I hadn’t written anything in the buildup to Saturday’s game as I was trying my hardest to resist the temptation to vent my spleen and list the reasons why I so heartily dislike Birmingham City. “Don’t do it,” my inner voice kept telling me, “you’re better than that, accentuate the positives and look forward rather than merely hark back to the past.” Somehow I managed to take my own advice and stayed away from my computer keyboard but I am afraid that things have changed, and I now feel that reminding everybody of all the slights, real and imaginary, that we have suffered at the hands of the Blues is entirely merited and, more importantly, will enable me to delay, albeit for a few minutes, describing our abject performance at St Andrew’s Stadium yesterday afternoon. So here we go, and please feel free to add anything that memory and the mists of time have caused me to forget.
- Denying us a day out at Wembley in 1991 when they beat a weakened Bees team one-nil at Griffin Park to seal a place in the Leyland Daf Final with a three-one aggregate victory. Oh, and what about Trevor Aylott and his headband?
- The shenanigans in the final game of the 1992/3 season which led to Birmingham sealing a late and highly controversial win over a disinterested Charlton Athletic team to bang the final nail in our coffin and seal our relegation.
- Doing the double over us in 1994/5 and Barry Fry and Co making a big noise about it and gloating at every opportunity. We bottled it in the massively important promotion clinching match at St Andrew’s on 26th April 1995, a date etched indelibly in my memory. We were three points above the Blues at the top of the Second Division and it was effectively the title decider. Goals from a hobbling Kevin Francis and Liam Daish gave Blues a 2-0 victory and the advantage at the top, on goal difference with a game in hand, that they just about held to the season’s end. Nicky Forster also has vivid memories of this fateful match: Only the team who finished top of the league got automatic promotion that season, so it was a massive game. We had been neck and neck with Birmingham and whoever won it, won the title. The atmosphere was the most intimidating I have ever played in. We had a young team and most of us had never known anything like it. We didn’t do ourselves justice. We let the crowd get to us and Birmingham bully us. We were just overwhelmed on the night and it was a big learning curve for us. We never turned up and allowed ourselves to be systematically bullied and intimidated in the most important match of the season. I too was the most scared that I have ever been at a Brentford match in fifty years of watching the club as the threat of violence was never far from the surface – and I was sitting in the Directors’ Box! A truly horrible evening and I well remember the long and terrifying walk back to my car, surrounded by a hideous, gloating, baying mob of seemingly sub-human low-lifes. God knows what would have happened had we had the temerity to have won, but that was never on the cards as, not for the first or last time on the big occasion, Brentford folded without much of a fight.
- Losing our star players such as Nicky Forster, Martin Grainger, DJ Campbell and, more recently, of course, Clayton Donaldson to a club who naturally consider themselves far bigger and more important than us. Not replacing Forster and Campbell adequately contributed heavily to blown promotions in 1997 and 2006.
- Our paths then didn’t cross until 2010 when a scrappy and totally undeserved injury time goal from Kevin Phillips got Birmingham out of jail in a memorable League Cup tie where Sam Wood’s volley seemed to have given us a well merited win. We then lost the penalty shootout with Craig Woodman missing the final crucial kick.
- Allowing a poor Birmingham team to take four vital points off us this season.
That brings me full circle. I hope you excuse my little diversion down memory lane but it has also allowed me some time and breathing space to calm down and consider what happened yesterday in a more rational, dispassionate and less emotional manner than would have been the case had I dashed into print as soon as I got home, tired, weary and very frustrated and with the Blues’s anthem “Keep Right On To The End Of The Road” still reverberating through my brain as if on a tape-loop.
There is not a lot to say about the match. Conditions were poor with a bobbly pitch and a strong wind making it difficult to play our pass and move game. We dominated possession and retained the ball for nearly 70% of the game but did absolutely nothing with it. There was no penetration, no final killer ball and we were far too static and careless with our passing. Our set pieces lacked imagination or quality and we rarely beat the first man with our efforts. Birmingham’s game plan was embarrassing in its simplicity – funnel back, frustrate, pack the final third so that there was little space for Brentford to exploit, and then pick us off on the break. What was far more embarrassing was that it worked perfectly, and even with their limited possession, the home team created several wonderful chances which should have brought them further reward.
The team selection was, frankly, baffling. We have now played different central defensive pairings in each of our last five games and yesterday saw no exception, with new loanee Liam Moore brought in to partner James Tarkowski. There was much muttering in the teabar before the game about this move, but in my opinion Moore is supposed to improve us and his presence enabled Tarkowski to revert to his more natural right hand side so I was happy to see him play. I was not so content by the end as Clayton Donaldson, playing the lone striker role with aplomb, totally dominated the two of them and was the fulcrum of Birmingham’s victory. Everything went through him, he chased lost causes, won most things in the air, held the ball up and could have had a hat trick. His very presence on the near post panicked Tarkowski into scoring the own goal that turned out to be the winner and he forced a quite brilliant save from Button with a perfectly placed glancing header.
It is impossible not to compare him with Andre Gray, even if it is a little bit unfair as Andre is admittedly a tyro, who is still learning the game at this level, but he accomplished nothing on the day, running into blind alleys, hammering the ball high, wide and not at all handsome when given a rare sight at goal, carelessly letting the ball slip under his feet when in good positions and generally displaying a poor and negative demeanour. We have missed Clayton terribly this season and I am not ashamed to admit it. Gray has real promise and can terrify defences when the force is with him, but all too often he fades into insignificance and offers very little threat. He has been played too much too soon, appears to be both physically and mentally exhausted and the manager’s failure to provide an adequate alternative striking option, such as all our promotion rivals possess, demonstrates a totally baffling and inexplicable blind spot in his judgement that could well ultimately cost us a playoff berth. Chris Long is also highly promising but is still in nappies, and Clayton clearly demonstrated what we are really lacking – an experienced pro who has been around the block a few times, who is strong, quick and powerful, knows the game and can make much out of very little and who demands careful attention at all times. Clayton was the key difference between the two teams yesterday and I salute him for his crucial contribution to their victory.
Most of the home team’s danger came down their right flank where the overlapping Caddis combined cleverly with the ever-dangerous Cotterill. They both put a number of dangerous crosses into the Brentford penalty area and it was a Caddis cross that led to the winning goal. Cotterill too generally cut inside onto his favourite left foot and forced a top-notch save from Button with a rasping long-range effort. It was total madness in my opinion to keep Jake Bidwell, available again after his suspension, on the bench and leave the inexperienced Stuart Dallas to cope with the threat of Caddis and Cotterill. For all his effort d energy, he was totally unable to do so and the match was lost. Bidwell finally came on far too late with the stable door firmly bolted.
Loyalty is an admirable and praiseworthy characteristic,but blind and misplaced loyalty to players who have admittedly performed well, when there are better options available, is a worrying weakness, and I wonder if in retrospect Mark Warburton would have made a different decision when deciding upon his team. Alan Judge, recovered from injury, also came on but for all his energy was unable to unlock a tough, packed and uncompromising home defence in which former our loanee Rob Kiernan impressed.
Randolph was totally untroubled in the home goal, making two routine saves from long range efforts from Pritchard and watching attempts from Judge, Toral and Tarkowski sail wastefully wide. Our massive opportunity came and went on the stroke of half time when the otherwise anonymous Toral put the ball right onto Douglas’s head eight yards out, but he headed over. Maybe he was flagged offside which would let him off the hook, otherwise it was an unforgiveable miss, as an equaliser at that juncture would have turned the game on its head and sent us out revitalised after the break with the bit between our teeth.
We huffed and puffed in the second half and knocked on the door, but never threatened to burst it open. Our commitment, thankfully, was never in doubt but we lacked guile and penetration and were blunt and toothless, and fortunate not to concede a second goal on the break. The defeat was annoying and demoralising but not terminal. Many of our rivals also dropped points so yesterday can go down as a missed opportunity that must not be repeated. Three points on Tuesday against Huddersfield are now a priority, and we owe them payback after our narrow defeat in the reverse fixture in December. It is worrying though that we have barely threatened to score in our last two away games and allowed two teams in Charlton and Birmingham to end long waits for a victory. Are we becoming a soft touch away from home? I can only hope that the last two matches were blips and we will soon be back on track.
More encouragingly, I watched Derby County, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth on The Football League Show last night and they all put on abject performances, so it is imperative that we do not overreact and keep things in perspective. It it is a nervous time of the year and we have to retain our unity and self-belief. A new striker with some nous and experience wouldn’t come amiss too, as he would help provide us with the fresh impetus required to help get us over the line. Wishful thinking perhaps, but a totally necessary move in my opinion, however it is one that for whatever reason seems highly unlikely to come to fruition. Let’s hope that our inactivity does not come back to haunt us over the coming weeks.