Welcome back fellow bluenoses! The close season seems to have gone faster this time around somehow and so it is, here we are early August and the first game of the season is upon us. Reading were our final opponents away from St Andrews back in April that I witnessed and I have to say that we robbed the Royals that night with a glancing header from Clayton Donaldson having soaked it up for most of the evening. It was the perfect away performance in a way; defend resolutely and nick it at the end. The fixture at St Andrews was a different matter and young Demarai Gray had completed a hatrick before half time and we were heavily in front by then but despite the eventual 6-1 score line, many of us were scratching our heads as the game didn’t seem that one sided and for periods in the first half at least Reading had looked the more accomplished side! “It’s a funny old game,” as the great Jimmy Greaves used to say.
Usually I’m absolutely buzzing at the start of a new campaign but this time around, although looking forward to it, it is with a more measured excitement. Blues have been through turmoil over the last three or four seasons and the tedious saga of our ownership travails which I hope and pray will be resolved soon if nothing else so that we can get back to talking purely about matters football and what is good and great about Birmingham City Football Club. We find ourselves in the position of not being able to compete with the other Championship big hitters financially and the attracting the quality required to mount a promotion campaign is difficult at best. The quality of our squad though reasonable on paper will not in my opinion pull up trees in the division shake up and it is for this reason that a mid-table place but upper half is a reasonable expectation. If we do better I will be delighted but at least I’m confident we won’t be struggling with the relegation contenders.
Will had arranged to pick me up at around 11.00 along with another mate, Phil, a Reading fan, who made his way from his home near to me. We set off via the M4 and M40 to St Andrews. It was good to absorb the pre-match atmosphere in the August sunshine; the colours of the shirts, the smells of food cooking on the burger stalls, the shouts of the programme, scarf, badge and T-shirt sellers. We stopped by the Royal George for a couple of pints before making our way into the ground where we were joined by Rob who had travelled up from work in Leamington. In bright sunshine the game started with a crowd of over 19,000.
Gary Rowett used the formation that has served him well thus far. With two holding midfielders, Maikel Kieftenbeld and Stephen Gleeson in front of a back four comprised of Grounds, Morrison, Spector and Caddis. David Cotterill, Jon Toral and Demarai Gray played behind Clayton Donaldson who worked extremely hard as ever on a warm day. Tomasz Kuszczak made his debut between the sticks and he was the villain and hero in one game and one he and all who were there will not forget in a hurry. Let’s be clear from the outset; Blues did not deserve to win this game by a long chalk. Whilst they were in control in the middle third of the match especially when Jon Toral put the hosts 2-0 up early in the second half from a perfect cross from Clayton Donaldson from the left. His header gave Jonathan Bond no chance and Blues looked to have the match won and it was just a matter of game management. However, this is Birmingham City which brings me back to Kuszczak who has to take much of the blame for Reading’s goal which was scored far too easily. Blues midfielders were dropping in too deep all afternoon which meant that their midfielders were picking up second balls easily only to come again. It is a good job that the visitors’ finishing was indifferent as more ruthless sides will win this kind of game comfortably and it has to be said Reading could have done so had they been more precise. As Blues failed to clear their lines effectively a shot came in which was straight at the keeper. For reasons only Kuszczak will know he shovelled the ball back out in front of him and although out wide of the goal it was not wide or far enough and a simple clipped hung up cross was back in in a flash and Nick Blackman had the easiest of headers for 2-1. It was shocking goalkeeping aided and abetted by failure to clear properly in the first place, poor tracking of incoming runners and sitting too deep.
From that point on, Reading were the better side and were very unfortunate to not go away with at least a point if not all three. Blues used up a lot of credit from their lucky pot and whilst we can all quote the many a time when events have gone against us, we were very lucky to not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The first half had been relatively evenly contested but even then Reading had had the best chances. A scrambled clearance off the line mid-way through the half was about all either team produced and Paul McShane went close with a free kick that clipped the crossbar; the first of three occasions that the woodwork was struck by the visitors. On forty minutes, Blues had a 25 yard free kick of their own which David Cotterill took. Just before he struck the shot I was disparagingly saying to Will, Rob and Phil that this was probably going to be one of Cotterill’s three pointers; high and handsome over the bar! Not a bit of it; his strike struck the top of the wall and was deflected past the helpless Bond for 1-0 at the break.
The second half started far more brightly and for the first 15 minutes Blues were on top especially when Toral made it 2-0. As Reading got back into the game and went in search of an equaliser which by rights they achieved with about 15 minutes left. A fierce drive from Aaron Tshibola crashed off the underside of the bar and over the line. Unfortunately, neither the linesman (I still call them that) and the referee acknowledged that fact even though many of us sitting around me clearly did. This was a massive let off and Blues continued to sit deep trying to hang on. David Davis replaced the impressive Kieftenbeld, Shinnie for Toral and Robbo for Cotterill as it was clear that Gary Rowett was settling for the result in hand. Five minutes of time added on was flashed up presumably for the substitutions and the time wasting that Blues had been guilty of in an attempt to run down the clock. It wasn’t blatant but I felt the referee had rightly spotted it. However, it was well past the five when Simon Cox was clipped in the box by Davis when not picked up coming from deep. It was probably the right decision but Cox was on his way down before the contact in my view but I’ve no arguments and I turned to Phil and said that justice will now be done for the goal that never was. Sadly Orlando Sa’s spot kick was too close to Kuszczak and lacked enough pace hence it was saved. Simon Cox, following up, then contrived to side foot the rebound wide when lashing it would undoubtedly have registered the deserved draw. It was now the 99th minute and I have no idea where all that time came from. I suspect Blues will play far better than this during the campaign and lose! As for Reading, they look better than last season but their perennial problems of lack of firepower persist.
The Good: The pork, stuffing and apple sauce bap on sale at the Cookhouse!
The Bad: Phil told us that Reading’s away kit was horrible; it was! A yukky lilac urggh!
The Ugly: Kuszczak’s goalkeeping; because of Reading’s wayward finishing he had little to do but when shots were on target he spilled the ball more often than not. I was going to give him 4/10 but the penalty save retrieved a point. Even the save didn’t go wide enough and the rebound should have been buried. I’m sorry to be picky but overall his performance was poor and we can only hope that things will improve.
Birmingham City : Tomasz Kuszczak 5, Jonathan Grounds 6, Maikel Kieftenbeld 7 (David Davis, 62, 6), Demarai Gray 6, Stephen Gleeson 6, Clayton Donaldson 7, David Cotterill 6 (Paul Robinson 81, N/A) Jon Toral 7 (Andrew Shinnie, 71, 6), Jonathan Spector 8, Michael Morrison 7, Paul Caddis 6.
Subs not used: Adam Legzdins, Paul Robinson, Jacques Maghoma, Lee Novak, Wes Thomas.
Bookings: Kuszczak, Kieftenbeld, Donaldson, Davis.
Reading: Jonathan Bond 6, Chris Gunter 6, Jordan Obita 7, Michael Hector 7, Paul McShane 7, Oliver Norwood 7, Stephen Quinn 8 (Simon Cox, 83, N/A) Aaron Tshibola 7 (Dominic Samuel, 86, N/A), Daniel Williams 6, Nick Blackman 6 (Hal Robson-Kanu, 79, 6), Orlando Sa 6.
Subs not used: Ali Al-Habsi, Andrew Taylor, Anton Ferdinand, JakeTaylor.
Bookings: Hector, Orbita, Tshibola, Norwood.
Referee: Peter Bankes 5: In the main most decisions were fine but he missed the most important call which was Reading’s equaliser; that ball was over the line and the assistant surely must spot that. I don’t know why so much extra time was added but the penalty decision was after at least six minutes time added.