The story of Birmingham's season is starting to look like it has all the elements of a classic tragedy. Steve Bruce is a decent man, and almost certainly a good manager, but he has been the victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a season looking ever more likely to turn to dust.
His side looked helpless on Saturday when they battled hard against Tottenham Hotspur but were undone by a mixture of the visitors' incisive finishing and their own defensive frailties, as Aaron Lennon and Robbie Keane finished off two good moves to ensure the Champions' League hopefuls stayed fourth.
The Birmingham chairman, David Gold, was left to simultaneously show his support for Bruce and offer him a clear ultimatum. "We have always been very loyal," said Gold of his four-year professional relationship with the Birmingham manager. "That should not be mistaken for blind loyalty though - he has nine games left to keep us in the Premiership." Those pose a hellish prospect, with Manchester United, Chelsea and Bolton Wanderers up next. Their immediate rivals West Bromwich Albion lie just three points ahead and have a similarly tough run, but the Birmingham now have a resurgent Portsmouth to worry about as well.
Bruce has justifiably pointed to injuries to his best players as a reason why Birmingham have been in the bottom three for five months - Muzzy Izzet and David Dunn pulled up last week and will not add to their combined tally of 15 Premiership starts this season, while the perennially unfit Mikael Forssell was replaced by D J Campbell in the starting line-up.
There are however, no excuses for the kind of defensive lapses that the Midlands team have shown in the last few weeks, and Bruce singled out the "hideous mistake" that led to Spurs' first goal in the 65th minute.
Mario Melchiot was inexplicably bundled off the ball in an innocuous position by the diminutive Jermain Defoe, who crossed for the 18-year-old Lennon to step inside and score his first Tottenham goal.
Until then, Birmingham had threatened to out-muscle their opponents, and it proved a turning point in the match as the home team were caught out again by a slick move that ended with Keane tapping in Jermaine Jenas' cross after a Michael Carrick pass had bamboozled the Birmingham defence. The frustrated home supporters booed the unfortunate Melchiot for the remaining 25 minutes.
"Up until the first goal the players have given us everything," lamented Bruce. "They were at full tilt, but after the goal you could see the confidence drain out of them." For Tottenham, the match provided a very different set of pressures. They heard before the game that Arsenal had beaten Charlton, and are now looking over their shoulders with almost as much zeal as Birmingham are looking to the places above them.
The midfielder Jenas, who had an impressive game, said: "The closer it gets, the more pressurised it is and the teams that deal with the pressure better will progress. Arsenal are a top-drawer side and we don't expect any favours from them, but we've got enough character in the squad to hold them off."
There was also the added incentive of England head coach Sven Goran Eriksson in the stands, who will have been impressed by Jenas, Defoe, Carrick and the man of the match Michael Dawson. "It is good that he was watching when the lads put in a performance like that," said Jenas.
Goals: Lennon (65) 0-1; Keane (77) 0-2.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Clapham, Martin Taylor, Cunningham, Melchiot; Lazaridis (Kilkenny, 81), Johnson, Butt, Pennant; Campbell, Heskey (Forssell, 57). Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Tebily, Clemence
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Robinson; Lee, Dawson, King, Kelly; Davids, Carrick, Jenas, Lennon; Defoe, Keane (Murphy, 78). Substitutes not used: Cerny (gk), Tainio, Mido, Gardner.
Referee: U Rennie (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Birmingham City Cunningham, Butt.
Man of the match: Dawson.
Attendance: 26,398.Reuse content