Saturday, 4 February 2017

Birmingham City 1 v Fulham 0 - EFL Championship

Saturday 4th February 2017
SkyBet EFL Championship
at St. Andrew's
Birmingham City (0) 1
Lukas Jutkiewicz 75
Fulham (0) 0
Admission £25. Programme £3
Attendance 17,426 (inc. 1,041 away)
Photo gallery from this game, click HERE
Birmingham City:
Tomasz Kuszczak, Emilio Nsue, Paul Robinson, Johnathon Grounds, Cheick Keita, Stephen Gleeson, David Davis (Robert Tesche 83), Maikel Kieftenbeld, Craig Gardner, Jerome Sinclair (Che Adams 67), Lukas Jutkiewicz. 
Unused subs - Adam Legzdins (GK), Greg Stewart, Kerim Frei, Josh Dacres-Cogley, Krystian Bielik
David Button, Ryan Fredericks, Toma Kalas, Tim Reams, Ryan Sessegnon (Scott Malone 60), Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen, Sone Aluko (Gohi Cyriac 78), Tom Cairney (C), Lucas Piazon (Floyd Ayite 60), Chris Martin. 
Unused subs - Marcus Bettinelli (C), Denis Odoi, Scott Parker, Michael Madl
B9 - Trainspotting
Earlier in the season, on a grey and wet West London afternoon, Blues beat Fulham 1-0 at Craven Cottage, courtesy of a Clayton Donaldson penalty, early in the second half.
Alas Donaldson didn't feature today, as a consequence of being a long term absentee, because of a calf injury.
So much water has passed under the bridge at St. Andrew's since that win in September, it would be difficult to know where to start wading in and highlighting a few of the salient points... so I won't!
Prior to today, Slaviša Jokanović's Fulham side had lost only twice in their previous twelve games and have won twice inside the last seven days, namely: 4-1 at home against Premier League Hull City in the FA Cup on Sunday and 2-0 at the Pirelli Stadium against Burton Albion on Wednesday night.
Whereas Birmingham City had gone ten games since their last win (1-0 v Ipswich Town) on Tuesday 13th December, two days before Gianfranco Zola was appointed as their first team manager, in place of Gary Rowett who was dismissed, much to the disdain of a good percentage of the club's fan base, the morning after the Ipswich game.
Blues had failed to score in their last two outings: losing 2-0 at Norwich City on Saturday, before succumbing to the only goal of the game against Reading on Tuesday night, when they were actually unlucky not to have claimed at least a draw.
The comings and goings at St. Andrew's during the transfer window, would fill a lengthy article all of it's own, so you might wish to refer elsewhere if you aren't already au fait with all of the details.
In the run up to the game: Michael Morrison and Ryan Shotton, Birmingham's first choice central defensive pairing, both required late fitness tests, which was hardly ideal preparation for the visit of in form Fulham, who started the day in ninth place just three points off the play off places and six points ahead of Blues who have slumped to twelfth, during their 'transitional' phase.
In the event neither of the 'twin towers' made the cut, but the make do and mend back four that Zola threw together out of necessity, showed the kind of tenacity and resilience that provided the cornerstone for this afternoon's first win in ages, with (from right to left) Emilio Nsue, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Grounds and Cheick Kieta, proving to be a formidable barrier for an attack minded Cottagers side who are renowned for shooting on sight.
Chieck Kieta
Nsue had a steady game at right back, Grounds, so often the but of criticism from some sections of the crowd, moved inside from his favoured left back berth, Robinson was the absolute heartbeat of the team and played with the stamina and energy that defied his age and Kieta, well... what a revelation he turned out to be on his Blues debut, once he'd got his bearings.
Early in the game, the home side were guilty of some poor passing, distribution and clearances; doubtless the need to win any time soon, had been understandably praying on a few minds, but once they had settled down and began to get to a grip on the game, the home crowd responded appreciatively.
Cheers and applause filled the air, when another stray pass appeared to be bouncing towards row six of the Kop, but Kieta killed the ball dead with his left foot, bringing it down at chest height, before directing play towards the Fulham goal.
Lukas Jutkiewicz crashed a header against the underside of Fulham's bar from close range, but the Londoners cleared the ball away to safety.
Another of Zola's recent signings Jerome Sinclair, was being closely monitored by the visitors defence, which gave Jutkiewicz more room to operate.
Early in the second half, Sinclair turned and broke forward, before testing David Button from twenty yards out... a glimpse of things to come from the on-loan Watford striker perhaps?
Only time will tell. But as first impressions go, the signs looked promising.
Ryan Fredericks, a former Tottenham youth player who arrived at Craven Cottage via a short spell (of less than one month) at Bristol City, tormented the home side down the right flank during the first half and was clearly the visitors main outlet for attack, with his quick footed trickery and pace. 
Fulham came very close a couple of times with both Chris Martin and Lucas Piazon placing headed opportunities off target when they ought to have done better.
Ironically it was Fredericks who tipped the balance in the second half (along with the introduction of Che Adams from the bench), when he was shown a straight red card for bad lunge on Craig Gardner (who recently rejoined Birmingham on loan from West Bromwich Albion, with a view to a permanent move), near the halfway line in front of the dug outs.
I felt that the match referee, Andrew Madley, had been very lenient with the visitors captain Tom Cairney this afternoon, who it seemed was amusing himself by playing a game of just how far he could push the officials and get away with; but was no way that Fredericks was getting away with such a rash challenge.
Adams almost had an instant impact, but just failed to hit the target moments after coming on in place of Sinclair.
The red card upset Fulham's shape and game plan and Kieta excelled at exploiting the space that Fredericks' departure had left, when, having moved more in field half way through the second half, he received a sideways pass from Stephen Gleeson who was in the centre circle, before spraying the ball out wide to David Davis and bursting forward through the left channel to collect the return pass, where he saw off the attentions of Sone Aluko, before squaring the ball across the face of Fulham's goal, where Jutkiewicz provided the finishing touch.
The reaction of 16,000 plus celebrating Brummies, mixed with a communal outpouring of relief, saw to it that the remainder of the game was played out in a cauldron of noise.
As the clocked ticked down... at what seemed like agonisingly slowly rate for the home crowd, Button denied Jutkiewicz with a great save to push over an elaborate overhead kick.
After battling for the result in a typical, dare I say it... Gary Rowett kind of style.
Was that a moment of what to expect, once Gianfranco Zola instills his game plan and football ethos onto the side he is finally getting around to rebuilding, or did Jutkiwicz merely find himself standing the wrong way around? I guess the answer to that would depend on whether your glass is half full or half empty; but the shoots of recovery that were evident on Tuesday night, became something more tangible this afternoon.
It will be a while yet until Birmingham City turn the corner, but at least they seem to have found where that corner has been hiding for the previous ten games.
There was a switch in the atmosphere of the crowd, when the referee decreed that there would be an additional five minutes added on at the end of the game... and if Fulham had salvaged a draw in stoppage time, like they almost did when Floyd Ayité put the ball wide with just Tomasz Kuszczak to beat, then I suspect that the match officials would still be locked in their changing room until gone midnight (on Monday) for their own safety.
But the added suspense merely contributed to the celebratory mood when the final whistle finally sounded and unrestrained joy new no bounds within St. Andrew's. 
Paul Robinson in particular was savouring the moment, almost as though he had just won the Championship title, with a hat trick at Villa Park, never mind the fact that Blues had just won by a single goal against a ten man Fulham for the second time this season (Michael Madl had been red carded when the two sides met in September). 
But he had given so much today and put himself in the line of fire, beyond the call of duty, especially when he had been floored while inadvertently stopping a long range shot by blocking the ball with his unprotected groin. 
I winced and my eyes watered just witnessing the moment of impact.
FT: Birmingham City 1 v Fulham 0
Fulham now face Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest in back to back home games. 
You would have thought that the Cottagers would take all six points on offer, but their minds might be elsewhere, given that Tottenham visit Craven Cottage the following weekend in the FA Cup.
Next up for Blues; are two away trips to take on clubs who are both above them in the Championship table: Sheffield Wednesday on Friday night and Preston North End on Valentine's night.
The Owls are currently nestling in the play off places,but their results of late have been very inconsistent, so I guess a lot will depend on what version of Carlos Carvalhal's Wednesday side turn up.
Preston haven't won for four games, but prior to that they beat the current Championship leaders Brighton & Hove Albion, so they shouldn't be taken lightly.
Birmingham City then return to St. Andrew's on Saturday 18th February when Queens Park Rangers are the visitors.