PAUL FURLONG'S nerveless penalty, deep in stoppage time, secured a potentially priceless victory for Birmingham and denied Bradford the draw that was the least they deserved from yesterday's full-blooded First Division promotion battle at St Andrew's.
Second-placed Bradford had visions of moving to within four points of Sunderland when Jamie Lawrence gave them a 27th-minute lead. But Furlong hauled Birmingham level in the fourth minute of time added on at the end of the first half and, by curious coincidence, sealed their fifth win in a seven-match unbeaten run at an identical stage in the second.
On a day when 20,000 "Linda McCartney veggie-burgers" were given away to spectators, it was a nasty kick in the nut cutlets for Bradford. Birmingham thus advanced to within a point of their opponents when they might easily have finished the afternoon trailing them by seven. Grateful as he was for "a massive win", Trevor Francis was honest enough to admit the better side had lost.
"It was a particularly poor performance and a particularly good result," the Birmingham manager said. "Since I've been here I can't remember us playing like we did here and winning. Bradford are second on merit, well organised and with good individual players. If they had opened that lead over us it would have been very damaging, even with 17 games to go."
Paul Jewell, nominated in Francis' programme column as his "manager of the season so far", was "bitterly disappointed" to see Bradford's own undefeated sequence end after eight matches. "I told them I was proud to be manager after the way they took the game to Birmingham," he said.
Bradford invariably looked the more industrious and inventive side. The engine-room axis of Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley ensured plentiful possession, which in turn meant that Peter Beagrie and Lawrence were able to provide a steady service from the flanks. Only a series of wasted headers by their top scorer, Lee Mills, spared Birmingham's blushes.
Robbie Blake, small but perfectly in form, was the sharpest thorn in Francis' side. At the height of Bradford's first-half dominance, he jinked up the left wing and left Jerry Gill in his wake before driving the ball across the six-yard area to touch in his first goal of the season.
Birmingham drew level after Gill's cross from the right had induced confusion in the visitors' ranks. Stephen Wright's challenge on Peter Ndlovu saw the ball break to Furlong, who dispatched it from close range.
Undaunted, Bradford continued to play more like the home team. Beagrie curled a long-range shot against the bar in the 77th minute, Mills nodding wide from the rebound, and they finished with 10 corners against Birmingham's four as well as more shots on target.
However, their superiority was rendered merely statistical after Bryan Hughes launched the blue shirts on one last attack. Darren Moore, previously unpassable, lost his footing and grabbed at Ndlovu, pulling him over. Furlong, under intense pressure, coolly converted his 11th goal of the season from the spot.
Goals: Lawrence (27) 0-1; Furlong (45) 1-1; Furlong pen (90) 2-1.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Poole; Gill (Hughes, 85), Ablett, Johnson, Marsh; (Grainger, h-t) McCarthy, Robinson, Holland, Ndlovu; Adebola, Furlong. Substitute not used: Purse.
Bradford City (4-4-2): Walsh; Wright, Moore, Westwood, Jacobs; Lawrence, McCall, Whalley, Beagrie; Mills, Blake. Substitutes not used: Rankin, O'Brien, Ramage.
Referee: S Mathieson (Stockport).
Bookings: Birmingham: McCarthy, Gill. Bradford: Moore.
Man of the match: Blake.
Attendance: 19,291.Reuse content