Football: Birmingham go down singing: End of the First Division road for Fry

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The Independent Online
Tranmere Rovers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Birmingham City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

THERE was no Merseyside sequel to The Great Escape. What Everton had managed 24 hours earlier proved to be beyond those other blues from Birmingham who bade a sad farewell to the First Division yesterday to the mournful strains of Dire Straits and unprintable declarations of what they would like to do to Aston Villa.

They are a strange lot in the Second City. It was their other local rivals, from West Bromwich, who had condemned Birmingham to relegation, by winning at Portsmouth, yet it was Villa who were the focus of the lavatorial intent.

Tranmere's puzzled following found it all highly amusing, but they could afford to smile. While Birmingham head for the delights of Rotherham and Huddersfield, the Scousers' 'other' team attempt to join their more celebrated neighbours in the Premiership, via the play-offs.

Last season they got no further than the semi-finals. This time, Leicester City bar their path to Wembley and, on yesterday's form, the outcome could well be the same.

Birmingham will not be without sympathy, having fought with great spirit to win six of their last eight games. Their victory at Prenton Park was well merited, the product of football good enough to suggest that their sojourn in the Second Division is likely to be brief.

Barry Fry has bought 14 players in less than six months in charge, and Birmingham have used 38 this season, so lack of money, or alternatives, has not been the problem. Lack of continuity, on the other hand, cannot have helped. The signs are that he is getting it right - albeit a little late in the day.

For perennial under-achievers, Birmingham are blessed with a marvellously large and loyal following, and there were 6,000 of them in attendance yesterday, keeping right on to the end of the road. Even the truest of blues must have wondered what they had let themselves in for when Pat Nevin embarrassed the defence twice in the first three minutes.

Once settled, though, Birmingham produced the more constructive and assertive football, spreading the ball wide in progressive fashion and taking a deserved lead after 35 minutes, when Louie Donowa drove the ball home, right to left, from 15 yards.

Mark Ward, on loan from Everton, might have doubled the advantage when he shot past the advancing Eric Nixon, but wide of his goal, and Tranmere's 73rd minute equaliser, struck smartly on the run by Ian Muir, was no more than a temporary setback.

A minute from the end, Shaun Garnett turned a strong cross shot from Carl Shutt into his own net, and the air turned blue with Brummie celebration. A rumour had swept the ground that Portsmouth had equalised against West Brom - the cruellest of misinformation.

Grim reality saw a chastened hush fall across the visitors' end - but not for long. By the time mounted police had cleared the inevitable pitch invasion, it was 'We'll support you evermore', and 'We want Barry'.

As at Goodison the previous day, it should really have been the team saluting the fans.

Tranmere Rovers (4-4-2): Nixon; Thomas, Garnett, McGreal, Nolan; Branch, (Muir, 58), O'Brien, Brannan, Nevin; Aldridge, Irons. Substitutes not used: Mungall, Coyne (gk).

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Hiley, Whyte, Daish, Frain; Donowa (Shutt, 65), Ward, Willis, Doherty (Cooper, 75); Saville, Claridge. Substitute not used: Steadman (gk).

Referee: P Harrison (Oldham).