Faootball: Birmingham struggling to go the distance: Relegation worries spoil an owner's anniversary party. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
IN MID-APRIL, Birmingham City will decamp to Warwick Races for the Bluenose Handicap, an event billed in the programme as 'a tension breaker on the eve of our last home game'. After the 2-0 defeat by Barnsley, many at St Andrew's were reluctant to back Birmingham to keep the tension running that long.

David Sullivan, for one. On the first anniversary of the day he bought the perennial back-markers for pounds 2m and installed Karren Brady as md, the multi-millionaire publisher declared himself 'shell- shocked' by a capitulation that left Birmingham last but one in the First Division. 'If we play like that we'll be relegated with five games to go,' he sighed. 'We must be 2-1 on to go down now.'

Barry Fry for another. Since breezing in 10 weeks ago on a tide of bravado ('I'll make Blues bigger than Villa'), the former Barnet and Southend manager has presided over two victories in 16 matches. 'Embarrassing, pathetic,' the normally effusive Fry winced. 'Any more like that and we're certs to finish bottom and go down in disgrace.'

From the moment the unmarked Brendan O'Connell headed the first for an ordinary Barnsley side - 21st at kick-off - Birmingham were not at the races. Many of the 15,382 loyalists who responded to a 'D-Day' mail-shot urging them to attend had left long before Andy Rammell drove the second, and a large number who stayed called for Fry to go.

Sullivan put a time limit on his tolerance: 'You've got to give a manager 12 months. That said, Barry knows that come Christmas, if we're no better than this, we'll pay off his contract.' Fry, who has survived heart attacks and Stan Flashman, is not the resigning type but admitted: 'I'm failing miserably. It's my fault. . . I bought most of them.'

His appetite for transfer intrigue, which initially excited supporters, is now widely regarded as a destabilising factor (in mitigation, Birmingham had lost five in a row before Fry succeeded Terry Cooper). When a dog ran on the pitch, the crowd sang 'Sign him up]', a sarcastic comment on the fact that 13 of the 49 players used in the Sullivan era are Fry buys.

The manager wants to make a winger on trial from Benfica, the pounds 180,000-rated Jose Domingues, No 50. Perhaps ominously, the chairman, pounds 3.3m down on players,

appeared to question his judgement. 'It's OK looking good against Cheltenham reserves, but you've got to ask why no Portuguese club has bought him,' Sullivan said. 'We may well sign him, but it'll be the last buy, whatever happens.'

Fry, who has less than a year's experience outside the lower divisions and Vauxhall Conference, will crack the whip and hope for a long shot to come in, like Southend last spring. But with games running out, cohesion elusive and confidence low, a photo-finish looks their best bet, especially with the last three matches away.

By way of a tension breaker, Brady is top of BBC TV's Fantasy League. The real world, as Sullivan noted before going out into the cold to talk to bewildered fans, is somewhat more problematic.

Goals: O'Connell (51) 0-1; Rammell (89) 0-2.

Birmingham City (4-3-3): Miller; Huxford, Barnett (Lowe, h/t), Daish, Dryden; McGavin (Doherty, 54), Cooper, Frain; Peschisolido, Saville, Claridge. Substitute not used: Bennett (gk).

Barnsley (5-3-2): Butler; Eden, Anderson, Fleming, Taggart, Archdeacon; O'Connell, Wilson, Redfearn; Rammell, Payton. Substitutes not used: Snodin, Jackson, Widdowson (gk).

Referee: B Hill (Market Harborough).

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