Football: Ball displays strength of `dying breed'

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Birmingham City 0 Sunderland 0

"SEX & CHOCOLATE for a quid!" came the exhortation outside St Andrew's. It turned out to be a fanzine sales pitch rather than a saucy solicitation, but if the ensuing struggle did little for the erogenous zones or sweet teeth, it certainly warmed 22,000 hearts.

There are few occasions when the rival supporters, players and managers share a glow of satisfaction after a goalless draw, yet this was one. Sunderland maintained both their substantial lead in the First Division and Britain's only unbeaten away record, while the way Birmingham tested their mettle confirmed them as play-off candidates at the very least.

If the home side had more of the match territorially, forcing 11 corners to three, all but one of the better scoring opportunities belonged to Sunderland. The fluctuating nature of the contest was embodied by Gary Rowett, the right-back Birmingham bought from Derby in August, who went from the ridiculous to the sublime in the space of three minutes in the closing stages.

Touted by his manager, Trevor Francis, as worthy of Glenn Hoddle's consideration in a position where England have relatively limited options, Rowett found himself in the heart of Sunderland's six-yard area with the ball at his feet. Swinging first with his left and then with his right, he failed to connect with either.

Instead, he toppled over on to his backside as if struck by a sniper. Francis generously suggested the ball might have stuck in the mud. Rowett, refreshingly willing to laugh at himself as he watched his aberration replayed on television, called it "just one of those things".

The chance to make amends came almost immediately. A superb pass by one of Sunderland's substitutes, Gavin McCann, enabled Daniele Dichio to flick the ball past the goalkeeper, Kevin Poole. As it rolled towards the net, Rowett materialised, a trifle nonchalantly for the more highly strung Birmingham fans, to shepherd it to safety.

The game's most influential performer went about his work in less dramatic fashion. Kevin Ball, Sunderland's captain and midfield anchor, won more tackles in an afternoon than many players make in a season, prompting his coach, Adrian Heath, to hail him as "a true pro, one of a dying breed".

Ball might not have challenged for the ball with quite the same aggression had the referee, Mark Halsey, not neglected to caution him for an early foul on Dele Adebola. That said, Mr Halsey seldom missed any indiscretion but waited for a judicious moment to have a discreet word with the culprit. His approach allowed the match to build up a head of steam; only the excellence of the defences stopped it from reaching the boil.

Sunderland would have to suffer the kind of collapse in which England's cricketers specialise to miss out on a Premiership return for the second season running. Up front, the free-scoring Kevin Phillips is close to fitness after a three-month absence. At the back, bolstered by Niall Quinn's height at set-pieces, they have also kept six successive clean sheets.

After just four defeats in 60 League games, Peter Reid's assertion that his team were "hard to beat" was a statement of what Basil Fawlty called "the bleedin' obvious". The Sunderland manager admitted Rowett's blunder was "a bit of luck" but he argued that it was well earned. "Trevor's got a good side here," he said. "It's a hard place to get a result."

Francis, who played alongside Reid for England and made him one of his first recruits as a manager with Queen's Park Rangers, was "not too unhappy" with one point. "Sunderland are the outstanding team in the division and will win the championship convincingly. But I don't think we could have been any more positive."

However, when the mutual respect abated he may have reflected on Birmingham's failure to get behind the visitors' full-backs; and on the patchy showing by his muscular forwards, Adebola and Paul Furlong, who punched their weight only spasmodically.

Birmingham are a far more sophisticated side than the one bequeathed by Barry Fry. Churlish as it may sound so soon after their second seven- goal away win this year, at Oxford a week earlier, the key to whether they can end their 13-year exile from the top section could lie in Francis' capacity to coax greater menace from his attackers.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Poole; Rowett, Ablett, Johnson, Marsh (Wassall, 86); McCarthy, O'Connor, Robinson, Ndlovu; Furlong, Adebola. Substitutes not used: Forster, Hughes.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Melville, Butler, Scott; Rae (Williams, 72), Ball, Clark, Gray (McCann, 72); Bridges, Quinn (Dichio, 79).

Referee: M Halsey (Welwyn Garden City).

Bookings: Sunderland: Rae, Butler.

Man of the match: Ball.

Attendance: 22,095.