How Blackpool beat Birmingham City to return to Wembley
For the third year in a row, Stephen Dobbie – long of either Swansea and Blackpool – scored to help one of his two teams to Wembley. But this was no walk in the park. Birmingham City gave it everything and made the Tangerines work hard for their 3-2 aggregate victory. Curtis Davies equalised on the night to give Blues hope but goals from Stephen Dobbie and Matt Phillips proved the difference for Ian Holloway’s side.
Birmingham began with two strikers, adding a partner for Marlon King. For those of us who became accustomed to seeing him lumber around La Liga to varying effect in the latter half of the last decade, the presence of Nikola Zigic in the Football League has been something of a curio this season. Even when used sparingly, the thought that there is a £6million striker struggling to fold himself into dugouts up and down the country each week is an odd one. The sight of Zigic in a Birmingham City shirt isn’t anything new, the Serbian having signed for Blues in the summer of 2010, but he seemed to add a new twist to this year’s second play-off semi-final second leg.
If Zigic provided something new then the continuity was supplied by Dobbie, playing in his third successive play-off semi-final having scored important goals in each of his last two second legs. While Birmingham looked enterprising in the opening stages with Zigic a nuisance as the ball zipped menacingly around the wet turf of the Blackpool box, the visitors threw bodies in front of shots before easing their way into the game.
Before long, Ian Holloway’s side looked the more comfortable in possession. Each of the front six played their part. Angel Martinez and Barry Ferguson provided a platform in midfield, while Thomas Ince and Matt Phillips showcased their dribbling ability – the former testing Blues keeper Colin Doyle on a couple of occasions. Gary Taylor-Fletcher linked play neatly but Dobbie was always going to be the main threat. Having displayed breathtaking close control in the two sides’ previous meeting, it was his opportunism that swung the tie even further in Blackpool’s favour just before the interval.
Ince’s deep corner found its way to Dobbie after Alex Baptiste had unsuccessfully attempted an overhead kick at the back post. The Scot reacted instantaneously to volley the loose ball, which eluded Doyle’s grasp and squirmed into the net. There was eerily little reaction as the Blackpool fans crammed into the other end of St Andrew’s peered through dim Midlands night air and eventually clocked that their brightly-coloured heroes were wheeling away in delight. 135 minutes into the tie and Blackpool were two clear.
Less than five minutes into the second half, the advantage was three when a lofted through ball saw Pablo Ibanez, formerly of Atletico Madrid, caught square and cumbersome. Matt Phillips controlled well in difficult conditions and steered his shot across Doyle into the net off the far post.
Blackpool, without a targetman to rely upon, could only cushion the ball between them on a quick surface. This often opened Birmingham up with pace and movement creating gaps in the tired home defence. Maybe we are too quick to cry “tiki-taka” whenever a team keep it on the floor but there was a clear contrast in styles between Birmingham’s 4-4-2 at this stage, creaking under the ineffectual contribution of its midfield, and the fluid interplay of their opponents. If this had continued past the hour mark, the game could have petered out. It wouldn’t be that easy for Blackpool, however.
The hosts needed a route back into the game and it came via Zigic. He looked marginally offside when he collected a clever Chris Burke pass on the edge of the box but the flag stayed down and the finish was cool. Holloway was quick to shuffle his pack in response, bringing on the midfield enforcer Keith Southern for the impressive Ince. It was an acknowledgement that the Tangerines were on the back foot for the first time in an hour. When Marlon King was denied by a superb Matthew Gilks save after good work by substitute Nathan Redmond, heads could have dropped among those in blue shirts. Time was running out.
But with seventeen minutes remaining, the scores were level on the night. Curtis Davies rose highest to power a firm header towards goal and Gilks could only flail a forlorn glove as the ball crashed into the net. All of a sudden, the noise was all coming from the home sections and Blackpool, having looked comfortable for so long, were vulnerable. Davies again got on the end of a corner from the right but could not keep his effort down. The visitors tried to settle but were struggling to create opportunities. With Ince off the pitch and their creativity diminished as a result, their threat was greatly reduced.
It began to look ominous when Burke started to pop up in acres of space in wide areas. With the leading creator in the division finding encouragement and Blackpool unable to close the game out without affording Birmingham chances, Holloway must have felt the strain. His men continued to go forward nonetheless, knowing that a 4-2 lead would be unassailable with minutes remaining. Former Blues striker Kevin Phillips was sent on to try to nab the clinching goal in front of a nervous away end. The clock ran down. Birmingham ran themselves into the ground. King nearly ran clear from a Zigic knock-down but Stephen Crainey made a crucial tackle.
With five minutes of stoppage time signalled by fourth official Jonathan Moss, Birmingham continued to fire the ball high and long towards Zigic and King. When Zigic was caught offside in the final moments, it looked all over. The final chance fell to Guirane N’Daw, but his contact was far too heavy when a glancing header would have added real menace to Redmond’s centre. Within seconds, the final whistle was blown and Blackpool were bound for Wembley again.