Down among the dead and dying men of the Premier League it was a day for a hero to emerge, and the unlikely figure to do so was Andre Bikey, a strapping centre-half with only one previous goal this season, who doubled his total with two fine headers to offer Reading some breathing space. A third win in four games enabled them to move four points clear of Birmingham, who remain in danger of an immediate return tothe Championship.
The visitors were left cursing a fine save by Marcus Hahnemann just after they had equal-ised, and it is fair to say that the odd rude word may have passed the lips of their manager, Alex McLeish, when Bikey was allowed his second header, again from a free-kick. "I can't go out there and head the ball clear myself," said McLeish, though the old Aberdeen centre-half would probably have made a better job of it than Rahdi Jaidi.
The saving grace for both teams has been that so many other strugglers are involved in the most wide-ranging relegation fight in memory. In most leagues, there are three or four sides who manage no more than one point per game and are therefore in danger of going down. There have recently been an extraordinary nine such teams at the bottom of the Premier League. So survival should in theory be possible with a smallertotal than the average of 37, but nobody dares count on it.
Steve Coppell's Reading are playing safe in setting a target of 40. Overachievers or not last season, they would not have been in much trouble this time but for a dreadful run of eight successive defeats, starting with the6-4 loss at Tottenham on Boxing Day. "It's something you just don't legislate for," Coppell said. "If it had gone a bit deeper, there would have been no coming back. We've had two magnificent years and if we maintain our status, I think it's a bigger achievement than Liverpool finishing fourth."
Fourth from bottom would delight Birmingham's McLeish, who has presided over only three victories in 17 games since replacing Steve Bruce. He suffered a blow before the game when James McFadden, after four goals in five games, was sent for surgery on a small tear in the knee that will keep him out of two more matches. In his absence, the young Argentinian Mauro Zarate played just behind Mikael Forssell, and when that pair combined for an equalising goal midway through the second half, anything seemed possible. "There's no doubt on another day we could have won the game," McLeish added. "But we have to shop shipping goals."
His full-backs were particularly susceptible to the lively wing-play of John Oster and Stephen Hunt; in the centre of defence, Liam Ridgewell, who might have conceded a penalty early on and been given asecond yellow card later, was no more assured than Jaidi. Hunt had driven a shot from 25 yards against the top of the crossbar before the opening goal arrived after half an hour.
Bikey, the Cameroon international who missed the African Nations Cup final after assaulting a stretcher-bearer in the semi-final, timed his run and leap perfectly for a glancing header from Oster's free-kick, followed by a celebratory triple somersault.
Birmingham's reaction was spirited and produced good efforts by Gary McSheffrey and Forssell before the interval. Their fortunes seemed to have changed when after Oster missed badly from six yards, Forssell, once so highly promising at Chelsea, showed some of his old footwork in wriggling through on the left and supplying Zarate for atap-in.
Forssell, suddenly all alone as Fabrice Muamba scuffed a shot to him, was then thwarted by the goalkeeper's legs, but eight minutes later Birmingham were behind again. The manner of the goal was almost identical to the first. Ridgewell received a yellow card for a bad tackle and another inswinging free-kick – this time by Nicky Shorey – was headed in again by Bikey. The Birmingham defender then caught Shane Long with a high boot, breaking his nose, but the referee, Mike Riley – happy to avoid any controversy after his midweek dramas with Ashley Cole – showed him clemency.