“Keep right on to the end of the road.” That is the Birmingham City fans’ much-loved anthem, the one the 3,793 in the away end at the Reebook Stadium kept on chorusing, and yesterday, when it really mattered, their team did just that.
With 13 minutes remaining, they were two goals down against Bolton Wanderers and bound for League One. But they kept right on. Nikola Zigic pulled a goal back in the 78th minute and then, remarkably, in the third minute of stoppage time, Paul Caddis got the equaliser that kept them in the Championship.
It was one of those time-stand-still moments. Jordon Ibe’s shot was deflected towards Zigic, whose header was cleared off the line by Tim Ream but there was Caddis, stretching every one of his neck muscles to find the power to nod the ball in from four yards.
The travelling Bluenoses exploded in celebration, flares were lit, shirts torn off and the memory of the most miserable of all seasons at St Andrew’s – where they have won just twice – was forgotten.
On the final whistle, Lee Clark, the Birmingham manager, ran down the touchline and jumped in with the fans. He left the pitch wiping tears from his eyes. “Just madness, absolute madness,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t even know who had scored.”
Birmingham, third-bottom at the start of play and beaten in 10 of their previous 13 matches, had snatched the point they needed to climb level on 44 points with defeated Doncaster Rovers and avoid the drop by virtue of their better goal difference. For Doncaster, promoted from League One last year thanks to an injury-time goal at Brentford, this was the bitter flipside of those heart-stopping final-day dramas.
“It was staring down the barrel at 2-0 and the players were brilliant,” said Clark. “It was one of our most accomplished performances of the season. We just found some spirit.
“Keeping this club in the Championship is the biggest achievement I’ve had in football as a player, coach or manager because of the scenario around the club and the parameters I’ve had to work with,” he added. “We need to use this as motivation and never let this happen again.”
Birmingham have been a club in limbo ever since owner Carson Yeung’s 2011 arrest and from his Hong Kong jail cell he still casts a long shadow as the club’s parent company, Birmingham International Holdings Ltd, seeks a buyer. By retaining their Championship status, Birmingham have certainly helped their chances of finding new ownership this summer and starting afresh.
“I’ve got lots of players out of contract, double figures,” Clark continued. “If we’d gone down and there’s no fresh ownership it would have been difficult to attract players.” At least they can plan as a Championship club although as Daniel Ivery, writer of the Often Partisan blog and an upcoming book on Yeung, suggested: “The big thing really is that the club gets sold.”
If Clark has not been entirely blame-free in the eyes of some fans – his team selections earning increasing criticism – yesterday he got it right. The decision to recall Hayden Mullins from a loan spell at Notts County was vindicated by a superb performance from 35-year-old at centre-back – one brilliant interception in the first half denied Jermaine Beckford a tap-in – while Caddis, a Scottish right-back, flourished in an attacking midfield role.
Even so, for a long time, Birmingham looked doomed. They had the better of the first half but Lee Novak saw his curling shot palmed away by Andy Lonergan and when he did put the ball in the net, it was disallowed for a Zigic foul on Matt Mills. Instead Bolton struck with their first shot on target after 57 minutes when Robert Hall’s free-kick deflected off David Wheater to Chung-Yong Lee, who fired home on the half-volley.
Birmingham kept on pushing, with Novak shooting wide from eight yards and Lonergan saving Ibe’s free-kick, but the cheers that greeted news of Leicester City’s goal against Doncaster were quickly drowned out as goalkeeper Darren Randolph let Lukas Jutkiewicz’s shot through his legs at his near post.
Hope raised its head two minutes later as Zigic – sole survivor of their 2011 League Cup win, making his final appearance for the club – outjumped Wheater to nod a Mitch Hancox cross past Lonergan. “One more goal,” cried the away end.
Bolton might have got it on several breakaways as Birmingham went for broke. In the 90th minute four Blues forwards were left on the halfway line as Bolton took a free-kick into the Birmingham box. It was football on a knife edge. And, somehow, incredibly, Birmingham survived it.
Bolton (4-2-3-1): Lonergan; Threkeld, Mills, Wheater, Ream; Trotter, Spearing; Lee (Knight, 81), Danns, Hall (Jutkiewicz, 61); Beckford (Kellett, 86).
Birmingham (4-3-3): Randolph; Spector, Mullins, Robinson, Reilly (Macheda, 60); Caddis, Adeyemi, Huws (Hancox, 46); Burke (Ibe, 60), Zigic, Novak.
Referee: Iain Williamson.