Toothless Birmingham pay the price with safety in sight
Tottenham hotspur 2 Birmingham City 1
Monday 23 May 2011
With many travelling fans in fancy dress, Spiderman, Bananaman, Batman's Robin and one of the Thunderbird pilots were all in Birmingham's corner at White Hart Lane, but out on the pitch they were without the superhero they needed, an effective striker.
Scoring has been Birmingham's weakness all season and yesterday they paid the price, being relegated for the third time in six seasons. With four minutes to go they were safe, Craig Gardner's 79th-minute goal having cancelled out Roman Pavlyuchenko's opener half-an-hour earlier. Then Stephen Hunt, at Molineux, scored to bring Wolves back to 2-3 against Blackburn and Birmingham were, somewhat appropriately, going down on goals scored – or in their case, the lack of them. Pavlyuchenko's last-minute winner merely confirmed their fate.
The Carling Cup winners thus become the first team to win a major trophy and be relegated in the same season since Norwich City, the 1985 Football League Cup winners. Unlike Norwich, whose were unable to play in Europe in the wake of the post-Heysel ban, Birmingham will have the consolation of playing on the Continent, in the Europa League. What team they are able to put out is open to conjecture. The many millions promised by Carson Yeung when he took over the club last year have not materialised. The club's last accounts were accompanied by an auditor's warning and planned budgets do not seem to have taken account of the prospect of relegation. Even with parachute payments they will struggle to meet the wage bill (£40m+) without significant sales.
Gardner, who finished top-scorer with eight goals from midfield, the injured Nikola Zigic, goalkeeper Ben Foster, and centre-halves Roger Johnson and Scott Dann are the most saleable assets. "A few will leave," said manager Alex McLeish, "but to get back into this league we have to maintain the quality factor."
Asked if he would be in place to manage the squad, McLeish said: "I don't see why not. I have a good contract. As far as I'm aware I will be honouring it. I have been knocked down today, but it is not fatal. I'll have a chat midweek [with the owner] and see where we go from there."
While Blackpool went to Old Trafford and looked for a win, Birmingham came to White Hart Lane seeking a draw in the hope results elsewhere would go their way. Cameron Jerome ploughed a lonely furrow in attack, everyone else pulled back in front of Foster's goal area.
It was hardly the boldest of approaches but, given Blues' inability to score and paucity of fit strikers, an understandable one. And for 45 minutes, it worked. Johnson and Curtis Davies matched Peter Crouch in the air, and Gardner showed the way, flinging himself into tackles. Behind them Foster, with some redeeming to do given his 4am return from the club's end-of-season dinner on Tuesday morning, made two athletic saves from Sandro. His aim was to emulate Steve Ogrizovic who, in 1997, made save after save as Coventry City survived here on the final day of the season. Meanwhile, Wolves imploded and Birmingham edged towards safety.
Everything changed three minutes after the break when Pavlyuchenko, 25 yards out and using Johnson's body as a shield, curled in a shot Foster was slow to react to. Now Birmingham were going down. Initially they changed neither personnel nor formation, but the change in attitude was indicated when right-back Stephen Carr broke into the goal area. Spurs continued to be more threatening but Birmingham began to take shots and Gardner threaded one through a crowd of players to level.
City celebrated with unbridled joy. Survival beckoned, then the news of Hunt's goal began to spread, first via a laptop on the bench. Eventually Birmingham threw both centre-halves forward, even the goalkeeper went up for a corner, but they paid for it when Pavlyuchenko scored again.
McLeish, who said he still felt "in a bit of a trance with what's gone on", added: "This is probably the worst moment of my career. But for one goal it would have been one of the best seasons in the club's history, but now, if you offered me a trade, I'd swap the Carling Cup for staying up."
Substitutes: Tottenham Pavlyuchenko (Crouch, 39), Kranjcar (Huddlestone, 83). Birmingham Derbyshire (Larsson, 75). Booked: Tottenham None. Birmingham Ferguson, Ridgewell, Derbyshire.
Man of the match Gardner.
Match rating 7/10.
Possession Tottenham 55% Birmingham 45%. Attempts on target Tottenham 16 Birmingham 3. Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
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