Saturday, 12 January 2019

Birmingham City 1 v Middlesbrough 2 - EFL Championship

Saturday 12th January 2019
SkyBet EFL Championship
at St. Andrew's
Birmingham City (0) 1
Che Adams 79
Middlesbrough (1) 2
Lewis Wing 37,
Britt Assombalonga 82
Attendance: 21,420 (1,325 away fans)
A deflected Britt Assombalonga (more about him later) goal in the twelfth minute, was all that separated these two sides the last time they met, at the Riverside Stadium back in August.
Boro were amongst the short odds favourites for promotion that day and they arrived at St. Andrew's today, still in touch with the top two clubs, and comfortably in contention for a play off place (at the very least)... four points ahead of their hosts for the afternoon.
Garry Monk has only been Blues manager since March 2018, but his tenure at St. Andrew's has already lasted four months longer than his time in charge at today's visitors ever did. Subsequently both sets of fans have 'special' songs that they like to belt out in response to his input at their respective clubs.
Though Monk's successor at the Riverside: Tony Pulis, who can regularly be found riding on the Football League's managerial merry-go-round himself, is obviously making a half decent job of things on Teesside this term, you would be hard pushed to find a single Blues supporter who doesn't subscribe to the view, that Middlesbrough's loss was most certainly Birmingham City's gain.
Probably Boro fans wouldn't see the situation quite that way, but the feel good factor that Monk and his coaches have instilled, combining results on the pitch with a willingness to embrace the ethos of the club and it's fan base off of it, while transforming a team that was rapidly becoming dormant, and catapulting them on a trajectory that expands light years ahead of where even the most optimistic of Bluenoses could ever have imagined they could ever aspire to, off the back of a recent string of fairly miserable and uninspiring campaigns.
Both teams had polar opposite experiences in the FA Cup last weekend, with Middlesbrough easily seeing off Peterborough United (and their odious pond life creature of a manager), to earn themselves another home tie in the fourth round, against League Two side Newport County (Pulis' hometown club), while Blues played well enough, but ultimately lost 2-0, at the London Stadium, against Premier League side West Ham United. 
The Hammers are, of course, owned by David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady, who used to rule the roost at St. Andrew's. 
It would be fair to say that opinion is divided somewhat over the nuts and bolts of their reign in the Second City, among the Birmingham faithful; but upon entering the turnstiles for today's game, it was possibly the right time to pause for a period of reflection and to appreciate the fact, that even though the trio weren't massively popular around the time of their departure from the West Midlands, at least they left behind as a legacy, of sorts, a modern day football ground, where both tradition and territorial matters, have both been respected.
Which is exactly the other end of the scale, from what the famous (infamous?) trio have done at West Ham, whereby they taken the drastic measure of relocating to a soulless bowl of an arena, four miles away from their (sold off and subsequently demolished) ancestral home, which is seen as an act of sacrilege and/or even treason, by an overwhelming majority of the Hammers faithful. 
And by and large, football fans (everywhere) are a hugely unforgiving creed, and regardless of the respective pros and cons of any given situation, they'll always hold any perceived down side of any decisions made by board members against them as a grudge, forever and ever... 'til death do us part.
West Ham United and Upton Park (and the community around it) were synonymous with each other, pretty much like St. Andrew's and the adjoining
area is with Birmingham City. 
So it is worth remembering, that in 2004, Mr Gold and his ilk, were in cahoots with Birmingham City Council, to move Blues (as renting tenants), to a newly built, 50,000 seater multi-sports facility. But those plans faltered and the redevelopment of St. Andrew's continued instead. 
Relocation and new grounds work for some clubs... arguably today's visitors being a case in point; but others, like Blues (and West Ham), are woven into the very fabric of their surroundings, with bloody great big (security) blanket stitches... and their rightful place in the heart of things, should never be cast asunder. Future generations of Hammers fans might grow to love their current ground... but Blues of all ages, still have their very own traditional place of worship standing intact, for them to flock to in their numbers, and though I might sound like a bit of a Luddite, void of a single ounce of progressiveness for saying such a thing, but there's no place like home.
And some teams just don't belong anywhere else.
And it came to pass, as Birmingham fell to just their second home defeat of the season, that by virtue of most other results going their way, Garry Monk's side remained in eighth place in the Championship, while his former charges consolidated their place in the title chasing pack and opened up a seven point lead over Blues.
In fairness, Boro were the better of the first half and would have been ahead, even before Lewis Wing's thirty seventh minute opening goal, had it not been for a double block on the line, by Kristian Pedersen, to deny both Jordan Hugill then Dael Fry from finding the back of the net... and though the home side made a proper battle of it in the second, Pulis' side dug in
deep, really deep, to hold onto their hard won advantage, while adapting a defensive 'away game' counter attacking approach, that was perfectly suited to the playing style of their second half substitute, Britt Assombalonga.
I guess it is something of a compliment to Blues current standing that visiting teams take on this sort of rearguard action at St. Andrew's.
Talking of Assombalonga, just because I said: "Oh no! Not him again! He always scores against Blues", when he entered the fray in the seventieth minute, there was no need for him to prove me right, before coming over to celebrate in the corner, right in front of me, where I was watching the game, just a few seats away from the visiting fans. I think raised digits hand gestures, were made by way of reminding reminding me that their team had just scored a second goal.
When Middlesbrough's central defensive pairing: Dani Ayala and Danny Batth, hang up their football boots, maybe they could invest in some Lycra and daft masks, and become a tag wrestling team. They certainly got plenty of practice in today, manhandling and grappling with Lukas Jutkiewicz and Che Adams at every available opportunity. But the referee, Graham Scott wasn't interested in curtailing any of their strong-arm stuff, so they effectively got away with their 'tight marking' of Blues attacking duo, for most of the afternoon, although there was nothing they could do to prevent Adams from netting an equalising goal in the seventy ninth minute, when he
swivelled his hips on the edge of Boro's area to make himself just enough space to roll a well taken strike past Darren Randolph.
Prior to pulling themselves level, Blues had been unlucky to see Harlee Dean's header come back into play off of the post from Jota's well aimed free kick and Adams had what looked like a half decent shout for a penalty waved away by the referee, who subsequently booked the prolific striker for allegedly having taken a dive. If nothing else, the incident enraged the home crowd, who from thereon-in, cranked up the noise, to create the kind of atmosphere that had perhaps been lacking to a large extent during the first half.
Late in the game, after Wing had put Assombalonga clean through with just Lee Camp to beat, when he inevitably scored the visitors second goal; Jacques Maghoma, whose effectiveness had also been suffocated out of the game for long spells by the visitors blanket defending, almost grabbed a late equaliser, but prodded the ball just wide of the upright and Middlesbrough held on to take all three points.
One big plus for Blues, was the ten  minute appearance of Isaac Vassell at the end of the game, following his brace of goals for the Under 23 side on his return from long term injury last weekend, after a fifteen month recovery period.
Once he gets back up to speed, it'll be like having a new signing to start 2019 with, and will give Blues more options up front and take some of the strain off of Adams and Jutkiewicz, who've run themselves into the ground for the cause thus far this season. Attacking midfielder David Davis is also said to be making significant progress on the road to recovery too... which all bodes well for Monk and his coaching staff. Imagine having the luxury of selection headaches in the near future as opposed to putting a side out who're picked on the basis of whether they're considered fit and well enough to do a job or not.
It's all progress and a massive leap of faith from where Blues were at twelve months ago.
Isaac Vassell:
Doesn't he look happy to be back.
So being realistic, despite the fact that they were beaten by one of the Championship's big hitters today, just how high should Blues fans actually be raising the bar as regards their aspirations and expectations?
Personally, I feel that any measure of success is relative. And this season was all about making progress at St. Andrew's, away from the messy end of the Championship, to which end it's already been a massive achievement, for Birmingham to have slugged their way up from the lower reaches of the table to find a very respectable position.
Mathematically, of course, it is possible that the play offs are do-able for this team, but I feel that represents punching considerably above their weight at this present time... and they need to be in a position where they can walk first, before they contemplate even trying to break into a run.
I don't mean any of this by way as an insult to anyone, but there would have to be an awful lot of fine tuning and recruitment required, before the team is ready to seriously make that massive step up to a higher level and sustain their position there. 
Although I do believe that the right management team are already in place for when/if that kind of scenario becomes a more realistically attainable proposition.
In the meantime, it is vital that Blues pick up as many points as possible, as a back up plan, just in case they get clobbered with the rumoured deduction next month. But surely, if Blues attain a top half finish... should the EFL panel decide against taking such drastic measures (given that it would set a precedent for the way numerous other clubs would also have to be treated)... then could anybody really have any cause for complaint about this campaign? Given that Birmingham City have avoided all of the heartache suffered by their long suffering and ever faithful fan-base over for the past few seasons?
FT: Birmingham City 1 v Middlesbrough 2
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I've rambled on, for much longer than I meant to do tonight, but there were a lot of bases to cover, so hey ho! 
Normal service will be resumed presently.