Suffering as I was from severe withdrawal symptoms from lack of a game for over two weeks it was good to get a match to go to with a reasonable chance that it was actually going to go ahead. Will called by at about three o’clock with Ben, a mate of his who follows the Red Devils and like so many doesn’t have a clue where Manchester actually is.
We were meeting up later with another friend of Will’s who was born in Kent, a beautiful little province just outside Mancunia where an awful lot of United fans live. It must be so wonderful to have so much local support but I digress. By the time we were setting off for Birmingham, Fulham were two up at Stoke, Blackburn were turning over the Baggies, Blackpool were on course for their fifth win away from home at Sunderland and the only silver lining was that Vile were getting a right good seeing to at Manchester City.
In short nearly all the results were going against us and it was just as well that Everton managed to equalise in East London otherwise even West Ham would have been above us before kick off. Having started out somewhat upbeat about the prospect of mixing it with the best team in the land, the reports on Radio 5 Live and Will’s pessimism made me increasingly gloomy and it was ‘cut your wrists time.’ Some food was required and we stopped off at Baginton at Chris’ pub for a Mexican fajita plus a pint as we didn’t want to take a chance on a hog roast not being available at The George; it was to prove a wise decision.
We stopped at a packed George pub nevertheless and watched the end of the West Ham – Everton game before getting into the ground for kick off. Blues started brightly enough but it wasn’t long before United started bossing midfield. With Carrick, Oliveira, Gibson and Giggs supporting Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov up front United had a powerful team out showing due respect for a Blues team that has lost only once in the last 23 home games.
The defence was going to take some breaching with Van Der Sar in goal and Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic and Rafael Da Silva presenting a formidable barrier to Blues progress. Alex McLeish had opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation to keep some control on the game.
The problem was soon apparent in that Jerome who as usual ran around industriously failed to win a single header when the ball was played up to him. It is not that Jerome cannot head the ball it is that he mistimes his jump on virtually every occasion with the result that the rebounds kept inevitably ending up at the feet of Giggs and Rooney especially and things looked ominous. However, the reconstituted back four of Carr, Dann, Johnson and fit again Ridgewell protected by Barry Ferguson looked solid enough and restricted United to two attempts by Rooney in the early stages both of which failed to trouble Foster too much. A clipped cross from the right by Giggs produced a fingertip save by Foster onto the far post on 18 minutes. Many feel that Giggs didn’t mean it but I’m not so sure!
Apart from this, United offered very little for the rest of the half and remarkably Blues started to gain control as they got into the game with snapping tackles and harassing of their more illustrious opponents. Anderson got into a strop with Gardner after 25 minutes and Lee Mason, the referee rightly booked the pair of them for acting like two year-olds and both can count themselves lucky that the sanction was not harsher but this incident was handled correctly in my view. Vidic was even more fortunate to not get an early bath when he deliberately kicked Jerome to the ground on the only occasion in the match that the front man was through on goal. As usual United received a lenient punishment from the referee presumably on the grounds that another defender was in line but 15 yards away and it was Jerome after all! Vidic escaped with a yellow card. Blues did produce chances including two fierce shots from Gardner which were wide and a free-kick from Larsson which failed to dip into time and so cleared the bar. On balance Blues ended the first period having edged proceedings and went off to deserved applause.
Blues maintained their momentum early in the second half action and Lee Bowyer saw his 25-yard shot deflected by Ferdinand for a corner. Blues were beginning to apply pressure higher up the pitch and the chance of the match so far fell to Gardner on 53 minutes. The ball pinged about inside the area and an excellent chance fell to Jerome sliced off his foot but fell to Gardner who made a good connection but unfortunately drilled his shot straight into the grateful arms of Edwin Van Der Sar.
Blues would pay for this miss five minutes later and it was a sublime one-two between Berbatov and Gibson that finally broke through the gallant Blues’ defences. A beautiful flick from the Bulgarian striker was placed immediately back into his path by Gibson and in one flowing movement a brilliant touch and shot was swept past Foster from the edge of the area for 1-0. Whilst at the time, this strike was against the run of play, it has to be acknowledged that it was a truly fabulous goal and a joy to watch for the purist. The strike spurred United on and their supporters who are noisy at the best of times started roaring their charges on.
Berbatov with another brilliant piece of footwork nearly put the matter beyond doubt when his 18 yard shot struck the base of the post with Foster beaten. Gibson should have done better when he was fed a shooting chance on the edge of the area but his wild effort ended up nearer the corner flag than the goal. Referee Mason was making a number of errors which inflamed the home support and although many of the decisions were minor, a two-footed challenge from Ryan Giggs on Bowyer certainly wasn’t. This should have received the ultimate sanction but not even a free-kick resulted.
Foster saved well from a fierce header from Vidic and Gibson let Blues off lightly when he delayed his cross with Berbatov unmarked in front of goal. After these 15 minutes when Manchester United were definitely on top, they started to sit back and hold on to what they had. In fairness, I couldn’t see us scoring and I am certain that the Manchester defence nor their manager couldn’t either; it proved to be a costly misjudgement as Blues grabbed an dramatic equaliser on 89 minutes.
The introduction of Zigic for a much improved Beausejour and Hleb for Larsson made an impact. Blues began to hold the ball up in the final third and it allowed us to apply some pressure.
Despite this Manchester looked comfortable soaking up what we could throw at them. Phillips finally replaced Jerome in a desperate attempt to salvage something from the game; a change which in my opinion should have occurred twenty minutes earlier at least. Stephen Carr was providing threat down the right as he often does and even Roger Johnson was joining the fray. A pass to him from Carr was delivered into the six yard box where Zigic attacked it. He outmuscled Ferdinand and the ball bounced off his midriff aided and abetted by a little bit of forearm into the path of the onrushing Bowyer who gleefully bundled the ball over the line from two yards.
This provided three instant protests from the United defenders; foul on Ferdinand; possibly but not for me. Dempsey climbed all over Fahey the other week and that goal stood; this was a minor brush past in comparison; Ferdinand simply wasn’t strong enough in his challenge. Hand-ball; well, yes, I suppose so but his arm was down by his side and there was no arm movement or intent so Mr Mason gave the big striker the benefit of the doubt. Offside against Bowyer; definitely not and the linesman gave the goal instantly. St Andrews erupted and a point was secured.
Make no mistake, Blues thoroughly deserved their share of the spoils against superior quality opposition but frankly United did not do enough to merit all three points on the night despite the comments of the red-nosed knight afterwards. He said; “I thought the result was terribly harsh after the way we played in the second half. This is a difficult place to come to. Every team that comes here has a difficult game. It was a handball and a foul on the centre half (by Zigic) with their equaliser. He went right through him. If the referee can’t see that what chance have you got? The players have worked their socks off and they deserved to win that match but it’s taken away from them by a bad decision. We didn’t deserve that.”
Well he would say that wouldn’t he? His whining is all the more unpleasant when it comes out of a chewing gum filled mouth that is persistently the case whenever he is interviewed by the media. All managers and players should make it a New Year’s resolution to cease this disgusting practice in the interests of good manners. At least he shook hands with Alex McLeish after the game unlike Messrs Pulis and Hughes after theirs yesterday.
This point was vital, not only because of what it means in terms of keeping us out of the bottom three, but also because of the confidence it is going to give to the team going forward. Well done Blues for not giving up; I should have known better than to doubt you! Finally I hope that all the Blue Nose Nation have had a good Christmas and may I wish you all a peaceful and prosperous New Year. Let’s hope that 2011 brings us a decent striker in January and a secure future in the Premier League; with performances like this, we will be alright.
BIRMINGHAM CITY: Ben Foster 8, Stephen Carr8, Liam Ridgewell 9, Roger Johnson 8, Scott Dann 8, Seb Larsson 7(Alexander Hleb 70, 8), Barry Ferguson 9, Lee Bowyer 8, Jean Beausejour 8 (Nikola Zigic 82, 8), Craig Gardner 8, Cameron Jerome 7 (Kevin Phillips 85, 7).
Subs (not used): Maik Taylor, Matt Derbyshire, Martin Jiranek, Keith Fahey
Goal: Bowyer (89)
Bookings: Gardner, Bowyer, Dann
MANCHESTER UNITED: Edwin Van Der Sar 8, Patrice Evra 8, Rio Ferdinand 8, Nemanja Vidic 8, Rafael Da Silva 7, Anderson 8 (Darren Fletcher 73, 7), Michael Carrick 8, Darron Gibson 8, Ryan Giggs 9, Wayne Rooney 7, Dimitar Berbatov 9.
Subs (not used): Tomasz Kuszczak, Gary Neville, Javier Hernandez, Jonny Evans, Gabriel Obertan, Federico Marcheda.
Goal: Berbatov (58)
Bookings: Anderson, Vidic, Giggs
REFEREE: Lee Mason 6; a pretty indifferent performance where he got a number of minor decisions wrong which served to irritate both sides. Whilst I think he sorted out the handbags between Gardner and Anderson, he missed the more serious misdemeanour of Giggs who should have walked; the Vidic decision was fifty-fifty. The other bookings were deserved especially Bowyer’s.