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A long, long road

A long, long road

The road to the Premiership, rich and paved with TV gold, has been long and not an easy one for Steve Bruce`s Blues this season.

Favourites from the outset, the expectations of the fans and media weighed heavily on their shoulders at times and this showed in the results at various points in the season.

Post-relegation last summer, the team was ripped apart; loanees and out of contract players departed en masse and the player`s entrance at St Andrew`s briefly resembled a revolving door. Some went more quietly than others, with the most memorable being Kenny Cunningham`s broadside on the state of the club.

Whether his accusations were entirely true or not will never be known, but his comments seemed to sting the board into action as with Bruce they set about acquiring some new young players to rebuild the squad.

In came Jerome, Kelly, Danns, McSheffrey and the Arsenal loanees, while a little experience was added in the form of Jaidi and N`Gotty, both now surplus to requirements at Bolton.

This entirely new team took time to settle and although they registered some victories at the start of the season, they were shaky and unconfident at times, often the clear beneficiary of Lady Luck.

Then form dipped and a run of poor results culminated in a shocking home performance against Norwich and the cries for Steve Bruce`s head grew louder. Those that claimed he should have been sacked after the Liverpool FA Cup debacle, or at the end of the relegation season, felt that only a change of manager could move the club forward, but the Board dug in their heels. The journalists` pre-emptive obituaries lay unused, but it was obvious that he was walking a fine line towards a P45.

A distinctly average performance at Pride Park was saved by a deflected goal from the rescued-from-obscurity Stephen Clemence and Birmingham started to pull themselves together.

A clutch of good home and away results followed and they pulled themselves back towards the top of the table, putting together an impressive run during November and December to give them an enviable lead at the top of the table.

Poor results against lower-table teams over the Christmas-New Year period slashed their lead and Derby County started to steal a march on them. It was becoming obvious that Birmingham could not perform against the teams at the bottom of the table, a flaw which could cost them dearly at the end of the season.

The lack of a usable playing surface caused a huge loss in momentum during January, compounded by the cancellation of the away fixture with Leicester. Form suffered and the return to league action at the end of January saw a humiliating defeat to relegation fodder Southend.

The natives were becoming restless. Points were being squandered and a bunch of difficult fixtures loomed. Roy Keane`s Sunderland were charging their way through the League and looked like certainties to make a challenge for one of the top spots.

A decent draw against the Black Cats was followed by a shambolic performance against Hull. Promotion didn`t look viable with such inconsistent form; even though points were picked up against the teams around them, the bad results against lower-table sides were becoming the proverbial albatross around Steve Bruce`s neck.

Socks were pulled up again at St Andrew`s and a trio of 1-0 wins followed. Nervousness grew at the thought of a trip to Carrow Road and defeat seemed pretty much inevitable, with the Canaries the only team to achieve the double over Birmingham all season.

The remaining local derbies started to assume a massive importance. Damien Johnson rescued a draw for Blues at the Hawthorns and Coventry were put to the sword with a fine, resilient performance. Easter weekend approached with two easy games on the horizon. Promotion was starting to look like a good prospect again.

Veteran striker Andy Cole was engaged on a short term loan from Portsmouth and eyebrows were raised. He promptly injured himself and the opinion was that it could be a repeat of the "Chris Sutton affair" of last year. It didn`t look promising.

The games against Burnley and Barnsley were nothing short of disastrous. Two poor showings saw Birmingham go down 1-0 twice within three days. Dumped into third place behind two teams who showed little sign of losing, the agony of the playoffs seemed more and more likely, particularly as Blues` run-in was by far the most difficult.

But Derby County started to falter; draws were being picked up instead of wins and getting on to their coat-tails became a possibility.

Andy Cole made his debut and started marshalling the forward line. Nicklas Bendtner made immediate improvements and Cole set up a goal for the young Dane in their vital win over Southampton. He repeated the trick a few days later against Leicester and with the three points from their game in hand in the bag, the fans started to breathe again.

By the time Birmingham arrived at the Molineux for the final, crucial local derby of the season, they knew that Sunderland had lost to Colchester and the top spot could be theirs with a victory. Right at the end of this barnstorming game, Colin Doyle propelled himself to hero status with a man of the match performance and the top three were divided by only two points.

Last weekend`s games saw Sunderland retake the top spot with a hard-fought victory over Burnley and the pressure returned to Birmingham to take out one of the division`s form teams with the visit of Sheffield Wednesday.

Following a nervous first half and reduced to ten men in the second, Blues found their fighting spirit and put themselves back in the driving seat, exactly a year after their relegation from the Premiership was assured.

A promotion place was for Derby to win or lose in London and ex-Blues player Clinton Morrison scored what is arguably one of his most important goals to dump the Rams into the playoffs.

With promotion assured for Birmingham and Sunderland, it only remains for them to fight it out for first place next Sunday. If Birmingham can better Sunderland`s result then they will win their first Championship trophy for 52 years.

They have made it. Now the hard work starts.




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Writer:
Date:Monday April 30 2007
Time: 3:17PM

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