As many of you may know who read my reports, I normally travel to home games on the train. I find it a pleasant past time and as well as being able to write the blog, it gives me an opportunity to get my nose into a book I have on the go on my iPad. At present I’m enjoying the classic, King Soloman’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard. However, fate would have it that I had to get in the car instead. It is a highly complicated story of family logistics which I do not intend to bore my loyal followers with but suffice to say my intrepid travels involved swinging by at my youngest son’s place in Oxford on the way back; deep joy!
I set off in plenty of time from home and made reasonable progress although I did lose some time on the M40 at Wycombe and again a couple of clicks north of Oxford where there had been a bit of a bump. We were held whilst the Emergency Services cleared the motorway so I arrived at Baginton to meet up with Chris about half an hour behind schedule. There was still plenty of time before the need to set off for the ground and I was just in time to see the last few minutes of the New Zealand v South Africa game which the Kiwis held on to win 20-13.
The weather was wall to wall sunshine and it promised to be a warm and perfect day for football but it remained to be seen if the players could live up to the conditions. Preston have always proved tough, awkward, uncompromising opponents in keeping with their proud history and northern grit. I still remain somewhat amazed that Blues find themselves in such a strong position after a handful of early games. I was astonished that we managed to carve out a win at in form Charlton last week since on recent showings at Forest and Swansea it was a turn up to say the least but hey, it’s another three points towards the fifty or so needed for safety. Whilst that may sound a little pessimistic, I don’t mean it to be; it’s just that with the squad we have at present and compared to those of a number of other teams my realistic head tells me that pretensions of play offs are a tall order and a comfortable mid table place is probably nearer the mark. Still, if I’m wrong and we do better, no one will be more delighted than I.
After an intrepid journey along the A45 negotiating the traffic of Small Heath where many of the locals drive cars that frankly wouldn’t get through MOT scrutiny if it were 1973, we arrived at St Andrews in one piece. I was in the company of Chris, daughter, Emma and her two boys little Jack and young Seb. I was lamenting a story from my Army days about driving in the mountains of the Balkans in winter and comparing it to Small Heath in summer. I was saying that you have to drive defensively because of the lethal habits of other road users. Just as I said it a swarthy pillock in front of me did a U-turn across me from the inside lane without any signal or by your leave. Another idiot had double parked a large pick up truck right on a crossroads in Herbert Road whilst he was talking BS with his mates and smoking a fag. I was relieved to get to the car park in Arthur Road unscathed. We had time to visit the George which had proved an essential superstition in recent times and we grabbed some delicious braised beef and sweet potato mash at the Cookhouse before ascending to our seats.
As for the game it was a bit of a curate’s egg to be truthful; not very good and nowhere near a classic. Preston set up to stifle, frustrate, slow the play, disrupt the rhythm of the game and generally stop Blues playing and I have to say they did it very well. In many ways this was the perfect away performance. Blues for their part fielded the same team as last week but with two holding midfielders and no truly recognised wide men we were too narrow, one dimensional and wholly predictable. The lack of risk and pace in the team meant that we rarely were able to get behind the solid well organised Preston rearguard who dealt with our forays forward with ease. When we did cross into the box towards Jutkiewicz it was from too deep and the result was that Preston’s defence dealt with the threat or lack of it easily. Preston did very little going forward themselves and it made for a dull spectacle. The noteworthy moment of the half occurred after 23 minutes when a driving run by Preston’s Sean Maguire was abruptly brought to a halt by David Davis who to my mind had looked one of the best players on show. The problem was that the resulting free kick was in a dangerous spot situated just outside the box in a central position. I said to Chris at the time that I had a bad feeling about it and my premonition proved correct as Paul Gallagher’s low side footed shot thumped against the upright only to bounce straight into the path of Sean Maguire who was first to react for the easiest of tap ins. Blues almost responded immediately when Dan Crowley’s pinpoint pass to Maxime Colin found the defender with space to burrow into the area where he took one touch too many instead of shooting from 18 yards. The shot was blocked by Andy Hughes and the chance was gone. It was to prove our best of the half.
The second half proved even more frustrating than the first with Preston delaying the play whenever they could and disrupting the tempo and rhythm of the game. I don’t blame them for this as it is no more than I would expect our lot to do in similar circumstances. These tedious but effective tactics were aided and abetted by the referee who failed to grip this clearly unfolding situation by warning and then sanctioning offenders with yellow cards. He did neither of these things and the game got worse and worse in terms of entertainment. Blues were simply unable to adapt and although Jacques Maghoma came on to provide some much needed width and Gimenez replaced the ineffective Mrabti which did improve things to a certain extent we never looked like we were going to score. Even when we did get the ball in the net late on through Gimenez from a lovely low pass from Jutkiewicz, the Spaniard was ruled offside and with it our hopes of salvaging something from the game. Blues did have a penalty shout waved away for handball just before the hour mark when a cross from Colin struck a Preston defender’s arm. People ringing in on the radio afterwards were adamant that a penalty should have been awarded but I would have to see it again. As it was, the officials gave nothing as they did all afternoon. The referee was abject and his performance deteriorated as the game progressed. He continually stopped the game for ‘injured’ players when it was clear that it was merely to stop the flow of the game. Again, I do not blame the visitors for resorting to such dark arts and they continued to do so because they were allowed to get away with it. The time wasting became blatant and obvious yet no extra time was allowed in the end.
We wouldn’t have equalised if we had played all night. Cynical though the tactics from Preston and atrocious though the refereeing were, they are not the reasons Blues lost this game. We lost because we needed width and there was none. We lost because when we crossed it was from too deep because we were too narrow. We lost because we were too conservative for far too long with two holding midfielders at the expense of creativity. We lost because we failed to move the ball quickly enough and with enough accuracy and finally we lost because we didn’t react quickly enough to the ball coming back off the post having conceded a free kick in a dangerous position. Preston weren’t the better side any more than we were. Neither side necessarily deserved to win but they snatched the goal and defended resolutely from that point on aided and abetted by some poor refereeing. Unfortunately, we weren’t good enough and were the architects of our own downfall and we got what deserved in the end which was nothing. As for Preston, it was the perfect away performance and they exploited a weak, lenient referee; they cannot be blamed for that.
The Good: The braised beef and sweet potato mash before the game.
The Bad: The U-turn by the idiot on the Coventry Road by Heybarnes Road.
The Ugly: The game, the tactics, the spectacle.
Birmingham City: Lee Camp 6, Maxime Colin 5, Harlee Dean 5, Mark Roberts 5, Krystian Pedersen 6, Dan Crowley 6 (Fran Villalba 79, 5) David Davis 7, Ivan Sunjic 6, Jude Bellingham 6 (Jacques Maghoma 61, 6) Lukas Jutkiewicz 6, Kerim Mrabti 5 (Alvaro Gimenez 61, 6)
Subs not used: David Stockdale, Gary Gardner, Jake Clarke-Salter, Wes Harding.
Yellow cards: None
Preston North End: Declan Rudd 6, Ben Davies 6, Patrick Bauer 6, Darnell Fisher (Joseph Rafferty 89, N/A) Andrew Hughes 6, Sean Maguire 7, Josh Harrop 7, Ben Pearson 6, Paul Gallagher 7 (Alan Browne 82, N/A) Daniel Johnson 6, Thomas Barkhuizen 5 (Brad Potts 82, N/A)
Subs not used: Jordan Storey, Connor Ripley, Jayden Stockley, Ryan Ledson.
Goals: Maguire 23.
Yellow cards: None
Referee: Stephen Martin: 2; Chris gave me some rather interesting statistics at half time; Mr Martin had previously refereed 14 Blues games; 3 wins, 5 draws, 5 defeats (now 6!). He had officiated for Preston on 13 occasions; 10 wins (now 11) 2 draws, 1 defeat. I am in no way suggesting bias because he was fairly indifferent for both sides today. I had rated him 5/10 at half time but as the match wore on that assessment decreased as the man in the middle’s performance plumbed such depths that I am hard pressed to remember such a mediocre policing of a match at St Andrews in a long time and believe me, I’ve seen more than my fair share! He continually infuriated the home support when he regularly blew up for Preston defenders down on the ground with Blues in excellent field position. On one occasion in the first half, the dropped ball was to the keeper’s feet and therefore gifted Preston possession when Blues had been on the attack! No offence had been committed and the defender of course got up and ran away right as rain! The time wasting tactics were so blatant that it is astonishing that no player, particularly the goalkeeper was booked for it. In fact there wasn’t a single yellow card in this game! To rub salt into the wounds, he added on only five extra minutes (it ended up nine but only because there were injury breaks in the time added on) despite the fact that an impromptu drinks break was called it seemed at the behest of the Preston manager at a point in the game when his team were under significant pressure. Furthermore there was the full quota of six substitutes. True, it was a hot day and I have no problem with the players being allowed a drink in such circumstances but it must be at the discretion of the referee and not come about because members of one of the dug outs throw bottles of fluid onto the pitch causing the break to become a fait accompli.
Attendance: 20,806 (1,518 away)