Sunday 6th May.
Well, here we are – D-day! Kick off is 2 hours away and I’m as
nervous as a kitten. It’s a cool grey day and although Portsmouth
are now the bookies favourites to be the wrong side of the relegation
line we have never won our final McAlpine fixture of any season
since we took residency. Anyway, these sequences are there to be
broken so today would be a good time to start, and besides it’s
probably the first end-of-season home fixture with any real significance
for us. There are to be no score updates during the game today,
so I’d better check the batteries in my Walkman and make sure my
mobile phone is charged. Wish us luck, our whole season depends
on the next few hours.
In my haste today I couldn’t find any batteries for my Walkman
and like an idiot, I forgot to recharge my phone and so I had to
rely on the McAlpine grapevine for news from Fratton Park and Edgeley
Park. There was a strange atmosphere in the ground as fans knew
that only one combination of results could condemn us to relegation,
yet the mood reflected the feeling that Town’s destiny was uncertain.
The players lined up as expected with Margetson relinquishing the
goalkeeper’s jersey for Nico Vaesen and Thomas Heary restored to
right back allowing Kevin Gray to partner Chris Lucketti in central
Town opened the game fairly brightly as Craig Armstrong made his
presence felt with some crisp early challenges to vindicate his
choice as player of the season and it was the converted midfielder
who created the first genuine chance of the game. In the 10th minute
a Simon Baldry free kick from the right was swung into the crowded
Birmingham penalty area and the loose ball came out to Craig Armstrong
who after a controlling touch worked room for a low shot forcing
Ian Bennett into a smart stop to his right.
Chances were limited, as Birmingham seemed to be adopting a safety-first
approach in the knowledge that their play-off berth was secure and
the players not wishing to risk injury for those games. It took
the visitors just over 20 minutes to create their first worthwhile
attack but despite their lack of earlier opportunities they made
this attack pay dividends. Birmingham always looked more comfortable
on the ball than Town, and a period of sustained possession by the
visitors saw the ball worked out wide to Stan Lazaridis on the left
flank. The Australian took the ball towards the corner of the Town
area and flicked it through to the unmarked Woodhouse who progressed
towards the 6-yard box, coolly lofting the ball over the advancing
Vaesen and just inside the post for the goal we didn’t want.
Once again this season the defence afforded far too much space
to an opposition striker, and this only served to illustrate why
Town are in the perilous position they are. About the time of the
goal the grapevine began to buzz with the news that Portsmouth had
taken the lead against Barnsley and although Crystal Palace were
still drawing 0-0 with Stockport things were not going to plan.
Meanwhile, on the pitch the Town players seemed stung into action
by the goal and set about trying to ensure that they were the architects
of their own destiny. On the half-hour Simon Baldry worked himself
some space on the right hand side and after advancing to the edge
of the penalty area played a high raking cross deep into the box.
Under the close attentions of a Birmingham defender Delroy Facey
failed to get much of a head onto the ball but it dropped nicely
for the lurking Ben Thornley who smashed in a right foot shot only
to see it hit the upright a behind for a corner after it took a
slight deflection. From the ensuing corner Simon Baldry had another
opportunity but seemed to be caught out as the ball hit him a passed
a couple of yards wide of the upright.
Town continued to press without really threatening Ian Bennett’s
goal until the 39th minute when we again had a glorious chance to
level the scores. Chris Holland played the ball out wide to Simon
Baldry who showed great skill in possession to hold off the challenges
of 2 Birmingham defenders eventually working himself enough space
to knock the ball back to Craig Armstrong. The converted midfielder
took a couple of touches before launching a long 45 degree cross
into the area where Andy Booth evaded his defender a rose to plant
a majestic ball towards the goal with Ian Bennett helpless, but
once again the upright came to the rescue of the visitors and the
ball was cleared to safety. Booth clutched his head in his hands,
as did most of the crowd who were starting to wonder if it was going
to be another one of those days where the ball seems drawn to woodwork
like a magnet.
Thankfully it was not going to be one of those days when Town finally
restored parity as the half neared its end. Delroy Facey picked
up a loose ball in centre field and fed Simon Baldry wide on the
right who in turn brought Ben Thornley (who had switched to the
right flank for some reason) into play. Thornley worked himself
a little space before chipping a teasing cross into the six-yard
box and although Delroy Facey failed to connect, the ball reached
Andy Booth who bundled his shot into the back of the net. The stadium
erupted as the fans knew that once again they were able to control
their own fate without relying on other results.
Town are always at their most vulnerable when they have just,
and with the headline writers already composing their front-page
stories of how the returning local hero saved Town from relegation,
they shot themselves in the foot once again. From the re-start Town
seemed unable to gain possession and Birmingham played the ball
around quite comfortably on their right flank before bringing Darren
Purse into play. There seemed little danger as Purse knocked a long
ball over the top of the static Town defence and into the area where
it was met by Andrew Johnson who delivered a lofted cross towards
the edge of the six-yard box where the unmarked Curtis Woodhouse
dived in to head past the helpless Vaesen. This was unbelievably
naïve defending and the whole mood of the stadium was reversed within
90 seconds, the referee called a halt to proceedings and the fans
were left to wonder whether we could turn this around.
On a number of occasions this season I have praised Macari’s half-time
team talks as the players but today the players emerged for the
second half completely devoid of ideas. Perhaps, aware of the other
key results, Macari had told the players that they were still safe
at the moment but this was not the attitude to stave off the threat
of relegation. Birmingham were well organised and Town were guilty
of squandering possession to easily, and the few attacks we could
muster were half-hearted and failed to trouble Ian Bennett. On the
hour mark Francis made a double switch for Birmingham sacrificing
Lazaridis and Johnson for Furlong and McCarthy, the latter so often
the architect of our downfall both for Port Vale and Birmingham.
Dean Gorré was introduced for Ben Thornley on 65 minutes but the
Dutchman seemed to struggle to get to grips with the game and had
little impact on proceedings. Birmingham created little and their
one effort of note from Paul Furlong brought out a scrambling save
from Nico Vaesen. As time marched inexorably on Town became increasing
desperate and were reduced to lumping the ball up field hoping that
someone could latch onto it, but for the most part this ammunition
was too easy for the visiting defence. The fans were also becoming
more desperate as the news from Fratton Park was not good as Portsmouth
had by now doubled their lead and Towns survival now hinged on the
result from Edgeley Park.
Macari tried to pep up the Town attack by introducing Kevin Gallen
for Simon Baldry on 73 minutes and although he managed to get behind
the Birmingham defence on a couple of occasions was still effectively
marshalled by the visitors defence. The mood in the stadium tangibly
changed with a little less than 10 minutes remaining as news quickly
filtered round that Crystal Palace had taken the lead against Stockport.
The stunned fans began to try to lift the players for one final
push as the realisation grew that the day was going horribly wrong.
Whether the message did really get through to the players is difficult
to say but they seemed to look a little more positive and the introduction
of Kenny Irons on 85 minutes almost did the trick.
With seconds of normal time remaining Irons and Holland linked
well on the edge of the Birmingham penalty area and when Irons received
the return ball he knocked a delightful cross over the Birmingham
defence towards the advancing Andy Booth. The scorer of Town’s opener
met the cross with a powerful diving header, but unfortunately the
quality of the effort was matched by the quality of the save and
Ian Bennett pulled off an amazing reaction block to deny Town the
equaliser they so desperately needed. Some wags in the Lawrence
Batley stand began cheering soon afterwards and everyone was desperately
looking round for fans with radio’s to confirm if Stockport had
found an equaliser. It wasn’t true and the fans slumped back into
their seats knowing that the nightmare was about to turn into reality.
The remaining minutes passed with Town franticly trying to create
an equaliser, but everyone knew by this stage that our best chance
had eluded us and by the time the referee called time on the season
we knew that he was blowing time on Town’s stay in division 1. The
stadium fell silent on three sides and a mini pitch invasion did
little to distract us from our despondency, particularly when it
wasn’t half as entertaining as the Keystone Cops episode we witnessed
following the play-off semi-final defeat against Peterborough a
few years ago.
Nico Vaesen was in tears at the final whistle and Booth and Facey
both sat on the pitch in stunned disbelief as most fans remained
in their seats reflecting on the cruel sequence of results that
had conspired to demote us to division 2. The final scores of the
games of interest to Town today were Portsmouth 3 – Barnsley 0;
Grimsby 1 – Fulham 0; Stockport 0 – Crystal Palace 1 and they conspired
to send us down us by a single point and cause us to reflect on
the games such as Bolton, QPR, Grimsby etc. where an extra point
could have been achieved.
However, it mattered none – we were still relegated.
TOWN 1 (Booth 45)
Birmingham City 2 (Woodhouse 21, 45)
Position in table – 22nd
Town – Vaesen; Jenkins; Lucketti; Gray;
Heary (Irons 85); Thornley (Gorré 64)); Armstrong; Holland;
Facey; Booth; Baldry (Gallen 72). Subs not used – Margetson;
Birmingham City – Bennett; Eaden; Purse;
Holdsworth; Gill; Hughes; Lazaridis (McCarthy 58); Atherton;
Woodhouse; Marcelo (Horsfield 72); Johnson (Furlong 58). Subs
not used – Poole; Bass.
Referee – Phil Richards (Preston). Attendance