There are defeats that feel like disasters and draws that feel like defeats. West Bromwich Albion endured the first in last season's 4-0 surrender at St Andrew's. This time they left with a moral victory and their three-point lead over Birmingham City intact, but less inclined to laugh than cry.
Albion's conflicting emotions - epitomised by the way they trudged off after throwing their shirts to their supporters like conquering heroes - were articulated by Jonathan Greening. The midfielder declared himself "pleased" with the performance of Bryan Robson's team. However, he was also "devastated" not to have won a relegation battle in which Albion struck post and bar and had cause to dispute the penalty that brought Birmingham a flattering lead.
Greening revealed how the utterances of the Birmingham chairman David Gold effectively did Robson's motivational work for him. Gold had reasoned that his club, anchored in the bottom three for almost five months, would have the edge over Albion during the run-in because the manager Steve Bruce had "more quality" at his disposal.
"Our captain, Kevin Campbell, mentioned it just before we went out and it wound us up," Greening said. "We happen to think we've got a lot of quality in our team. We like to play the right way. One side was playing football, which was us. The other was just launching it. We're all deflated. In the end we could have scored four or five."
Corroboration came from Bruce, who admitted that Birmingham had "got away with it". Grimacing at the mention of his error-ridden centre-backs, Martin Latka and Martin Taylor, he relished the imminent return of Kenny Cunningham and Matthew Upson. "Whoever I put out," he said pointedly, "I expect them to defend better than that."
When it was suggested to Bruce that his goalkeeper, Maik Taylor, flapped anxiously at a cross and a shot as Albion pressed for the winner, the Birmingham manager replied: "He's got a right to be nervous playing in front of that back four. I've never seen us defend that badly, individually or collectively. I'm hoping it was a complete one-off."
Birmingham, having survived one of the misses of the season by Diomansy Kamara, went ahead after Curtis Davies felled Mikkel Forssell. The Albion defender felt that he was fouled during the build-up, but to no avail as Forssell converted the penalty.
As against Chelsea a week earlier, Robson delayed a change from 4-5-1 to 3-4-1-2 for too long when the situation cried out for a cranking up of the pressure on Latka and Martin Taylor. No sooner did it happen than a comedy of errors by the pair, compounded by Mario Melchiot, led to Kanu setting up fellow substitute Nathan Ellington's equaliser.
Ellington fired against the underside of the bar in stoppage time, much as Kevin Campbell had struck an upright before half-time when it looked easier to score. "We've been doing shooting practice in training all week," Greening said with a rueful grin. "Perhaps we should stop."
Bruce spoke for Robson, his old comrade in arms, when he surveyed the struggle ahead. "All the matches are massive from now on. We're hoping we can drag another club down into it, and we can't rule Portsmouth out of the equation. But us and West Brom really are going head-to-head with very similar fixtures."
Birmingham have a game in hand, and, as Gold intimated, their squad looks superior on paper. In the real world, however, they may be carrying too many individuals - like David Dunn, Stan Lazaridis and Forssell - who lack sharpness after injury.
Saturday's evidence pointed to West Bromwich Albion escaping again. But if the glass ends up shattered, rather than half full or half empty, they will reflect on St Andrew's as two points squandered rather than one gained.
Goals: Forssell pen (49) 1-0; Ellington (70) 1-1.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Melchiot, Latka, Martin Taylor, Lazaridis; Pennant (Izzet, 57), Butt, Johnson, Dunn (Kilkenny, 81); Heskey, Forssell (D Campbell, 78). Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Bruce.
West Bromwich Albion (4-5-1): Kuszczak; Albrechtsen, Davies, Watson, Robinson (Clement, 41); Kamara, Wallwork, Inamoto (Kanu, 68), Kozak, Greening; K Campbell (Ellington, 68). Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), Carter.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Birmingham Melchiot. West Bromwich Robinson, Wallwork.
Man of the match: Watson.
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