Blues condemned to nervous finale

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The Independent Online
BY PHIL SHAW

Birmingham City 0

Bradford City 0

The bubbly was on ice and the Second Division championship trophy in the wings, only for Bradford to gatecrash Birmingham's promotion party on a night when great expectations gave way to high anxiety at St Andrews.

While Birmingham remain favourites to clinch the automatic promotion place, the fixture computer might have been kinder. They finish the regular season on Saturday at third-placed Huddersfield, where a point would be enough unless Brentford, their only rivals, won by four goals at Bristol Rovers.

The combination of a Brentford victory and a Birmingham defeat would condemn Barry Fry's side to that most irregular part of the campaign known as the play-offs. "A nice easy game at Huddersfield," Fry sighed. "At least we know what we've got to do."

They knew what was required last night, too, in what Fry had billed as "the biggest game of our lives". Perhaps it was too big, for Birmingham initially looked constricted by nerves. By the time they did establish an attacking tempo, late in the second half, Bradford were revelling in their rearguard action.

Jonathan Hunt's "goal", rightly disallowed after a quarter of an hour, set a pattern of frustration that was to peak in stoppage time. Even before then, Paul Williams saw a header hacked off the line by Neil Grayston, with Graham Mitchell similarly denying Steve Claridge when Birmingham's top scorer faced an otherwise open goal in the last minute.

There was still time for the tireless Claridge, weaving his way through a packed penalty area, to tumble under Paul Jewell's challenge. More than 25,000 fans screamed for a spot-kick, but Jimmy Parker - once renowned for his punitive refereeing and taking his last League match - bravely shook his head and waved play on.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Poole, Whyte, Daish, Cooper; Donowa, Ward, Tait, Hunt (Williams, h-t); Claridge, Dominguez (Otto, h-t). Substitute not used: Price (gk).

Bradford City (4-3-3): Bowling; Huxford, Youds, Mitchell, Grayston; Hamilton, Benn, Murray; Jewell, Power, Showler. Substitutes not used: Midgley, Kamara, Tomlinson (gk).

Referee: E J Parker (Preston).

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