Birmingham City 1 West Bromwich 1: Albion left looking back in anguish

Ellington strikes but fails to punish off-key Blues
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The Independent Football

You are playing centre-forward for Birmingham City in a match that the club's director Ralph Gold has described in the programme as "arguably the most important game in the long history of the club"; no pressure there then. Two minutes into the second half, with the scoreline blank, you glance up from the ground with a mixture of excitement and terror to see the referee awarding a penalty that you are down to take.

Mikael Forssell, to his enormous credit, looked outwardly like the coolest man in the ground as he stepped up to score a goal which offered hope of lifting the home side above their neighbours and out of the bottom three for the first time in five months. But, to be fair, that outcome would have been a travesty, and eventually there was a deserved equaliser by the West Bromwich substitute Nathan Ellington, who, in the final minute, spurned one of three glorious chances that ought one way or another to have carried Albion six points clear of trouble.

So the margin remains three, Birmingham having a home game against Bolton in hand as part of a daunting run of fixtures from which it is difficult to envisage much joy materialising. Next up are Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea, followed by the Bolton bonus ball. For Albion it is United, Tottenham and Liverpool before Aston Villa, who then meet Birmingham a week later. If yesterday's fixture is traditionally billed the friendly derby in this part of the world, those two Villa games will be nothing of the sort.

All of which suggests that neither Steve Bruce's side, nor his great friend Bryan Robson's, will be pulling away from the relegation zone in the immediate future. Robson admitted afterwards that Albion could be looking at a final "Survival Sunday" as dramatic as last season's. This time they visit Everton while their rivals meet Bolton again.

If it goes that far, Albion will look back in anguish at yesterday's missed opportunities to bury a Birmingham side missing six players and defending, as Bruce admitted, like a Sunday morning pub team. The visitors had appeared unnecessarily cautious in leaving only Kevin Campbell in attack against such a nervous pair as Martin Taylor and Martin Latka.

The first time Diomansy Kamara got forward to support his captain, after 30 minutes, he was left unmarked five yards from goal, somehow contriving to sidefoot Jonathan Greening's low cross wide. Ten minutes later Kamara nodded down for Campbell to hit a post from equally close in, Jan Kozak having the rebound cleared off the line by Martin Taylor.

Birmingham's fortunes seemed to be taking a turn for the better just after the interval when the young Albion defender Curtis Davies took Forssell's leg before connecting with the ball. Robson and his assistant, Nigel Pearson, indulged in much finger-jabbing at the referee, Phil Dowd, and Pearson was later sent from the dug-out. But, by that time, Albion had the equalising goal they craved. Ellington and Nwankwo Kanu, the club's leading scorers (with a telling six each) were sent on and with their first touches conjured up a precious goal, the former Arsenal man unselfishly laying the ball back for Ellington to drive low past Maik Taylor.

"Martin Taylor and Martin Ladak mistimed headers. Mario Melchiot mistimed a clearance and a header," Bruce said. "It was just shambolic defending." As if their injury problems were not severe enough already, his team lost their two liveliest players in Jermaine Pennant and David Dunn, and as the defending grew even worse, they should have lost the game.

Stan Lazaridis got away with losing possession close to goal; Maik Taylor scrambled Ellington's 25-yarder over the bar as it reared up in front of him and then failed to clear Ronnie Wallwork's chip.

A broken corner flag caused the addition of four minutes added time, from which Birmingham had most to fear. There were almost broken hearts as Ellington burst clear to shoot against the underside of the bar, and unforgiving Bluenoses greeted the final whistle with boos as well as relief. "We've had a huge slice of luck today," Bruce admitted. "It was just elementary bad play and Bryan will be disappointed." He was.