Houllier words of comfort for Birmingham

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The Independent Online

The players of Birmingham City were inconsolable on Sunday night after losing the Worthington Cup final on penalties to Liverpool, but the words of the opposition's manager should have been of some comfort to them as they attempt to bounce back from their bitter disappointment.

The players of Birmingham City were inconsolable on Sunday night after losing the Worthington Cup final on penalties to Liverpool, but the words of the opposition's manager should have been of some comfort to them as they attempt to bounce back from their bitter disappointment.

After the game, Gérard Houllier went into the Birmingham dressing-room and shook every player's hand before telling them: "You're good enough to be in the Premiership." Promotion has always been City's prime objective this season, as it as been in each of the previous 15, so nothing much had changed, but this defeat in front of a capacity crowd of 73,000 at the Millennium Stadium was a hard one to swallow, particularly because of the way in which it happened.

Penalty shoot-outs are supposed to be the fairest means of determining a winner when all else is equal, but try telling that to Birmingham's five penalty-takers and in particular the young hero-cum-villain of the piece, Andrew Johnson, who missed the decisive spot kick. If a home crowd is reckoned to be worth a goal start to most teams, then a home end is surely worth at least one penalty save, which was all that separated the two teams at the end of two hours of first low then high drama.

Liverpool's penalties seemed to be sucked in by their fans at the north end, whereas Birmingham's were met by a wall of deafening noise which acted like an additional barrier to the one which Sander Westerveld so admirably put up for Liverpool. The end was chosen for security reasons rather than the toss of a coin, simply because there were fewer people at that part of the ground.

"We suggested the north end because it's an easier end to control in the event of over-exuberant supporters getting on to the pitch," said Bob Evans, the Millennium Stadium manager. "It's a smaller, more compact area." Apparently, it will be the same for all future finals at the stadium and, since the ends are determined by geographical considerations, the more northerly finalists will continue to be favoured in such circumstances.

The Birmingham captain, Martin O'Connor, thought it "a disgrace". But most agreed that, with one or two exceptions, Wales's stadium was magnificent on the day English football staged its first final outside the country, the first of eight over the next four years while the new national stadium at Wembley is being built. "I don't think I've encountered an atmosphere like it at any event at the stadium - and that includes the rugby," said Evans. "The noise was bloody incredible."

David Gold, the Birmingham chairman, was most emphatic in his support for the new temporary home of English Cup finals. "The Millennium stadium shamed the rulers of English football," he said. "It's fitting that as the 21st century gets into full stride the English game finally has its major finals in a setting worthy of them - the only problem is that it has had to go to Wales to do it.

"Why, when the Welsh can boast a national stadium that not only provides a spectacular backdrop for a football match but also has a multitude of other events, can England boast only a car park? It's a national disgrace heightened by the events in Cardiff. The football match might not have been up to much but the atmosphere was incredible. Wembley could never have generated such attention, such fervour."

Those fans who struggled to get away from Cardiff by private transport at the end of the match may have been less fulsome in their praise. A stadium spokesperson said they were told to expect that up to 750 coaches would be travelling to the match, although there were actually only 500.

Whereas 25,000 used the trains to attend the Wales-England rugby international, only 10,000 did on Sunday. It was also felt that more people would have stayed in Cardiff had the game been held on a Saturday, as is the FA Cup final.

Chief Superintendent Gerry Toms said: "It was unacceptable what happened in the travel. The problem was that this was the first time that two football teams have ever travelled to this ground and we've learned a lot of lessons. We have to address the problems in conjunction with the county council, the Highways Authority and the Welsh National Assembly. It only needs the minds to do it and we can and we will."

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