Much is made of the chasm between the Premier League and the Championship, but Birmingham City's manager, Alex McLeish, believes there is a much smaller gap between the former's bottom eight clubs and the latter's top half. Given a few more months of his club's first season after relegation, he will be in a better position to make a judgement. In some ways, of course, it is a false one, not comparing like with like.
All clubs making the dreaded drop have to shed some of their best players and Birmingham duly lost last season's leading goalscorer, Mikael Forssell, plus Fabrice Muamba, Olivier Kapo and Mauro Zarate. They have managed to replace them with Lee Carsley, Marcus Bent and Kevin Phillips, which was sufficient for most bookmakers to rate them favourites for the title.
On Saturday's showing, though, it hardly bore out the manager's theory on Premier-like quality, the latter signing may prove the crucial one. Phillips, 35, a regular scorer at all his clubs, if never for England, won a thoroughly undistinguished game with one of its few touches of class, in the third minute of added time. McLeish, who once tried to sign him for Rangers, said: "He's obviously looked after himself. And he'll be a major player in the dressing room in preparing other players, telling them what to expect in this division, because he knows all the teams."
In that department, Phillips is one up on the manager, who nevertheless seems well prepared for the culture shock of the Championship after failing to halt the club's fall from 12th place into the bottom three last May. The air of depression around St Andrew's on the day of relegation was such that the co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold, having been abused in the directors' box by supporters, were minded to sell the club. The close season is a great healer. Sensibly keeping prices down to £10, Birmingham were rewarded on Saturday with an attendance of more than 24,000.
The unlucky visitors, having finished last season strongly, should be up with the challengers as long as James Beattie can return soon to put some beef into the attack.
Goal: Phillips (90) 1-0.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Parnaby, Martin Taylor, Ridgewell, Murphy; Larsson (Jerome, 81), Mafti, Carsley, McSheffrey (Phillips, 64); McFadden, Bent (O'Connor, 72). Substitutes not used: Doyle (gk), Queudrue.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kenny; Sun Jihai, Morgan, Kilgallon, Naysmith; Halford, Tonge, Speed, Quinn; Sharp (Webber, 60), Henderson (Stead, 81). Substitutes not used: Cotterill, Spring, Ehiogu.
Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).
Booked: Birmingham City Parnaby, Carsley; Sheffield United Stead.
Man of the match: Kilgallon.
Attendance: 24,019.Reuse content