By Matt Rowson
Oh come on, it's St.Andrews. What else am I supposed to write about ?
Venturing back up to Birmingham in the cold last March brought it all back. Every blurred image knocking around from that most dramatic of nights nearly two years earlier. We could endure a hundred drab, unremarkable defeats at St.Andrews on top of the last one and still remember May 20th 1999 perfectly clearly.
The car park where we stumbled off the coaches and through the turnstiles and into the flattening din. Underneath the stand where the dancing and celebrating took place afterwards. In the cold, echoing interior where Gifton was cornered in celebration and the chanting reverberated. In the stand from where we watched the drama unfold... Adebola's goal, Alec's breathtaking save from Johnson's header, the escalating tension which coiled and coiled amidst the impossible noise, the unbearable, gripping crescendo of the penalty shoot-out (when Trev obviously made a quieter objection to kicks in front of the home end), the huge adrenaline rush when Alec saved again...
And you're not going on Saturday?
Since our last meeting with City, they've finally done away with Tricky Trev. Somewhat inevitable perhaps, after three years of failure in the play-offs alongside frantic buck-passing, but a bit of a shame for the entertained neutral nonetheless. Suddenly Birmingham City are like Hale without Pace, utterly unlikeable in so many ways, but somehow missing something.
Considerately for those of us who like to paint the football world in a simple monochrome of goodies and baddies, Palace and Brum had the foresight to swap their pompous generals, meaning that things trundle on much as before for the rest of us, just with different coloured tracksuits.
The Blues' home record is reasonably good, and with only three goals conceded in their last seven home games - two of those in a 0-2 reverse against Wimbledon a month ago - they look tight at the back.
Ian Bennett should play in goal for City. Nico Vaesen, once of Huddersfield, has deputised for much of the season.
In defence, Jeff Kenna arrived in December from Blackburn, with whom he won a Premiership title but had barely featured for twelve months. On the left, the ever-delightful Martin Grainger is one of a number of survivors of the encounters three years ago. Cover in the fullback positions is provided by Nicky Eaden, a scorer in this tie last year, and by David Burrows, who once tried to pull a friend of a friend of mine with the line "Do you know who I am?".
In the centre, the immobile Steve Vickers has arrived from Middlesbrough to partner Darren Purse. Purse, captain of the side with the departure of Martin O'Connor to Walsall, is currently in contract negotiations. Michael Johnson, who judging by the time he spends on the bench must save his best form for us, is in reserve, but David Holdsworth, who reportedly never got on too well with Steve Bruce at Sheffield United, is playing under Colin Lee again at Walsall and unlikely to return.
In midfield, Bryan Hughes continues to prance half-heartedly around the centre of the field, but is rumoured to be high on Tricky Trev's hitlist at Palace. He has been partnered by youngster Darren Carter, whose impressive form was probably a factor in Arkadiusz Bak returning early to Polonia Warsaw. Insert your own pun here. Other options in the centre include Curtis Woodhouse, who missed last weekend's game with a knock but should be available, Danny Sonner, returning from an injury sustained in November, skilful but lightweight young Frenchman Tresor Luntala and Graham Hyde, still hanging around in the reserves and hoping nobody will notice.
On the flanks, Paul Devlin's arrival as the other half of the loan swap that took Paul Furlong to Bramall Lane means that the injury-prone Jon McCarthy has to settle for a place in the reserves. Stan Laziridis still features on the left, but with Steve Bruce having entertainingly opted to pursue the Mark McGhee school of blaming all your early failings on your predecessor and his cronies, the crowd appear to have turned on the Australian. Tommy Mooney, whose name rings a bell for some reason, moved out to the left for Saturday's game. A little depressingly he appears to be a bit of a favourite at St.Andrews.
Up front, Stern John made his debut at the weekend, with Nottingham Forest having fallen foul of precisely the scenario that prevented GT signing the Trinidad international on a two-year contract for us two years ago. Out of contract at the end of the season, cash-strapped Forest were forced to sell him for peanuts. He has been partnering the bullish Geoff Horsfield, who appears to be making a better fist of a career at City than had at one point seemed likely. Andrew Johnson, however, appears to be completely failing to fulfil his early promise and has lost the favour of the Birmingham crowd. With Dele Adebola returning from a knee ligament injury that has sidelined him since the summer, Johnson's days in the first team squad could be numbered.
The context - not to mention the relevance - of Saturday's encounter is wildly different to that of May 1999. It's still an essential trip, though - as a reminder of both how good the good days are, and how mind-numbingly obnoxious the bad guys ("Who?") can be.