Claridge controls Brum's roller-coaster

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The Independent Online
Barnsley 0 Birmingham City 5

The larger-than-life Birmingham manager, Barry Fry, makes a big joke out of many things, not least the size of his squad. It is one of the amusements of the First Division that no one, including at this stage Fry himself, has a clue what Birmingham's stongest side look like.

What other clubs do know is that City have the advantage when it comes to strength in depth and alternatives in virtually every position. Sometimes, however, a player makes up your mind for you, and that was the case with Steve Claridge at Oakwell on Saturday.

As befits a graduate of Cambridge United, Claridge is no genteel stylist; whoever the five-star hotel was named after, it was certainly not him. The scorer of 20 league goals last season, his effort yesterday was, surprisingly, his first of this. Add to that the fact that he attracted the penalty and the sending-off of the Barnsley goalkeeper, David Watson, that began the second-half avalanche and was involved in the other three goals and his value in this match starts to become clear.

"He was magnificent," Fry said. "His skill on the ball and his 150 percent commitment were there for all to see. I've had 54 strikers since I've been here and he's the only one to keep his place."

These early stages of the First Division promotion scramble are a time of over-reaction and similarly inflated counter-reaction.

Birmingham conceded four at Huddersfied in midweek, so five down the road at Oakwell completed a Yorkshire roller-coaster ride.

"I thought we'd got relegated on Wednesday, but now I'm quite hopeful that we'll get in the play-offs, if not win it," laughed Fry, cheerfully riding the peaks and troughs.

Birmingham in the Premiership? Of all the candidates - which, in such an unpredictable division, means about 15 teams - they act most like a Premiership club. Their fans invade town like a temporarily displaced army from the top division and there is a faint air of celebrity about them, even if it is strictly B-list, which extends from Fry to the club's controlling couple, David Sullivan and Karren Brady.

Burly men with tattoos and shaved heads pass their programmes back to the directors' box to be signed and offer them mugs of Bovril. It is some time since that happened at Spurs or Manchester United.

As for Barnsley, they have travelled along the switchback in the opposite direction after three consecutive victories.

"We were talking about promotion; this looked more like relegation," said their manager, Danny Wilson, reeling from five goals and two dismissals. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the First Division.

Goals: Hunt (pen, 55) 0-1; Claridge (60) 0-2; Charlery (73) 0-3; Forsyth (76) 0-4; Doherty (86) 5-0.

Barnsley (3-5-2): Watson; Viveash (Butler, 53), Shirtliff, Bishop; Eaden, Bullock, Redfearn, Archdeacon, Sheridan; Liddell, Payton. Substitutes not used: Fleming, Jackson.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Poole, Edwards, Johnson, Whyte; Bowen (Forsyth, 68), Ward, Cooper (Doherty, 69), Hunt (Francis, 83); Claridge, Charlery.

Referee: T Heilbron (Newton Aycliffe).

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