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Nationwide Division One, 2/3/01
Birmingham City
Staying power
By Matt Rowson

There are times when you have to put petty rivalries to one side and bite the bullet. Doff your cap to a notable achievement, albeit an achievement that faltered at the very final hurdle, and acknowledge that a club has done itself proud.

This, of course, is not one of those times.

Apart from anything else, it's impossible to join in the rare national mood of sycophantic Brumminess if you've ever been to St.Andrews as a visiting supporter. There aren't many grounds where, as an away fan, your personal well-being is a prime concern in planning the day's logistics. There aren't many away trips that would provoke a hundred-mile detour in order to catch the club coaches and increase your chances of arriving safely. Nobody who has been spat at, shoved, or worse, by the "plucky" Bluenoses will have shed a tear on Sunday evening.

And speaking of which...if there's a team you'd choose to face at a time when your backline is looking as dependable as a paper umbrella in a thunderstorm, it's a side with a track record of not being able to hit the proverbial barn door from twelve yards. To continue the firing-squad theme suggested by ig in his Stockport report, this is very much the firing squad of choice at the moment. How hilariously inevitable was that finale? A silver lining to a bleak weekend.

Common wisdom appears to be that Birmingham were unlucky. This judgement, however, is spun from the expectation that they were on a pounding. On the balance of play, certainly to the end of ninety minutes, they could well have received one, and were perhaps fortunate still to have eleven men on the field. Meanwhile the penalty of which they were so "cruelly" deprived in extra time looked a clean tackle on the replay... Henchoz played the ball; a foul would have been a harsh call. And of course Brum could well have missed it anyway... they've hardly proven themselves in this department. To quote Trevor Francis' snide punditry last season, "they just lacked that little bit of quality".

In goal for the Blues will be the simian Ian Bennett, who made his three hundredth appearance for Birmingham in Cardiff. Bennett is a good shot-stopper, but question-marks over his positional sense have contributed to him not gaining the international recognition he was once touted for. Thirty seven-year-old Kevin Poole continues to deputise... he was 1999-2000's "clubman of the year", a title awarded by the self-effacing Mr.Francis.

At the back, the Blues have a strong set of options. Former Barnsley skipper Nicky Eaden played at right-back on Sunday, but he is an attacking player and has featured frequently on the right side of midfield. A more likely option is the experience of on-loan Peter Atherton, cup-tied at the weekend, although the popular Jerry Gill was considered unlucky to miss the Cup Final team. On the left, the brutal Martin Grainger is first choice. He was booked in City's last league game, which could yield a suspension on Friday... City websites are not altogether forthcoming on the subject. If absent, the well-travelled David Burrows is the likeliest deputy.

In the centre, the partnership of the commanding Darren Purse and the pacy Michael Johnson, so impressive in the play-off games two years ago, was the most distinctive feature of City's Cup-Final display. David Holdsworth, who hasn't played since November due to injury, will do well to win back a starting place.

Francis favours a 4-4-2, and with two attacking wide players responsibility falls on the central pair to break up opposition play. Skipper Martin O'Connor is destroyer-in-chief, although he played a long time with an injury on Sunday. If unfit, his most likely replacement is the equally combative Curtis Woodhouse, likely to partner the stroppy Danny Sonner. Graham Hyde is another competitive option, although he has featured little this season, but Steve Robinson has joined Swindon Town.

The wide berths at Cardiff went to Jon McCarthy, just back from (another) injury and arguably not match fit, and the impressive Australian Stan Laziridis. Bryan Hughes is a capable deputy on either flank, but he has not been on his best form this season. Peter Ndlovu, meanwhile, has joined Sheffield United.

Up front, given Trev's complaints at the size of our forward line two years ago, it's not surprising to see two delicate, tricky options in Geoff Horsfield and the transfer-listed Dele Adebola as the pairing of choice with another sizeable option, Marcelo, on the bench. Andy Johnson came off the bench to sparkling effect on Sunday and is touted for a place, but it will be interesting to see how well he recovers from the penalty miss.

The penalty shoot-out, of course, is as much a matter of nerve as of skill, and it's a department in which City have repeatedly been found lacking. On current form the Blues should whip us soundly, but if we hold out for fifteen minutes, let alone take the lead, City's resolve and confidence will be tested to the full. To quote Noel Coward...

"Thousands of people have talent. I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head. The one and only thing that counts is: Do you have staying power?"

One thing is guaranteed. If they don't, it won't be Trev's fault.