With a smoke bomb, a thong-wearing streaker and a huge police presence, yesterday's Second City derby was as eventful off the pitch as on it. When the acrid fumes had cleared, Aston Villa had greater cause for satisfaction, having recovered from Roger Johnson's goal for Birmingham to equalise through James Collins and avoid a repeat of last month's Carling Cup defeat here.
The bigger picture shows that Villa have taken 15 points out of 51 under Gérard Houllier. However, the second Premier League stalemate between the sides this season lifted them out of the bottom three and kept them within a point of 16th-placed Birmingham. Given that only Wolves have a worse away record, Villa could even claim, especially after hitting the crossbar three times and at last mustering some fighting spirit, that this was a moral victory of sorts.
But the identity of the two scorers, who are both central defenders, underlined a weakness that continues to blight the neighbours' efforts to climb away from the relegation zone. Birmingham last savoured a goal from a striker nine games ago, when Cameron Jerome pounced at Stoke in November, while neither of Villa's principal attackers on this occasion, Gabriel Agbonlahor and the recalled John Carew, was able to break his duck in the league this season.
Both Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, and Villa's No 2, Gary McAllister, deputising for Houllier in front of the media, deemed it "a fair result". McLeish said: "I think we've come a long way in a couple of years in terms of these games. Had we been more clinical in front of goal at 1-0 up, we'd have seen it through."
McLeish was exasperated by the manner of Villa's goal, which had its origins in a weak kick by goalkeeper Ben Foster after a needless back-pass by Liam Ridgewell. Keith Fahey and Craig Gardner both had chances to clear before Marc Albrighton crossed, and Collins' volley was deflected past Foster by Ridgewell.
"It was unbelievable that we could get ourselves into a fankle like that," said McLeish. "The shot wasn't even on target. Everything that could've gone wrong did."
Birmingham's opener was equally scrappy from Villa's perspective. When Collins fouled Alexander Hleb outside the penalty area, loan signing David Bentley rolled the free-kick short for Gardner. The former Villa man's drive was wayward, but David Murphy flicked it into the danger zone and the ball deflected off Kyle Walker before Johnson reacted sharply to hook it past Brad Friedel from 10 yards.
"We felt we could have been two up in the first five minutes," McAllister argued, recalling that Agbonlahor had fired over from an excellent position inside 35 seconds. "We created good chances off the back of nervous defending by Birmingham. We're pleased to come from a goal behind though there's a wee tinge of disappointment that we haven't won."
The bar acted like a magnet to Villa's best efforts. Carew's header clipped it in the eighth minute, Ciaran Clark's cross slapped the same part of the goal-frame 15 minutes later and Foster tipped over a brutal 25-yard shot by substitute Nathan Delfouneso via the woodwork with six minutes remaining. Moments earlier, Ridgewell had cleared Richard Dunne's header off the line.
Matt Derbyshire – who, like Murphy and the lively Bentley, was making only his second league start this season – missed the ball completely when Gardner's cross gave him the chance to angle the ball into the net midway through the first half. Gardner volleyed wastefully wide and Nikola Zigic almost repeated his Carling Cup winner with a late header.
Birmingham also had a penalty appeal rejected after Albrighton sent Murphy tumbling, albeit with the slightest contact. "I've seen them given," reflected their manager, who expects centre-back Scott Dann to be out for the rest of the season with a torn hamstring.
McLeish, whose side face the Manchester clubs in their next two league fixtures, will now try to tie up the signings of Robbie Keane and Kenny Miller. "We're still waiting," he said. "I never like to shout from the rooftops about these things until they're confirmed." Villa have already completed the £5m capture of Lyons and Cameroon midfielder Jean Makoun though they expect a two-week wait for a work permit.
There was no repetition of the violent disorder which marred last month's meeting, but the attendance, just over 22,000, was the second lowest at St Andrew's this season and the worst derby turnout of the Premier League era. "It's been a tough few years recession-wise," said McLeish.
Booked: Birmingham Carr. Villa Dunne, Collins.
Man of the match Ferguson.
Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).