When Steve McClaren assessed Middlesbrough's holiday programme as critical to his side's season he was probably thinking more about meeting Manchester United and Chelsea within four days over New Year than yesterday's trip to St Andrew's.
Middlesbrough stay fifth in the Premiership but given that the teams ahead of them all won this was a serious setback to their prospects of qualifying for the Champions' League. Birmingham, who have chalked up three successive wins for the first time in 20 months, climb to 12th, their highest position since August.
In mitigation, McClaren can point to a list of key players out injured, to which Mark Viduka can be added after being taken off in the first half with a hamstring injury. George Boateng and Chris Riggott were both ruled out yesterday, along with long-term casualties Gaizka Mendieta, Ugo Ehiogu and Malcolm Christie. But Birmingham are similarly stricken.
Their striker count was already down to the two who started yesterday, and they lost another when Emile Heskey limped off with a damaged hamstring early in the second half, minutes before midfielder David Dunn suffered a similar injury. It left the Birmingham manager Steve Bruce disappointed.
"It took the gloss off a good win," he said. "Just when we felt we were kick-starting our season it is another kick in the teeth. I did not want to be looking for players in the transfer window but I may now have to.
"David is the bigger worry. That's the fifth time he has done a hamstring and he is devastated. Having already lost Muzzy Izzet in midfield it is a real blow."
Heskey had scored the second of the home side's goals, in first-half stoppage-time, heading home a Robbie Savage cross unchallenged. Birmingham had gone ahead after only 10 minutes, Clinton Morrison hooking the ball past Mark Schwarzer from a chance created by Heskey.
They had been well worth their advantage, dominating Middlesbrough for large parts of the game. It would be a surprise if Middlesbrough do not take three points against Norwich tomorrow but Manchester United and Chelsea loom threateningly. If Steve Gibson, the Middlesbrough chairman, is serious about maintaining his side's top-six status he may have to spend again when the transfer window opens on Saturday.
Goals: C Morrison (10) 1-0; Heskey (45) 2-0.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Tébily, Cunningham, Upson, Lazaridis; Johnson, Savage, Carter, Dunn (Clapham, 53); Heskey (Gray, 50), C Morrison (Melchiot, 80). Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Anderton.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Reiziger, Cooper (J Morrison, 80), Southgate, Queudrue; Parlour, Doriva (Nemeth, 60), Zenden, Downing; Viduka (Job, 23), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), McMahon.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Birmingham: Dunn.
Man of the match: Heskey.
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