I always look forward to our fixture against these opponents as it casts my mind back to my first ever match in 1963 when still not ten years old, I went down to St Andrews for the first time to a game. Blues won 2-1 that day and I recall that the visitors had a goal chalked off for offside on the stroke of full time. However, to the present; I caught the train from Blackwater to Reading to get my connection to Coventry catching the Manchester Piccadilly service at 11.11. The nice thing about getting the train is that I can get to read the book I have on the go at the time; at the moment it is ‘Heartstone’ by CJ Sansom, a Tudor period whodunit. The only problem was I had forgotten to put my reading glasses in my pocket so it was a bit of a struggle but with the coming of spring, the light was bright enough through the train windows and I managed.
I arrived at Coventry at 12.25 and was picked up by Chris who took me back to his pub at Baginton for a drink before we set off for the ground. We collected Little Jack, he collected the Easter egg and chocolate rabbit I’d brought up on the journey for him and we piled into Chris’ car for the trip along the A45. We grabbed a couple of pints in the Royal George and so far a plan had come together well. The game that was on in the pub was dull though – Sunderland – Spurs; a drab 0-0 encounter.
It was good to see Keith Fahey back in the team following his groin injury. We set up 4-4-2 with only attacking options on the bench apart from Doyle. The back four comprised of Ramage, Davies, Caldwell and Murphy with Burke, Mutch, Fahey and Townsend across midfield and King and Zigic up front. Crystal Palace won the toss and mischievously elected to switch ends and make us play into the Tilton first half. If this was meant to unsettle us, well, it failed as Blues blitzed the visitors with three goals in eleven minutes midway through the half and have the game won after 32 minutes. I see a number of parallels with the 1967-68 side that habitually kicked into the Railway End (now known as the Gil Merrick Stand) in the second half and some of our finest wins have come playing that way; Arsenal and Chelsea in the Cup run of that year to name but two. The late Johnny Vincent, a fine attacking midfielder of that era was spoken of in the match programme and I for one am privileged to have seen him play.
Blues came out of the traps quickly from the off and with slick passing, high tempo and incisive movement Palace were chasing shadows. This was exactly how I like to see us play and when we do we are a match for anybody in this division and most cannot live with us. Mutch and Burke both tested Speroni in the Palace goal early on and it was the winger who made the first meaningful strike after 21 minutes. Burke picked up the ball on the corner of the box on the right but he cut inside and unleashed a beautiful curling effort with his left foot into the far corner giving Speroni no chance. It was a carbon copy of the goal he scored at Doncaster eight days ago. Burke almost instantly became provider as within 90 seconds as having picked up the ball in a similar position he played a simple square five-yard pass inside to Fahey who let fly with his right foot to find the same top corner of the net with Speroni a helpless bystander. Blues were playing fabulous stuff at this stage and Palace were looking like Easter bunnies in headlights. With just over half an hour gone, David Murphy latched on to Andros Townsend’s pass and looking up noticed a gaping gap at the far post. With Speroni unsighted the full back drilled a terrific low shot into the inviting yawning chasm from just inside the box to net his third goal in as many games. There were chances when frankly the margin could have been increased but with about five minutes to half-time, Blues started to cruise towards the break and a welcome cuppa but they were guilty of allowing Garvan too much space thirty yards out from goal. He was allowed to take a touch and unleash a low rasping shot that was past Boaz Myhill before he could get down to it. It was the only moment of joy for the visitors in a half in which they had been hopelessly outplayed but it was a fine goal nevertheless.
No doubt after a team talk where Chris Hughton reminded his team of their responsibilities to not get too slack, Blues came out for the second half. Erik Huseklepp replaced Nikola Zigic undoubtedly with West Ham in mind on Monday. It was also expected that Palace would have a little flurry at the beginning of the second half to see if they could get a second goal and make the home side nervy. Indeed, Myhill was forced to turn aside Stuart O’Keefe’s stinging 25-yard half-volley with barely a couple of minutes of the second period elapsed but after a neat and tidy period of passing from the away side who appearted to have regathered their composure they threatened very little after that.
Blues went close to adding a fourth goal as Mutch’s vicious 30-yard free-kick hit a surprised Speroni in the chest to fly over the bar for a corner. Palace did look dangerous on the break but a well organised Blues back line repeatedly caught the breaking Palace forwards offside much to their frustration; Jermaine Easter did put the ball in the net well after the flag had been raised and the whistle blown on one occasion clearly demonstrating this point; like all professional footballers, he still complained he had been wronged! Huseklepp in a one on one with Paddy McCarthy was cynically barged to the ground. The home side fans were on their feet baying for a dismissal but I reckon the referee got it right by awarding a yellow card for the incident. Huseklepp still had a lot to do, he was not central enough in my view and there were other defenders funnelling back so it is questionable whether it represented a goal scoring opportunity.
Blues played well within themselves and allowed Palace more possession in the second half and with still a busy programme ahead it is difficult to argue about the common sense of this given that the game was won in the first half. Overall, this was as good a performance as St Andrews has witnessed this season. It would be good to see it full for the last two home fixtures of the campaign (or three assuming we make the play-offs) Fourth place is now consolidated and it is ours to lose.
The Good: Excellent performance and four cracking goals in the match; thoroughly entertaining and worth the trip.
The Bad: Me forgetting my specs; it made reading my book on the train a struggle.
The Ugly: There was one nasty challenge by N’Daw towards the end of the game. I don’t think there was any malicious intent in the challenge but he really has to watch himself; a more finicky referee might have seen things differently. It was probably one of those that looked worse than it really was.
Birmingham City: Boaz Myhill 6; Peter Ramage 6, Steven Caldwell 7, Curtis Davies 7, David Murphy 7; Chris Burke 8, Jordon Mutch 7, Keith Fahey 8 (Guirane N’Daw 83, N/A), Andros Townsend 6; Nikola Zigic 7 (Erik Huseklepp 46), Marlon King 7 (Adam Rooney 88, N/A).
Subs (not used): Colin Doyle, Nathan Redmond.
Goals: Burke (21), Fahey (22), Murphy (32)
Crystal Palace: Julian Speroni 6, Nathaniel Clyne 6, Patrick McCarthy 6, Dean Moxey 6 Jonathan Parr 6; Kagisho Dikgacoi 6, Owen Garvan 7, Stuart O’Keefe 6, Darren Ambrose 6 (Chris Martin 76, 5); Wilfried Zaha 6, Jermaine Easter 7 (Sean Scannell 66, 6).
Subs (not used): Lewis Price, Glenn Murray, Ryan Inniss.
Goal: Garvan (45)
Booking: McCarthy, Moxey
Referee: Geoff Eltringham 8: I thought the referee and his officials had a good game. They kept it flowing, didn’t stand for niggling histrionics when they threatened to surface and was sensible in using a quiet word rather than a card to make his point. It’s good to see an official using common sense and allowing a man’s game to proceed without fuss.
Attendance: 21,932 (902 away fans)