Football: Hughes dents Blues
Birmingham City 1 A Johnson 43 West Bromwich Albion 1 Hughes 53 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 25,495
Sunday 12 September 1999
While Little has steered his team well this season - undefeated so far is no mean achievement - he unquestionably needs to bolster his playing resources to serve his star men better.
With the ever-willing Lee Hughes a solo operator for long periods and a game plan designed to stifle rather than strike fear into the opposition, one can only speculate as to how long this dour approach can succeed. It was Hughes who cancelled out Andrew Johnson's precise first-half strike, the Birmingham striker's first league goal, when he spun and struck home from close range after being fed by Kevin Kilbane.
This duo, plus the inspired Alan Miller in goal, were the only real suggestions of the kind of quality Little will require if his team is to stay with the leading pack. While the industry and determination of the Haw-thorns side is to be applauded, there will clearly be times when tiredness or injury take their toll and they do not get the run of the ball that they enjoyed yesterday. After the game, Little felt his team had performed well in open play but struggled with Birmingham's clear quality advantage on set-pieces.
While that is a touch disingenuous - Birmingham had the bulk of possession and, in the second half at least, managed to weave together some neat passing sequences - Little had a point in that his defence, while they were often stretched, held their nerve largely to counter the threats of Paul Furlong and, his goal aside, Johnson.
Trevor Francis had expected this derby opposition to provide a test of character and had predicted their tactics accurately. "On possession and chances we should have won the game but their approach was to try for nil-nil and hope they'd nick a goal," said the Birmingham manager. "Hughes is one of the best strikers in the League and his goal was the first chance they had - but there was nothing we could have done about it.
"I thought we played well and had good moments but Miller was inspired," Francis added. It would be no exaggeration to say that the keeper's contribution was at least the equal of his team's striker. With his defence creaking under pressure, Miller's one-handed save to deny Jon McCarthy, whose edge- of-the-box volley was struck with venom and accuracy, showed genuine class and, moments later, he smartly dropped low to his left to thwart Johnson.
So, records to be envied remained intact at St Andrew's. West Brom are still undefeated, though they have won just two of their six Nationwide games, and Birmingham have yet to lose at home. Brian Little's assessment, however, speaks for itself: "At the end, we were hanging on and, fortunately, we are getting some good breaks at the moment."
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