Football: Tale of two strikers in the second city

Birmingham City 1 West Bromwich Albion 1
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The Independent Online
UNDER THE admiring gaze of Trevor Francis and Brian Little, whose prowess on opposing sides of second-city derbies often resembled a master class in the goalscorer's art, two young strikers illustrated why Birmingham and Albion are spearheading the West Midlands' push for a place in the Premiership.

Fashions have changed since Saturday's managerial rivals rampaged through top-flight defences, their locks flapping behind them like a superhero's cape. Andrew Johnson and Lee Hughes favour a close-cropped look but while, hairstyles come and go, the breathtaking finishing which brought Birmingham the lead and Albion a point respectively will always be in demand.

Johnson is two years older than Francis was when his freakish feats of marksmanship started. However, since he will not be 19 until February, he is hardly making up for lost time like Hughes, 23, who was laying roofs and playing for Kidderminster at the same age. Standing 5ft 7in, with speed and touch allied to ruthlessness and composure within sight of goal, Johnson has much of the Michael Owen about him.

Unlike the Anfield boy wonder, whom he has succeeded in the England youth set-up, Johnson did not score in his opening 10 First Division appearances. It therefore took a degree of boldness for Francis to prefer him to Dele Adebola and Peter Ndlovu, who cost him pounds 2.6m, but his faith was stunningly vindicated late in a first half dominated by Birmingham.

Two headers, one a long clearance by Darren Purse, the other short and subtle by Stan Lazaridis, sent his blond head darting towards a retreating defence. Johnson had the confidence to take aim early, ensuring that Alan Miller, who was outstanding in Albion's goal, was beaten for power and placement from 18 yards.

The long wait for that first League goal had belied some good performances, Francis said of a player spotted by the club in Barry Fry's home town of Bedford during the latter's colourful reign. "He's got pace and control," the Birmingham manager said. "Combine those two and you've got a player. He has also had a good education here. It's much better to nurture a talent than to buy in, and Andrew's a good listener."

Harshly for Birmingham, Johnson's landmark was soon followed by another for Hughes. His 50th goal since breaking into Albion's side on the last Boxing Day but one came after he took Kevin Kilbane's cut-back six yards out. In a blur of yellow he turned his marker in order to put the ball on his right foot, before dispatching it viciously into the top far corner of the net.

"It was a good finish," mused Little, doing scant justice to a strike which extended Albion's unbeaten start since the former Aston Villa manager decamped from Stoke in late summer. Francis, who justifiably noted that Hughes' shot was the visitors' first, magnanimously called it "fantastic".

Birmingham should not be disheartened. Since the play-off failure of May they have improved their attacking options by promoting Johnson and recruiting Lazaridis, who provides a skilful service from the left wing and a flair for free-kicks that will disconcert lesser goalkeepers than Miller.

They certainly appear better equipped than Albion, in terms of squad depth, funding and support, to regain the status both clubs surrendered in the mid-1980s. Little, though, has already fostered a greater resilience at The Hawthorns. This was the fourth time in six matches Albion had come from behind to take a point or more, as many as they managed all last season under Denis Smith.

Then, Birmingham took them for eight goals and six points. This time Francis' parting shot testified to Albion's combativeness. "It was too easy last year," he said. "This was a proper derby."

Goals: A Johnson (42) 1-0; Hughes (53) 1-1.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Poole; Rowett, Holdsworth, M Johnson, Grainger (Purse, 41); McCarthy, Hyde, O'Connor, Lazaridis; A Johnson (Ndlovu, 73), Furlong (Adebola, 83). Substitutes not used: Newton, Knight (gk).

West Bromwich Albion (4-5-1): Miller; Gabbidon, Raven (Potter, 87), Carbonn, Van Blerk; Sneekes, Flynn, DeFreitas (Evans, 83), Maresca (Oliver, 83), Kilbane; Hughes. Substitutes not used: Quinn, Whitehead (gk).

Referee: T Heilbron (Co Durham). Bookings: Albion: Maresca, Van Blerk.

Man of the match: Miller.

Attendance: 25,495.