Peter Ramage out to be Birmingham hero again
It was the 59th minute of a game that had not yet lived up to its billing. Blackpool had taken a fortuitous lead on the stroke of half-time and came out all guns blazing; Matt Phillips beating left-back David Murphy before pulling the ball back to Gary Taylor-Fletcher. Six yards out, the striker had the goal at his mercy and half of Bloomfield Road was already celebrating. But Peter Ramage threw himself in front of the shot and saved a second goal. In moments like that, in play-off games, resolute defending can book a ticket to Wembley.
That is what Chris Hughton will be telling his Birmingham City players ahead of tonight's second leg. They did the hard work on Friday night by limiting the Seasiders to a solitary goal. With the intimidating atmosphere of a sold-out St Andrew's roaring them on, the Blues might be considered favourites. In the Championship they boast a home record second only to Southampton's and beat Ian Holloway's team 3-0 on New Year's Eve.
Ramage's block could be crucial. Why? Because once Holloway's attacking front four get ahead in a game, they smell blood. Just ask Leeds and Bristol City, both thumped for five this season.
"It was just one of those where you throw your body in and, hopefully, it comes off. Luckily enough, I blocked it," Ramage said yesterday. "In the first half Curtis Davies made three or four blocks, we all put our bodies on the line and it was a backs-to-the-wall effort. I don't think we played well at all, but we kept ourselves in it. We've given ourselves a great chance still with the second leg to come at home."
Birmingham may have agonised about keeping it tight before Friday night, but that does not even remotely register on Holloway's radar when mapping out his battle plan. He is more interested in talking up the impact his flying wingers, Phillips and Tom Ince, can have on the counter-attack.
"That lead we've got is good, because as it stands they now have to come out and that might leave some spaces for our attackers," the Blackpool manager said. "I mean our two young lads on the wings. I wouldn't want to face those two. Those lads are fast, they are direct, they have skill and they can score goals."
Both are likely to be courted by top-flight clubs this summer. Phillips, 21, was named in the Championship team of the season, while supporters say that Ince, 20, is the more consistent performer. Their interchange and roaming make marking them difficult.
"They have been superb in the second half of the season and the nice thing is that they are still learning every week and still improving," Holloway said. "They are brilliant to watch and I would pay to see them myself – that's the biggest compliment I can give them."
Comparisons have been drawn to Blackpool's play-off-winning side of two years ago, but without the likes of Charlie Adam, D J Campbell and David Vaughan, they are a different outfit, and with a measured attitude. As it stands, they are exactly where they were in 2010: away against fancied opposition, one goal ahead. That time it was Nottingham Forest. Blackpool won 4-3. If they are to face West Ham in the final on 19 May, they must use their new-found discipline and pick their moments to unleash the rapid youngsters.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Doyle; Ramage, Ibanez, Davies, Murphy; Burke, N'Daw, Mutch, Redmond; King, Zigic.
Blackpool (4-2-3-1): Gilks; Eardley, Baptiste, Evatt, Crainey; Angel, Ferguson; M Phillips, Dobbie, Ince; Taylor-Fletcher.
Referee C Foy.
TV Sky Sports 1.
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