Middlesbrough 2 Birmingham City 0: Wheater makes hay but Birmingham fans turn on team

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The Independent Football

Gareth Southgate wasn't the only man with reason to reflect on this mismatch with quite so much satisfaction. Referee Rob Styles was pretty happy about Birmingham City's no-show, too.

In terms of making a low-key return from a one-match suspension, the much-vilified Styles could have asked for few better occasions. No chance of repeating his Anfield travails by awarding a dodgy penalty to the away team here – that would have entailed Birmingham City entering the Middlesbrough area, something they failed to do all afternoon.

Mere words can not do justice to quite how bad the visitors were. Aside from a mildly threatening shot from substitute Gary McSheffrey, bafflingly left on the bench until almost the hour, the nearest most of Steve Bruce's squad came to goal was in the aftermath of their sixth straight defeat on Teesside, as they approached the sparsely-populated away end to sheepishly acknowledge those few travelling fans who remained to quite justifiably hurl abuse at them for their dereliction of duty.

To his credit, Bruce refused to defend the indefensible. "We were absolutely shite," the Birmingham manager said, Cameron Jerome the only one of his players to escape his ire. "There are absolutely no positives from a performance like that and I'm not going to lie to you or bullshit you about it.

"For how good we were last week, we were as bad here. It was woeful and we made Middlesbrough look like world beaters, we really got our backsides kicked. I didn't have to read the riot act to them, they know that wasn't good enough."

A six-goal winning margin would not have flattered the hosts, who swept Birmingham contemptuously aside to continue their upward curve. In the end they settled for just the two goals, both before half-time in the shape of David Wheater's first of the season and another from Stewart Downing. Both were teed-up by some marauding full-back work from Andrew Taylor, extending Birmingham's wretched record in a part of the world where they are winless for 27 years.

Wheater, an England Under-21 centre-back showing all the instincts that marked him out as a striker at the outset of his career, broke the deadlock after 12 minutes, rising unmarked as Liam Ridgewell stood and admired to head Taylor's inviting cut-back home from eight yards. Downing was left with an even more routine finish nine minutes before the interval, easily beating an exposed Maik Taylor from six yards as the excellent George Boateng headed Andrew Taylor's raking cross back across goal.

"It's the best that we've played since I took charge and there's more to come," said Southgate, the Middlesbrough manager. "We've got to make that performance our benchmark because we can still improve and push on from here."

How the City goal remained intact after the interval is a mystery. Jérémie Aliadière, still without a goal since his summer arrival from Arsenal, ought to have scored a hat-trick in the space of 15 minutes, the clearest opening arriving as Ridgewell blocked his goal-bound effort from close range.

Full-back Stephen Kelly cleared off the line from his Boro counterpart Luke Young before substitute Dong Gook Lee failed to score his first Premier League goal when woefully sliding a shot, from point-blank range, into the side-netting as injury-time approached.

Perhaps the South Korean was saving his contribution for when it mattered, because this contest had at that point long since been settled.

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