We have arrived once again at the final day of the season and for the third time in five seasons find ourselves in relegation trouble. Logic keeps telling me that an awful lot has got to go wrong for Blues to go down but the niggle of worry has been gnawing away at me all week. Bill Shankly once remarked that some people think football is a matter of life and death but he went on to say that he had to disavow them of that belief; “It’s far more important than that!” I was reflecting on this before setting off for my early train. I am the only lark in a family of night owls and I awoke spontaneously just after six a.m. Having turned off the alarm which was now not needed, I washed, shaved and dressed and went downstairs for breakfast and a hot cup of coffee. Another glorious day beckoned and like many I’d spent Saturday out in the garden clearing out the greenhouse and preparing space for the tomatoes. I pruned the dead twigs off a couple of fuchsias which had taken a whack from the cold damp winter we had endured despite being protected and listened to the birdsong filling the air.
The tranquility was interrupted by a little Mallard duck honking loudly as she flew across warning any predatory birds or animals eyeing her nest that they would get what for if she caught up with them. I took Mrs Bazza a cup of coffee and it was soon time to go for the 08.14 train from Blackwater to Reading. On the walk down to the station, a pleasant one in the warm, still air with clear blue sky, I was greeted by a carpet of bluebells in the little copse I have to walk through and the dew sparkling like tiny jewels on the tynes of the freshly cut lawn of a neighbour’s garden across which a fat wood pigeon wobbled on the lookout for an early morning meal. The bright greens of Spring were finally here, the blousey purple and white lilacs have at last bloomed large in their ‘look at me’ style adding wonderful fragrance to the mix. No, whether he meant it as a joke or not, Bill Shankly was wrong; there are more important things in life than football.
My train was on time and I got to Reading in plenty of time for my connection to Coventry where Will was waiting to pick me up. I had been expecting Chris but he had some things to sort out back at the Oak and Will came in his stead since he was staying up there for a family weekend. I’d spoken to Chris on Saturday evening to make arrangements and we got to chatting about teams with things at stake. The Baggies won a last gasp game against Spurs which few could see coming although their unlikely hopes of further survival looked to be thwarted as with five added minutes played Everton netted an undeserved equaliser to stop Southampton winning and sending Albion down in the process. The Baggies live to fight another day. We also talked about Coventry who needed a point to secure a play off place in league 2 whereas Morecambe, their opponents, needed the same to avoid relegation. This mattered greatly to Barnet who did all they could in winning their match. A defeat for Morecambe would have kept them in the division so a tame 0-0 draw was a disaster as far as Barnet were concerned.
It became obvious fairly early on that Coventry and Morecambe had no ambition to take risks and we’re happy to play ‘you have it’ then ‘we’ll have it’ back and forth across the middle of the pitch. Whilst this is understandable, it calls into question the integrity of the sport and the league which many feel was not respected here. I doubt that the EFL will do anything about it given the burden of proof is difficult to establish but if a jaundiced view was taken, is there not a case for denying Coventry their pyrrhic play off place and Morecambe to be relegated and Barnet spared? Fortunately, for our part, all teams involved in the Championship drama have something to play for apart from Nottingham Forest who play Bolton; Cardiff and our opponents Fulham for automatic promotion, Preston and Derby, play off berths and Bolton, Reading, Barnsley, Burton and of course us, the relegation abyss. It was therefore to be hoped that may the best teams prevail on the day.
What a cracking day we had! A couple of pints in the Oak and it was off to St Andrews in time for kick off. The Cookhouse had ham baps with salad which went down a treat. A sun drenched St Andrews was packed and it did me good to see the Gil Merrick stand full to the rafters both top and bottom. The atmosphere was the best I’ve witnessed since our League Cup winning run when we beat the Vile. Fulham despite their mass of travelling supporters, stood no chance with the old lady in that sort of mood. (See Will’s panoramic photo!) The noise was intimidating and we were on the right end of it! I will be honest and say that before the match I would have taken a 1-1 draw no problem. The reality was that Blues never looked like losing this match and thoroughly deserved the win. Blues were the better side throughout especially first half when the high flying London outfit were second best to everything although they could have taken the lead early on when Mitrovic skewed a right footed opportunity wide and Piazon was presented with a glorious chance but couldn’t direct the low cross from the left on target.
Jutkiewicz was immense and ran himself into the ground for just over an hour and scored a cracker of a goal that lifted the roof off the stands as a cross from Harding from the right was met on the half volley by the big man who had got in front of his marker to bury the ball into the roof of the net to send the home crowd into raptures on 15 minutes; the roar was deafening as Keep Right On rang out all round the ground. Blues had a number of other opportunities to add to their lead, Jutkiewicz headed just wide on 20 minutes from Jacques Maghoma’s cross and Jutkiewicz should have done better with a shot straight at the keeper a minute or so later. Jota went close with Bettenelli saving his shot well and Jutkiewicz shot wide again with the goal gaping with ten minutes left in the half. Fulham for their part did have chances; Target bent in a curling ball from the left flank into Johansen who swivelled and hit a right footed drive across Stockdale but the big keeper palmed it away past the waiting Piazon. Mitrovic was cutting a frustrated figure up front. The fact was he was isolated and not getting the service since Blues did not allow Fulham to play. Just at the point when we all felt we were going to have to settle for a narrow half time lead, Blues ran back up the pitch from the Johansen chance and won a corner which was half cleared but the ball fell to Jota who beat a man and chipped to the far post to Harlee Dean. The former Brentford man made no mistake with a free downward header which he dispatched past the hapless Bettenelli. 2-0 was the least Blues deserved. Tom Cairney did have a shot saved just before the break following good work by Fredericks but Blues went in worthy leaders in control of the game.
Blues started brightly and nearly added to their lead early on when a tapped free kick to Maghoma was pushed round the near post by Bettenelli. Jota was frustrating the visitors with his trickery and Fulham struggled to get the ball off him at on stage. A spiteful shoulder charge into the Spaniard’s chin by Johansen should have resulted in a red card. (Edit by Kev – it was a clear elbow and not a shoulder – he should have been sent off twice for that!) The fact that it happened right under the nose of the referee and his assistant is baffling. All we got was a free kick. The linesman had given a throw in!
Fulham did respond second half but Blues stood firm and managed the game pretty well up until they scored with about six minutes left. Ayite wriggled into the box down the right and delivered a good ball to Tom Cairney whose touch flicked upwards and which sat up beautifully for the midfielder to run onto and get to just ahead of Stockdale with his head. The goal raised Fulham’s hopes, albeit briefly. Although there were a few nervy moments especially when Stockdale earned his corn by saving a superb Mitrovic header to prevent a heartbreak equaliser again from a cross from Ayite. Substitute Che Adams restored Blues’ two goal superiority at the end with a well taken finish having burrowed into the box from to left to score from an acute angle. The Fulham defenders were half-heartedly ambling back as tiredness, the sapping heat and the realisation that their chance of automatic promotion was gone. The home fans’ relief was tangible.
At full time Will showed me the table on his phone and stated that Bolton and Barnsley had gone down. As I looked I said; “No, Bolton have survived, Burton are in the bottom three.” In the time it had taken for Will to show me the table, Burton had lost at Preston to a last gasp winner and Bolton had turned round a 1-2 deficit with two goals in the last couple of minutes! The table which was live, literally changed in seconds; how dramatic was that?
The Good: The weather, the company, a packed St Andrews and the resulting atmosphere, the performance from every single player in a blue shirt. The result obviously, safety from the unthinkable and the thought that this proud, great club is making the first steps back in the direction we all want. For the first time in an age, I’m feeling optimistic for the future. Good decisions in the summer and a constructive pre-season and who knows? Finally a last minute cameo for Robbo, a great servant of the club. Enjoy your retirement mate!
The Bad: Missed my train back but that was relative; it meant I could have a celebratory pint with my friends.
The Ugly: The pitch invasion? No, not a bit of it! Whilst I don’t necessarily condone such behaviour, the transgressors were joyous, good natured and applauded when the Fulham fans chanted “que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Wembley-er-ley, que sera, sera!” Indeed and will probably beat Middlesbrough in the final! 😉
Birmingham City: David Stockdale 8, Wes Harding 8, Maxime Colin 7, Michael Morrison 7, Harlee Dean 8, David Davis 8, Mikael Kieftenbeld 7, Jota 7, Jacques Maghoma 8 (Paul Robinson 90+1, N/A) Lukas Jutkiewicz 9 (Che Adams 62, 7) Sam Gallagher 7 (Craig Gardner 71, 7)
Subs not used: Tomas Kuszczak, Marc Roberts, Josh Dacres-Cogley, Cheick N’Doye
Goals: Jutkiewicz 15, Dean 44, Adams 89.
Yellow cards: Davis 64, Colin 82
Fulham: Marcus Bettenelli 6, Ryan Fredericks 7 (Cyrus Christie 72, 6) Ryan Sessegnon 6, Denis Odoi 7, Kevin McDonald 7, Matt Targett 7 (Aboubakar Kamara HT, 6) Stephan Johansen 7, Tom Cairney 8, Tim Ream 7, Lucas Piazon 6 (Floyd Ayite 64, 7) Aleksandar Mitrovic 6
Subs not used: Oliver Norwood, Rui Fonte, David Button, Tomas Kalas.
Goals: Cairney 84.
Yellow cards: Kamara 47, Odoi 49, McDonald 70
Referee: Stuart Atwell 7; Contributed well to a good game. Nothing too contentious apart from the Jota/Johansen incident which he and the assistant got wrong. However, otherwise when he did let things go that on another day he might have blown for, at least it was for both sides and thus consistent. Overall, a decent performance especially when it got a bit feisty at the start of the second half. Johansen should have been carded at least although I felt the colour of the card should have been red.
Attendance: 27,608 (3,366 away fans) – seemed much fuller to me to be honest.