Dublin and Claridge return to haunt Blues

Birmingham City 1 Millwall 1
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St Andrew's hates to see an Aston Villa player score. The fact that Villa were not even the away team when Dion Dublin equalised for Millwall late in yesterday's First Division play-off semi-final made it no easier for Birmingham's supporters to swallow.

Dublin, who is proving an inspired loan signing for the south London club, was unchallenged as he nullified a goal by Bryan Hughes early in the second half. For the 33-year-old former England striker, once an Old Trafford colleague of the Birmingham manager Steve Bruce, it was the third goal in a six-match stint in which he has not been on the losing side.

Bruce, who hugged Dublin warmly after the final whistle, admitted: "I felt like slapping him. We worked hard in training on defending balls into our box, then let Dion have a free header." Mark McGhee, striving to secure a second successive promotion for Millwall, said: "We didn't give Dion many opportunities, but he took the one we gave him. We're glad to have him."

Millwall therefore start as favourites to reach the final on 12 May, an outcome that might well pit McGhee against his previous employers, Wolves, as well as condemning Birmingham to a fourth consecutive play-off disappointment. However, with away goals not counting double, Thursday's return leg at the New Den may yet hold further twists.

Fought out in sunshine, showers and a blustery wind, the first leg produced scant evidence to contradict the league table. After a 46-game slog, Millwall finished a point clear of Birmingham with an identical goal difference. The visitors were marginally more composed but Birmingham showed why they are now undefeated in 11 games.

The body language of the managers was instructive. McGhee, wearing a suit, leaned against the dug-out as if taking a nap, becoming animated only when Birmingham's Geoff Horsfield escaped unpenalised after kicking out at Matt Lawrence barely two yards away from himself and the referee's assistant.

Bruce, in contrast, cut an agitated figure, fielding balls that were kicked off the pitch in the hope of maintaining his side's momentum. It was no coincidence that the player operating on the near-side flank during the first half, Damien Johnson, received a plentiful supply of early possession and delivered a series of unconverted crosses.

Millwall had no sooner opened the second half more purposefully than they fell behind. Darren Carter squared the ball to Martin Grainger, who for once did not try to burst the net from 18 yards, instead chipping a subtle through-ball to Hughes. The Liverpudlian, one of two survivors from all three past play-offs, sent a first-time volley beyond Tony Warner.

Chances went begging at either end, with Tommy Mooney and Tim Cahill especially culpable, but the introduction of an old Blues favourite, Steve Claridge, gave Millwall fresh impetus. With nine minutes left, a centre by the outstanding Steven Reid gave McGhee's talismanic Villan the chance to steal across his marker and show that Birmingham is still Dublin's fair city.

Goals: Hughes (56) 1-0; Dublin (81) 1-1.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Vaesen; Kenna, Tébily, Purse, Grainger; D Johnson, Hughes, Carter, Mooney (Lazaridis, 90); John, Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Woodhouse, A Johnson, Vickers, Bennett (gk).

Millwall (4-4-2): Warner; Lawrence, Nethercott, Ward, Bull; Ifill, Cahill, Livermore, Reid; Dublin, Harris (Claridge, 76). Substitutes not used: Ryan, Bircham, Dyche, Guéret (gk).

Referee: A Bates (Burslem).

Booking: Millwall: Livermore.

Man of the match: Reid.

Attendance: 28,282.

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