With spring in the air and a spring in their step, Birmingham avenged their FA Cup home defeat by Bolton to climb out of the relegation zone. An early flourish by the Premier League's oldest outfield player, Kevin Phillips, set up a victory sealed by Craig Gardner's second-half strike, although the Carling Cup winners endured a fraught finale after Johan Elmander cut the deficit.
Phillips, who will be 38 in July, scored four minutes into his first League start this season to demonstrate why he was preferred to the 6ft 7in leading scorer, Nikola Zigic. Gardner joined the Serb on eight goals shortly before the hour, but once Elmander had replied Birmingham were indebted to the best and lastof several athletic saves byBen Foster when he kept out Gretar Steinsson's stoppage-time header.
After Birmingham's first win since their Wembley triumph against Arsenal in February, Alex McLeish prefaced his verdict by saying he did not like the term "must-win match" but the Birmingham manager admitted it was "a game we had to win".
The Scot hailed the collective effort, especially after being obliged to make a succession of substitutions, yet he reserved special praise for Phillips – "he's a genius in the box, and maybe I can look back and say I should've used him more this season" – and Foster.
Bolton, McLeish conceded, "scented blood" after Elmander's 18-yard volley following a knock-down by Kevin Davies from a long ball by Steinsson, but Birmingham "stood up to the pressure magnificently".
His friend Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager, felt "hard done-by to be leaving with nothing", claiming that the FA Cup semi-finalists' late siege was "like the Alamo".
But Coyle acknowledged the excellence of Foster, who not only twisted in mid-air to turn over Steinsson's full-blooded connection with Matthew Taylor's corner 20 seconds into time added on, but had repeatedly underlined his international credentials in what became a personal duel with Daniel Sturridge.
Sturridge, on loan from Chelsea but ineligible to face Stoke City when Bolton contest an FA Cup final place, looked to the heavens as if appealing to a higher authority after the former Manchester United goalkeeper denied him for the third time in 12 minutes with a one-handed save just before half-time.
Unfortunately for Bolton, who had not previously lost to a side in the bottom half of the table, Jussi Jaaskelainen's hands proved less adhesiveon his 450th League start for the club.
The Finn tried to parry Phillips' 15-yard angled volley after Sebastian Larsson's fourth-minute corner but could not keep it out. There was little he could have done, though, about Gardner's first-time drive as it flashed past him after a one-two with Cameron Jerome, the ball striking the far post before crossing the line.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Foster
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content