed a sweet left footed strike past the hapless Martin. Blues were in command now and after some quick, accurate and most importantly, simple interchange play between Phillips and O’Connor, the Scot gratefully accepted the chance to win the match with two minutes to go with a shot from 20 yards which deflected off a defender and past the keeper for 3-2.
I found myself feeling no surprise in the end at the evening’s developments. Even when 2-0 behind I got the impression that with a little increase in tempo and a bit of concentration and application that Blues would have too much for this valiant League One outfit who showed us up on occasions mainly because of our casual play in the first hour of the game. True this was a friendly match but with less than two weeks to the big kick off attention to basics is the least the travelling fan should expect. A number of positives came out of the match however particularly the performances of Zigic, O’Connor, Jerome, Foster in goal and Mutch. Fergusson was as accomplished as ever though I thought Bowyer was below the mark for him as was McFadden who is clearly short of match practice. The rest were OK and it was good to see Murphy playing again but ominously Parnaby who had looked solid went off after 35 minutes with a hamstring strain to be replaced by Fahey. Carr is out with a toe injury so the acquisition of Clyne from Crystal Palace is looking ever more necessary. We still need another left back at least as cover and oh for some pace out wide. Another striker would greatly enhance the squad and give us all a lot more confidence for the forthcoming season. It is interesting, that Manchester City apart, how little business has been done thus far in this transfer window. I note that there is an article about this in this morning’s Birmingham Post. Whilst we can expect a bit more activity as the opening day approaches I would not be surprised if there is less than we all think.
Whether we strengthen further or not, I think that overall we will be stronger this season than last but we must attend to basics especially defending and ball retention before we face Sunderland on 14 August. I hope by then we will be ready.