Birmingham City are perhaps the least heralded of the four candidates as we enter the Championship play-off period and there has certainly been a quiet and undemonstrative manner about the progress of Chris Hughton’s charges.
They have been playing catch up all season of course. Heavy involvement in the Europa League left them short on fixtures completed for months but a fabulous 2-1 win in Bruges in front of over 5,000 ecstatic away supporters signalled their strength and the rise has been inexorable.
Blues fans now have to overcome their natural scepticism and gallows humour, borne out of years of yo-yoing. Just over a year ago, they were revelling in the travails of Wojciech Szczęsny so another promotion back into the Premier League may seem humdrum.
Against Reading yesterday, most of St. Andrews seemed far more gleeful at the prospect of Aston Villa dropping a division than their authoritative and impressive victory over the champions – and therein lies a clue to the mediocrity of the last half century – clubs that measure themselves against A. N. Other can seem forever distracted – unlike yesterday’s opponents, unconcerned by any fierce jealousies and so free to calmly concentrate on their own game.
For this is a Birmingham City that deserves more attention. Hughton has assembled the eleven that mimics the best Premier League teams in style and formation. Two all-purpose strong men sit in midfield, wingers provide pace and flair and the forward line contains one target man and one in the hole.
To further elaborate, Senegalese duo Guirane N’Daw and Morgaro Gomis recall messrs Obi Mikel, Essien, Ramires, Song and Diaby in the strength and presence they bring to the central areas – N’Daw in particular has been dominant at times this campaign, his return for the forthcoming lottery most welcome.
Controlled as they are, this leaves the wide men to produce much of the creativity – for much of this season, Chris Burke has been the right side incumbent, confirming the excellent impression he made as a Cardiff City player – for the three years we have been running this website, he has been omnipresent in any list of the division’s best. Rested yesterday, he enjoyed a late cameo, but replacement Wade Elliott, another lower division stalwart, had a fine day – the late disappointment of a penalty miss taking none of the shine from a performance punctuated by an earlier, successful spot kick.
On the left, Andros Townsend is another eye catching Spurs loanee to place alongside the subject of our Monday profile subject Harry Kane and another man who has graced the turf at Millwall’s New Den. Birmingham is his eighth temporary home and he was superb here, causing immeasurable problems for stand-in Royals right back Matthew Connolly. Blues may well choose to keep him if they make the step up.
That aforementioned continental style strike pairing featured the man of the match on the day – a player I have been impressed with via the idiot box and the producer of one of the best individual performances I have seen this year. Nathan Redmond was a dervish and full of tricks but what was most pleasing about his contribution was the way he never wasted possession and was always looking for an astute pass. In this he may have the edge over the almost equally impressive Wilfried Zaha down at Crystal Palace – and for a man who turned 18 a month ago, his beautifully measured slider that set up sub Adam Rooney for the opener was a delight. Rooney had replaced the injured Nikola Žigić early in the piece.
In our critique of last Sunday’s PFA awards, I mentioned that Curtis Davies was the only man sslected in the divisional team whom I was yet to witness in action in 2011-12. Nothing he did here would suggest he does not merit his place in that XI – looking as classy as ever and a reminder of how highly rated he was in his formative years. At 27 he still has a ton of time to make a comeback in the Premier League and why not at Birmingham? Alongside, I was also taken with Pablo Ibáñez, discarded by West Bromwich Albion but unlucky with a header that thrummed off the post here and very comfortable in possession.
David Murphy at left back is fast turning into a Blues stalwart and if right back Peter Ramage has done the rounds of a few clubs now without ever achieving stunning success, he and replacement keeper Colin Doyle both did well – the latter even going to so far as save a third penalty of the encounter from countryman Ian Harte.
With the likes of Keith Fahey, Marlon King, Jordon Mutch and Jack Butland to call on in addition to those who took part here, City have an embarrassment of options and will need those fans to stop thinking about things claret and blue for the 180 minutes of the Blackpool games.
For behind the seemingly rosy picture of a squad bursting with good things, the no doubt astronomical wages being paid to Davies, Ibáñez, Žigić and others are the most obvious evidence of underlying problems. Last week, the club’s holding company failed for an almost inconceivable fourth time to file its financial results for the year to 30 June 2011, while President and majority shareholder Carson Yeung faces money laundering charges in Hong Kong. Staying down would magnify the horrific realities - so it’s probably best to stop thinking about the Gingerman of Aston.