Football: Birmingham continue their march

West Bromwich Albion 1 Birmingham City 3
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IT IS almost a year since Birmingham outplayed West Brom-wich Albion at The Hawthorns only to lose to an 83rd-minute goal. In the wake of that defeat, Trevor Francis sank to his lowest ebb since becoming manager. His team had won one match in 14, slipping from fourth place to 14th.

But if there was a turning point in Birmingham's season, it was then. Unbeaten in their next nine games, they suffered only three more defeats, missing the First Division play-offs on goals. In fact, in 45 League matches since, Birmingham have gathered 83 points and lost only seven times.

"If you looked on that as a whole season, it is play-off form," a far more cheerful Francis said on Saturday.

"We have been playing well lately and I would say we are genuine contenders this time, perhaps not for automatic promotion to the Premiership but at least for a play-off. After two seasons spent rebuilding we are ready to challenge."

Certainly, they had no trouble demolishing the theory that Albion can be regarded in the same category. A goal up after five minutes as the home side committed one defensive how-ler after another, they were 3-0 up within another half-hour and comfortable enough thereafter to free-wheel.

It was supposed to have been the day Lee Hughes, the nation's top scorer with 18 goals, won his derby day spurs but Albion's 22-year-old striking sensation was eclipsed by Bir-mingham's three-pronged attack, in which Peter Ndlovu was outstanding.

The Zimbabwean forward, signed from Coventry in the summer of 1997, endured some miserable weeks when his form deserted him last season but came good towards the end and has maintained his confidence. This season, he has eight goals following Saturday's two.

He jumped splendidly to head home Jon McCarthy's early cross and then demonstrated his pace on the ground to score Birmingham's third goal, shimmying past two challenges before drilling the ball clinically home. And all this at the end of a week that began with accusations of cheating levelled at him by a referee.

"Peter was desperately hurt by the suggestion that he dived in the match against Hudders-field," Francis said, referring to the second yellow card, subsequently rescinded by referee Rob Styles, that led to his sending- off at St Andrews a week earlier. "It did not surprise me that he did so well today.

"He left a message on my answering machine on Thursday thanking me for all the help I had given him in appealing against the dismissal and then on Friday in training he was just sensational."

Furthermore, Francis claim-ed, he was never in any doubt that his forwards would steal the headlines from Hughes. "In public all I've talked about this week is Hughes," he said. "But in the dressing-room all I talked about was Peter Ndlovu, Paul Furlong and Dele Adebola. It wound up our boys to hear everyone going on about Hughes and I knew that if they played well then Albion would not be able to contain them."

Albion's only consolation was that it could have been much worse. Even though Adebola did not reappear for the second half, Francis felt his side could have repeated last season's 7-0 scoreline at Stoke had they been of a mind.

Goals: Ndlovu (5) 0-1; Adebola (12) 0-2; Ndlovu (34) 0-3; Carbon (80) 1-3.

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Miller; McDermott (Mardon, 62), Murphy, Carbon, Van Blerk; Quinn (Maresca, 81), Flynn, Bortolazzi, Kilbane; Evans (DeFreitas, 70), Hughes.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Poole; Rowett, Purse, Johnson, Grainger; McCarthy, Holland, Marsden (Ablett, 90), Ndlovu; Adebola (Forster h-t), Furlong (Robinson, 82).

Referee: K Leach (Codsall).

Bookings: West Bromwich: Bortolazzi; Birmingham: Grainger.

Man of the match: Ndlovu.

Attendance: 19, 472.

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