Football: Romp for Birmingham

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THE First Division fixtures had an air of inevitability yesterday, not least at the Manor Ground where poverty-stricken Oxford United always looked likely to have their unequal struggle put into sharp perspective. Visiting Birmingham City's 7-1 success did just that.

Oxford are struggling to stay afloat in the face of massive debts, but while the stack 'em high sell 'em cheap approach to making money may be fine when backed by a production line, it is destined to lead to disaster when it comes to marketing players in desperate times. The England under- 21 defender Simon Marsh, who left the Manor this week in exchange for pounds 250,000 from Birmingham's bank account, was watching from the bench as Paul Furlong and Gary Rowett knocked in two goals each before the interval.

Martin Grainger made it five 10 minutes after the break, before Peter Ndlovu joined in the goalscoring jamboree in the 72nd minute and Bryan Hughes made it 7-0 before Dean Windass demonstrated the remarkable spirit of all involved with Oxford by claiming some consolation in the last minute.

Those three points and the welcome boost to their goals-scored column aided Birmingham's pursuit of Sunderland, moving them up to fourth place, but the leaders never looked like coming unstuck at home to Port Vale. Goals from Martin Smith, after 24 minutes, and Paul Butler, just before half-time, gave them Sunderland a victory that was just as predictable.

It stretched their lead to seven points, because Barnsley bucked the trend as their recent revival brought them revenge over second-placed Ipswich for their 1-0 defeat four weeks ago. Sean McClare put them ahead at Portman Road and Mike Turner when sure the journey back to Yorkshire would be enjoyable by wrapping up the points in the last minute.

Third-placed Watford welcomed their manager, Graham Taylor, back to Vicarage Road after a five-week absence because of a throat operation with a 4- 2 victory over Stockport. Richard Johnson and Nicholas Wright more or less sealed the points with goals in the first 17 minutes, Johnson netting a deflected volley and Wright burying a header from Peter Kennedy's cross. In the second half Gifton Noel-Williams underlined Watford's superiority with the third and fourth.

Such smooth progress meant there was no real risk to Taylor's tonsils but a whispered "do I not like that" will no doubt have greeted the two late goals that his side allowed County's Brett Angell and Sean Connelly.

Wolverhampton's attempts to muscle in on the scrap for play-off places in the post-McGhee era was kept moving in the right direction by Robbie Keane, who scored twice in the last six minutes of a lively confrontation with Norwich City to earn his side a 2-2 draw at Molineux.

The Canaries took advantage of a controversial penalty to lead at half- time against the run of play. Neil Adams put away the spot kick after Dean Richards was ruled to have fouled Iwan Roberts in the air and Roberts added insult to injury by making it 2-0 after an hour. Colin Lee's side fully deserved Keane's late rescue act.

An early goal by Bob Taylor gave Bolton the points at Tranmere, but Taylor's former club West Bromwich left it late to inflict Huddersfield's first home League defeat of the season. They went home with a 3-0 victory thanks to a burst inspired by James Quinn's goal 16 minutes from time. He scored again five minutes later and that strike was followed by the inevitable goal from Lee Hughes.

At the bottom, Crewe are still five points adrift despite Jermaine Wright's winner at Queen's Park Rangers as Bristol City earned a point at home against Crystal Palace.

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