Reading 1 Birmingham City 1: Dunn but not dusted for Bruce

Birmingham save face but are saddled with an unwanted replay
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The Independent Football

"Que sera," said the Reading manager, Steve Coppell, after this draw and the irritation of a replay. But it was not a joyous "que sera, sera we're going to Wembley" (if it's ready in time) even though his side are deservedly still in the hat.

Coppell may have one of the richest of personal histories in the FA Cup with three appearances in the final as a Manchester United player and an epic run to the final in charge of Crystal Palace but he really didn't give a hoot.

"It does not suit anybody," Coppell said of the stalemate with Birmingham City, who were rescued by an accomplished cameo from substitute David Dunn, before adding that he agreed with the idea of "deciding games on the day".

"It's more exciting and needs to be looked at," Coppell declared.

Indeed, both sides had hoped that the next time they met each other would be in the Premiership. Instead, it will be back to St Andrew's to decide who goes forward to the fifth round. It is a game which, frankly, is about as welcome as the whole competition appears to be for the two sides in the first place with even their chairmen declaring it an irrelevance. They have more pressing promotion and relegation concerns right now and money talks.

Not that it was an uncommitted contest. Far from it. It was keenly fought throughout, if lacking in fluency, with Coppell scoffing at suggestions that just because he made eight changes - yes, eight - he had sent out a team not to win. "Yeah, but I can't tell my players to lose," he said. "How can I say that."

That was not, he said, in his nature or in that of the aspiring squad he has assiduously assembled and the competition for places that has created. Indeed, Championship versus Premiership it may have been but it was hard to detect the difference yesterday.

Birmingham's manager, Steve Bruce, also a veteran of three finals for United, took a different tack. He fielded his strongest line-up in the hope that, after two victories, winning was becoming a habit. One enforced change was in the heart of defence. In came Bruce's 21-year-old son, Alex, and his nervous display highlighted a collective lack of belief in a side that had almost exited in the last round to 90th placed Torquay United.

Muzzy Izzet headed over from 10 yards, after Chris Sutton's flick-on, but chances were at a premium. That was until a decisive intervention from James Harper whose incisive pass inside the Birmingham defence allowed Shane Long to steady himself, without breaking his stride, and strike a first-time shot low inside the near post. It was all the more impressive given that the Irishman is just 18 and has yet to start a League game.

Birmingham tempers frayed. It was born of frustration and twice Leroy Lita spurned opportunities after being teed up by Long, whose confidence was soaring by now. Bruce had seen enough. Even though less than an hour had been played he made a triple substitution and, with the changes, the game swung.

Three chances fell to Dunn in quick succession. He half-volleyed the first over the bar, he met the second with a diving header, which was held by goalkeeper Graham Stack, and then, after another header on by Sutton, from a throw-in, he drifted in from the back post to volley the third into the net.

Reading were jolted. Steve Sidwell ballooned a shot over from the penalty area's edge but Birmingham were in the ascendancy. Stack blocked brilliantly from a Mario Melchiot header inside the six-yard area and then, as the pressure grew, and with just a minute left, he turned away a Jermaine Pennant free-kick from 20 yards after the winger had been crudely hacked down by a panicking Ibrahima Sonko.

Victory for Birmingham would have been undeserved. Bruce was speechless afterwards - because of a sore throat rather than a reaction to proceedings - but his assistant, Eric Black, conceded that his team was lacking inspiration until Dunn's arrival. "He has got things that very few in the Premiership have," said Black of the injury-ravaged midfielder whose continued good health could prove crucial to not only Birmingham's progress in this competition but, more importantly, their continued presence in the top division.