Marcelo stoops to conquer

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The Independent Online

Does Birmingham have an Italian quarter? Forza Blues, it said on the flag. If only. It says much about Birmingham City's status as one of football's perennial under-achievers that Trevor Francis is only four victories away from becoming the most successful manager in the club's history.

Does Birmingham have an Italian quarter? Forza Blues, it said on the flag. If only. It says much about Birmingham City's status as one of football's perennial under-achievers that Trevor Francis is only four victories away from becoming the most successful manager in the club's history.

Only just, though. Injury-time was being played and it seemed a resilient Gillingham had held City to a point when the Brazilian striker Marcelo, on as a substitute, stooped to head home a corner.

Birmingham were direct and muscular but, for the first half hour at least, terribly predictable. In Nicky Eaden and Stan Lazaridis they had players capable of delivering quality crosses from either flank, but rare were the occasions when they got themselves in a position to do so. The result was that, aside from a Bryan Hughes shot which curled a foot over the bar in the second minute, they failed to trouble Gillingham's solid back line. Francis's anxiety was apparent in his role as unofficial ballboy.

The frustrating thing from the crowd's point of view was that when Birmingham did look wide there was space available. Lazaridis knew it too, and in the end he gave up waiting and came in search, embarking on mazy diagonal runs from the centre circle to the byline. The otherwise ineffectual Dele Adebola got his foot to one low cross, only for Chris Hope to block well. Otherwise only Peter Ndlovu caused the Gillingham goalkeeper Vince Bartram's heart to beat faster, ending a typically pacy burst with a shot into the side-netting just before the break.

Francis must have warmed a few ears at half-time. Within two minutes Martin O'Connor had volleyed athletically against the crossbar from outside the area.

It was not enough for the manager, though; before the hour was up he had introduced Andy Johnson and Mark Burchill, a young Scottish striker who has made a big impact since arriving on loan from Celtic. If anything, the double change served only to stem Birmingham's growing momentum. Although it was the First Division's biggest crowd of the season, it became one of those games in which you could hear the shouts of the individual players.

Taking heart, Gillingham came forward. Paul Shaw, always a positive outlet, was pulled down on the edge of the area when clear on goal; if not a penalty it appeared a certain sending-off, but Eaden escaped with a booking. It seemed justice had been done when, after Bennett had saved Andy Hessenthaler's free kick, Shaw hammered the rebound home. His celebrations were cut short by the offside flag.

Birmingham City (4-4-2); Bennett; Gill (Burchill, 58), Holdsworth, Purse, Grainger; Eaden, Hughes, O'Connor, Lazaridis; Ndlovu (A Johnson, 58), Adebola (Marcelo, 69).

Gillingham (3-5-2); Bartram; Ashby, Pennock, Hope; Patterson (Southall, h-t), Smith, Gooden, Shaw (Lewis, 87), Saunders; Onuora, Thomson (Hessenthaler, h-t).

Referee: C Foy (St Helens)

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