Birmingham set for final day thriller

McLeish demands show of character to secure automatic promotion
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The Independent Online

There will no be Churchillian speeches made in the away dressing room at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow lunchtime, no echoes of Agincourt, not even an evocation of Braveheart.

"It's not the time for all that," said Alex McLeish yesterday. "It's about cutting out the bull now. It's about turning up. It's about guts. It's about character." Fortunately for any Birmingham City fans, whose nerves are on the cremated side of frazzled after watching their side spurn the chance to gain promotion last Saturday when conceding two late goals to Preston, their Scottish manager appears quite certain that his men possess the required qualities as they head into the most compelling Championship climax in recent memory.

Three teams go into the final weekend with a chance of automatic graduation to the Premier League and two of them happen to be playing each other. When the Blues walk out at Reading they will be doing so knowing that of the dreaming trio, which also includes Sheffield United, only they can whistle that old promotion favourite: "It's in our hands."

With 21 minutes to go last Saturday evening, Birmingham were 1-0 up. But then came the North End thunderbolts. And soon after came the feeling of being struck down. "Sunday was a very, very difficult day," admitted the goalkeeper, Maik Taylor.

McLeish called them in on Monday and informed them that the maths remained as straightforward as the challenge. Win and Birmingham are up; lose and they are in the play-offs; draw and they need Sheffield United not to win at Crystal Palace. It is fair to say that only the first scenario has been played out on the Wast Hills training grounds this week. "I can look at every one of my player's faces and say he's not the type of guy who will freeze," said McLeish, who admitted that he has drawn on the experiences of the dramatic last day of the 2005 season when his Rangers team nervelessly pipped Celtic for the title.

After a campaign in which his suitability to the role has constantly been questioned, McLeish would understandably put himself in that bracket. If the constant griping from frustrated supporters has been distracting, then a few comments from certain board members have gone way beyond the undermining. In a by now infamous column in the Sun, Karren Brady, the club's MD, compared McLeish's perceived shortcomings with those of Phil Scolari at Chelsea and also quipped that the squad at his disposal is so big that Birmingham must be the city's second largest employer after the council. McLeish has wisely retained a diplomatic silence on such barbs, although he could easily have pointed to a recent spate of injuries and suspensions that have made his raft of loan signings suddenly look shrewd business. For instance, the ability to bring in Lee Carsley today for the banned Lee Bowyer proves the benefit of numbers.

Nevertheless, with the biggest wage bill in the division the pressure is piled upon McLeish and anything but promotion would likely lead to his departure. In Birmingham's favour today is Reading's wretched home form – they have not won at the Madejski since January. However, there is always a sticking point and no final-day permutations would be complete without the conspiracy theory. Here there is a quite delicious one. Palace are managed by Neil Warnock, who is a Blade to his soul. "I don't think he would ever play a game of football without wanting to win," said McLeish, dismissing the whispers. "We take everything out of the equation if we win the game."

Ups and downs: What can happen this weekend

*CHAMPIONSHIP

Birmingham go up if they avoid defeat at Reading and match Sheffield United's result; Reading go up if they win and the Blades fail to do so.

SHEFFIELD UNITED go up if they win and Birmingham do not. Norwich will go down unless they beat Charlton and Barnsley lose at Plymouth.

*LEAGUE ONE

Northampton are safe with a point, Brighton if they win. Crewe must win, hope Carlisle do not, and Brighton lose - with a four-goal swing. Carlisle must win, with either Northampton losing or Brighton not winning.

*LEAGUE TWO

Wycombe need a draw for promotion. Exeter need to match Bury's result, who need to better Exeter or win while Wycombe lose. Barring a minor miracle for Chester, Grimsby are safe.

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