ON a newspaper sports desk, there are certain questions that crop up over and over again. Important questions: ones that need to be answered if the pursuit of high-quality journalism is to be successful.
And those questions are: 1) Has anyone seen the remote control? 2) Are you going to make us a cup of tea, then? 3) Does the name of Birmingham City’s ground have an apostrophe in it or not?
The answers to those three questions are: 1) I bet the news desk have buggered off with it again. 2) No, it’s your turn, you lazy get. 3) Oh, I don’t know. How does Wikipedia spell it?
St Andrew’s (or perhaps St Andrews) causes problems for many a sub-editor. The obvious solution would be to check Birmingham’s official website, were it not for the fact that they use both spellings across various articles.
So when I went to St Andrew(’)s for Birmingham’s FA Cup quarter-final against Bolton this lunchtime, I thought: Surely the ground itself will display the definitive signage.
As I drove down Cattell Road, behind the Kop Stand, the entrance to one of the official car parks had a blue-and-white sign clearly marked ‘St Andrew’s’. Sorted? Not quite. A blue-and-white billboard advert for club sponsor F&C Investments at the back of the car park was just as clearly marked ‘St Andrews’.
How to decide? I went for the clincher: The signs on the doors to the home and away dressing rooms. Both use the apostrophe. So if question three comes up anywhere near you soon, the answer is definitely ‘St Andrew’s’. As I believe they say on internet message boards: End of.
My trips to St Andrew’s are rarely dull. The first time I went, more than 10 years ago for a game against Stockport, I was thrown out of the post-match press conference by Trevor Francis and my car almost blew up on the M6 as I drove home. (Francis was right to chuck me out, by the way – but I’ll explain the story some other time.)
The last time I went was for Birmingham’s final home game of the 2008/09 season, when a win against Preston would have secured automatic promotion with a game to spare. There were three sendings off, a one-man pitch invasion, two late goals to secure a 2-1 Preston win and the bizarre sight of Birmingham’s players being booed by their own fans as they did an end-of-season lap of honour. (Promotion was secured the following week, anyway.)
So I’ve learned to expect the unexpected at St Andrew’s. I made my way up a narrow staircase to the press box about an hour before kick off, and plonked myself in one about 40 unreserved seats. About 20 minutes later, with only about five or six of the seats occupied, an oldish chap wandered over to where I was sitting and said to me: “I usually sit there.” I didn’t want to upset him, so I moved.
The mood at Birmingham at the moment is perhaps as confused as the spelling of their ground’s name. Winning the League Cup for the first time since 1963 was wonderful. Playing in Europe next season, after an absence of nearly 50 years, will be very special. Staying in the Premier League, though, will be far more lucrative – and there is no guarantee that will happen.
Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw at Everton lifted them out of the relegation zone on goal difference. But with arguably every team from eighth-placed Sunderland downwards in the relegation scrap, Birmingham aren’t the only club facing a nervous couple of months.
The FA Cup, then, perhaps provided a welcome relief, especially with a trophy already won. But an extra cup game wasn’t a fat lot of use to manager Alex McLeish with an injury list that might have come close to filling a team sheet. (I counted eight senior absentees for today’s game, but I accept that I may have missed a couple.) That list didn’t include captain Barry Ferguson, patched up to play with a pain-killing injection, despite breaking his rib in the Carling Cup final win over Arsenal.
It was a gamble that didn’t pay off, as Ferguson had to be substituted inside half-an-hour due to a dead leg. Defender Martin Jiranek also limped off early, the victim of a challenge by Bolton midfielder Stuart Holden, who trod on his shin – no doubt accidentally, as McLeish suggested afterwards, but it still looked painful.
By the time both men came off, Bolton were a goal up, with the talented yet erratic Johan Elmander striding through a patched-up back line to score after Ivan Klasnic had helped on a header forward by former Birmingham midfielder Fabrice Muamba. The home defence, reshuffled due to injuries, looked as if they hadn’t had a lot of time together to practise their offside trap. (But then it’s not as easy as it was made to look in The Full Monty.)
It was to Birmingham’s credit that they didn’t fold. Seven minutes before half-time, they equalised with their first serious effort on target. A weak David Wheater clearance fell to Cameron Jerome 25 yards out, and the striker whipped a right-foot shot between Jussi Jaaskelainen and his near post. It was the first goal Bolton had conceded in this season’s FA Cup.
The competition certainly matters to Bolton this season. Manager Owen Coyle has stated that winning it would be a fitting tribute to the great Nat Lofthouse, who died in January, aged 85. Lofthouse scored both Bolton goals the last time they won the cup, beating Manchester United 2-0 in 1958.
Kevin Davies is the Bolton centre-forward who makes a nuisance of himself these days. A man who didn’t have a club when he linked up with Wanderers in 2003, Davies has proved their best signing of the last decade. After a quiet contribution to the first half, he was the key man in the second.
For the first 15 or so minutes of the second half, the game was finely poised. Both sides had penalty appeals turned down – rightly – while Bolton substitute Lee Chung-Yong made a crucial goalline clearance from David Murphy. It would not be the South Korean’s last important contribution.
But a couple of minutes after seeing a goal correctly ruled out for offside, Davies won and scored the penalty that restored Bolton’s lead. He hassled Curtis Davies into a mistake inside his own area, and the Birmingham defender, in attempting to retrieve matters, tripped his opponent. Keeper Ben Foster was sent the wrong way from the spot.
That might have been enough in normal circumstances, but Birmingham took inspiration from their anthem ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’. Kevin Phillips’ road can’t have much further to run at the age of 37, but he has a habit scoring key goals when given his chance. This was only Phillips’ third start of the season for Birmingham. He had scored in the previous two. And after Jaaskelainen finger-tipped a marvellous effort on to the post, Phillips made it three out of three, assisted by a team-mate young enough to be his son.
Nathan Redmond only turned 17 last Sunday, and signed his first professional contract in the week. Thrust into action by Ferguson’s early injury, Redmond’s flick with 10 minutes left reached Phillips just outside the penalty area. The striker’s first-time hooked shot looped over the helpless Jaaskelainen and into the net. After scoring, Phillips lay on the ground as if suffering a bad attack of cramp – or perhaps in disbelief.
Birmingham had scored late to beat Arsenal in the Carling Cup final, but this time it was Bolton who kept right on to the end of the road. Again, Davies was involved, climbing above Jean Beausejour to head down for Lee to turn in the last-minute winner.
Coyle spoke afterwards of Davies’ great dedication, and his willingness to keep learning, a couple of weeks shy of his 34th birthday. Success in the FA Cup would mean a lot to a striker who was left out of Gordon Strachan’s Southampton squad for their 2003 final defeat against Arsenal. Davies has indicated that he would love to get his hand on a winners’ medal. Or should that be winner’s medal? Oh, I give up.