A natural goalscorer is a precious thing at any level of football and to Birmingham City's relief, Kevin Phillips is just that. Anti-climax was in the air at the home of the Championship's promotion favourites yesterday lunchtime and many of the crowd had drifted away by the time Phillips marked his debut by doing what he has done best since starting out at Baldock Town all those years ago.
In added time, City's goalkeeper, Maik Taylor, launched a last long punt downfield, Garry O'Connor managed to flick it on and the 35-year-old Phillips, with his back to goal, shielded the ball from Chris Morgan before whipping a shot just inside the post on the turn. The goal continued an astonishing run of scoring in his first game for every new club – just like an old master called Jimmy Greaves. But don't ask Phillips to explain the poacher's knack.
"It's nothing I've ever been taught," he said. "I just try to read the game and I've been pretty lucky."
The luck was all Birmingham's yesterday, for Sheffield United did more than enough to have taken what they would have seen as a very respectable point. Paddy Kenny, well protected by his two centre-halves, had not had a shot to save before he was beaten by Phillips. The Yorkshire side, rated among the division's top four by the bookmakers, created the few other chances there were in a poor game and appeared to be holding out comfortably.
Although Lee Carsley, signed from Everton, worked with predictable industry in midfield, the home side lacked craft in that area. Their supporters will need to be patient as weaker teams than United attempt to stifle the strikers Alex McLeish has available. Yesterday he started with Marcus Bent, another new purchase, and James McFadden, then turned in quick succession to Phillips, O'Connor and Cameron Jerome.
Only Bent had even managed a shot on target – the excellent Matt Kilgallon blocked it – after the visitors began brightly. Gary Speed, 39 next month and still going strong, had a typically fierce drive pushed over the bar by Taylor and Stephen Quinn, also impressive, pulled a shot across goal. Disappointingly, however, that was about the sum of it until the fourth official had held up a board indicating three minutes of added time.
So it was Phillips who both managers found themselves talking about. McLeish had pounced when he heard the player was holding out for a two-year contract with neighbouring West Bromwich Albion, after scoring 24 goals last season.
"He's a born finisher and that goal sums him up," McLeish said yesterday. "He's a guy I'd like to have worked with a few years ago. But he's got a few years on Teddy Sheringham so he's just a boy."
United's Kevin Blackwell was equally admiring if, understand-ably, in a more rueful manner. "How he does it I just don't know," he said. "It showed why he's earned a good living through the years. We looked exceptionally well organised against a team who are favourites for the title. But the teams with the best strike forces will be up there."
The worry for United's large following – like Birmingham they can count on crowds approaching 25,000 – must be whether their team are in that category. Darius Henderson, signed to replace Rob Hulse, did not look a £2m player and neither Billy Sharp nor the substitute Danny Webber were any more penetrative. James Beattie's return from injury cannot come quickly enough.
McLeish, for all yesterday's lack of craft, has something to work on with the remnants of a squad who were relegated last season by only one point and who remained unbeaten at home after losing to Chelsea in January. What he and Birmingham's supporters may not wish to know is that of the last 30 teams to fall out of the Premier League, only six have gone straight back.
"I never said it was going to be easy," the former Rangers and Scotland manager said. It never is, though a Kevin Phillips can make it less difficult.Reuse content