It tells you everything about the pervasive morbidity of this encounter that we were barely halfway through a goalless first half when the referee felt it necessary to rebuke Marc Edworthy, who was vacillating over a throw-in, for time-wasting.
Derby County are simply marking time, of course, having candidly acknowledged their doom already. But their opponents, as if petrified by the spectacle of another man drowning, have now been dragged into the water themselves, yanked off the quayside by an 89th minute equaliser from Emanuel Villa. With his team immersed in the relegation zone for the first time, Alex McLeish did his best to stem panic in the ranks, but it was a different story among the top brass. David Gold, the chairman, had raised the stakes in his programme notes. "I don't want to put pressure on the players or the manager, but we are all under pressure," he wrote. "There is no hiding from the fact that today is a must-win game. This is our cup final."
McLeish claimed not to have read these helpful observations, instead noting that his understanding had always been that the league is settled in May, not February. Paul Jewell, the Derby manager, has come to see things differently. Hardened by his experiences with Wigan last year, Jewell was asked how Birmingham might avoid joining his own team in the Championship next season. "It comes down to the team that shows the most character," he said. "You want people to rely on. That's called experience."
During the transfer window, Jewell had duly fortified the ranks with old hands, and two of them, in the gloves of Roy Carroll, kept Derby in the game until Sebastian Larsson crowned his contribution in the 68th minute. Otherwise Birmingham's finishing had betrayed the anxiety of a young team in which McLeish must now prompt renewed belief.
There are glimpses of hope, none more tantalising than those offered by Mauro Zarate, the young Argentinian who again impressed. His orange boots may not have impressed Kenny Miller or Robbie Savage, but he seduced them both into yellow cards during his 15 minutes on the field. Ultimately, it was his compatriot, Villa – another recent arrival, via Mexico rather than Qatar – who made Birmingham pay for their apprehension in front of goal.
McLeish acknowledged that his team did not strictly fit Jewell's template for survival. "There are a lot of young guys in there," he said. "It's a new experience for them, and all part of their football education, all part of strengthening their mentalities. I think there's a few of them I can trust."
Goals: Larsson (68) 1-0; Villa (89) 1-1.
Birmingham (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Kelly, Martin Taylor, Ridgewell, Murphy; Larsson (Zarate 76), Johnson, Muamba, Kapo; O'Connor, McFadden. Substitutes not used: Doyle, Forssell, Jerome, Parnaby.
Derby County (4-4-2): Carroll; Leacock, Moore (Todd 67), Stubbs, Edworthy; Fagan, Ghaly, Savage, Robert (Barnes 60); Earnshaw (Villa 61), Miller. Substitutes not used: Price, Teale.
Booked: Birmingham: Larsson. Derby: Robert, Edworthy, Leacock, Miller, Savage.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Man of the match: Larsson.
Attendance: 25,924.Reuse content