InterCity catch-up: Birmingham City sneak win over Leeds United
Like a thief in the night, Birmingham City are creeping up on everyone else in the Championship. To be more precise, they’re doing it like a thief on a Sunday afternoon. Regularly pinching three points out of the porch while the nation eats its roast dinners in front of Super Sunday, Chris Hughton’s men are on the rise thanks to their sixth consecutive win.
Last night saw a curveball added to the Championship’s most unusual diary. Just when Birmingham were getting used to playing every Thursday and Sunday, they had to turn up on a Wednesday night instead. And turn up they did. Blues dispatched Leeds United at St Andrew’s to rise to 8th in the table with a solitary goal from Nikola Zigic.
It seemed fitting that a giant should decide a tie between two of the Championship’s biggest clubs. In truth, Zigic appears something of an anomaly at this level. Some observers were impressed that Birmingham had managed to lure the Serbian to England in the first place and that was when they had Premier League status to which they could proudly point as bait. They haven’t managed to offload a man who is said to have cost around £6million when purchased from Valencia and he remains in the West Midlands, unleashed last night to see off Leeds.
Recovering from injury early in the season, Zigic has largely had to play second fiddle to Marlon King and Chris Wood in the striking department. Wood’s flurry of goals has arguably been the most remarkable thing about Birmingham so far this campaign but they have still stayed under the radar for most of the country.
Even last night, the focus was elsewhere as various Premier League goliaths bravely battled to League Cup victory with their legion of £30million reserves. Zigic fits into that category too, a costly purchase who hasn’t been needed in recent weeks – a counter-argument to the national media’s line that Hughton is a miracle worker continuing the superb second-tier record he began with Newcastle. After all, surely it’s easy to keep winning when you can bring former La Liga stars off the bench?
Of course, it isn’t that simple. Birmingham have impressed this season despite an exodus of established Premier League players and their patched-up squad has had no trouble settling into the awkward rhythm bestowed upon them when they accidentally won the League Cup.
Whereas their games felt like an overlooked footnote to the main action each weekend while they were hovering above the relegation zone with three games in hand, Hughton’s side will now be taking to the field with a few more interested eyes on their movements each Sunday until the Europa League disappears again for the winter. And, given that last night’s win moved Blues within a point of their side with two games in hand, some of those onlookers will be Leeds United fans.
Leeds have also had to cope with a handful of departures, although whether they lost them or let them go is still subject to conjecture. Either way, Kasper Schmeichel, Max Gradel and Bradley Johnson were all key elements of a team which narrowly missed out on the play-offs in May and Simon Grayson had a big job on his hands to revive that kind of form this time around. With Leeds fifth after 13 games, there is yet more evidence that Grayson is the real deal and a man the Elland Road faithful will be desperate to hang onto. And with this week’s firm dismissal of any interest in the vacancy at his former side Leicester City, the Leeds boss made his position crystal clear. Grayson is a rare example of a manager who genuinely loves his club.
Given their large following, it is no surprise that Leeds have been one of the most heavily-featured sides on television thus far and they’ve been typically Jekyll-and-Hyde on the box. Last season we saw some festivals of football and some utter horror shows. This term, we began with the latter but there have been glimpses of the latter in most of their other appearances. The defeat at Southampton on the opening weekend was a real low point. Things could only get better and they subsequently did with a spirited display to snatch a point from West Ham a fortnight later.
Injury-time flashpoints have been a recurring theme for Leeds. They employing another late raid to gain a point at Brighton thanks to their leading goalscorer Ross McCormack, while Coventry managed to sneak a draw from Elland Road recently with stand-in goalkeeper Paul Rachubka’s error to blame. Last Saturday, Darren O’Dea’s 95th-minute winner claimed all three points at Peterborough in another topsy-turvy game.
Leeds didn’t manage a late show this time though, with Zigic’s first-half goal proving enough for the hosts. Birmingham and Leeds are now just two of the ten sides separated by two points in a congested Championship play-off picture. While Blues can enjoy the rare pleasure of a Saturday afternoon on the field when Brighton are the visitors this weekend, Leeds will get a taster of the schedule to which their most recent conquerors have become accustomed with two successive Sundays – a home game with Cardiff and a trip to Leicester – on the horizon.