Birmingham did more than earn a fifth-round FA Cup tie away to Stoke City in the cold, wind and rain at St Andrew's last night. In a replay between two under-strength sides, Julian Gray's headed goal midway through the second half saw them join Plymouth and Arsenal in an odd élite by inflicting only a third defeat this season on Reading.
Mikael Forssell, finally close to his mobile, predatory best after waging a difficult struggle against injury, put Birmingham in front during the first half. The former Chelsea striker is becoming a cup specialist, four of his five goals having come in the two domestic tournaments.
Steve Hunt's speciality has been to appear as a substitute, a role he has fulfilled 23 times for Reading this season. Given a rare chance to start, he responded with a fine equaliser shortly after half-time. Gray had the final word, however, leaving the Reading manager, Steve Coppell, free to focus on the Championship title and "a balti on the way home".
His Birmingham counterpart, Steve Bruce, knows he will have to eat humble pie if they are relegated, which almost certainly explained why he did not risk several players who might have started had it been a league game. Despite saying later that "no one enjoys the Cup more than I do - it gave me some of the highlights of my career," he was forced by injuries, suspensions and ineligibility to field a largely makeshift side.
"We'd been counting bodies and wondering who we were going to put out," Bruce said. "All credit to the ones who did play, and to the youngsters, who gave us enthusiasm on a horrible night."
Bruce added: "I said when I arrived that this was the only really big club that's never won anything. We're know we're not going to win the Premiership, but we can win the Carling Cup or the FA Cup because it's only six games. Who knows, maybe it's our year."
Reading paid for resting Leroy Litta, scorer of a hat-trick at West Bromwich Albion in the previous round, and the Irish striker Kevin Doyle. "The players are disappointed because we had good possession and decent chances," Coppell said. "We were on the front foot after we scored, but they got the winner from a great bit of skill."
The runaway Championship leaders looked the more cohesive unit in the early stages and would have led inside six minutes had Dave Kitson not dragged his shot wide following Brynjar Gunnarsson's pass.
A scrappy contest needed a goal, and Birmingham duly obliged on the half-hour. Jermaine Pennant's neat pass inside picked out Forssell, who was confronted by a posse of defenders. Undaunted, the Finn picked his way past Ibrahima Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson before Graham Stack blocked his first effort. But the ball rebounded off John Halls to Forssell, leaving him free to run the ball into the net.
Within a minute, Steve Sidwell's 20-yard drive was turned on to the left-hand post by the diving Maik Taylor, only to fall into the path of the unmarked Kitson. From 10 yards, the striker made a good connection, but the goalkeeper again saved athletically.
Six minutes into the second half, Reading were level. As a lobbed pass from John Oster dropped around the edge of the penalty area, Alex Bruce looked well placed to clear. Yet the manager's son hesitated just long enough for Hunt to take control of the ball and manoeuvre it on to his left foot before volleying unstoppably into the roof of the net.
Steve Bruce turned away disconsolately, but a match that was starting to open up and stir the sparse crowd quickly compelled him to turn back to watch Pennant embark upon a mazy run. His pass found Jiri Jarosik, the Czech's angled shot cannoning off Stack before being cleared.
Birmingham regained the initiative with a well-crafted goal in the 67th minute. Jarosik, revealing a winger's skills despite having the frame of a rugby forward, danced past Sidwell on the byline before floating a fine cross into the six-yard box. Gray, who had ballooned a chance horribly high, rose unchallenged to head only his third goal of the season.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Melchiot, Bruce, Painter, Gray; Pennant, Clemence (Oji, 90), Clapham, Birley (Sadler,59); Jarosik, Forssell. Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Alsop, Allen.
Reading (4-4-2): Stack; Halls, Sonko, Ingimarsson, Makin; Oster, Sidwell, Gunnarsson, Hunt; Long (Cox, 68), Kitson. Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), Osano, Sinnott, Golbourne.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Revised fifth-round draw
SAT 18 FEBRUARY
Bolton v West Ham (3.0)
Charlton v Brentford (3.0)
Liverpool v Manchester United (12.30)
Newcastle United v Southampton (5.40)
Preston v Coventry or Middlesbrough (3.0)
SUN 19 FEBRUARY
Aston Villa v Manchester City (6.30)
Everton or Chelsea v Colchester United (4.0)
Stoke City v Birmingham City (2.0)