BIRMINGHAM CITY 1 PRESTON NORTH END 2
Birmingham City were just 33 minutes away from the Premier League. Keith Fahey’s 57th-minute headed goal ensured that the smell of promotion was lingering in the air at St Andrew’s, Alex McLeish would have been able to taste it and the task was almost complete.
‘Almost’ being the key word.
Paul McKenna is a familiar thorn in Birmingham’s side and there was a certain sense of inevitability to his 69th-minute equaliser. McKenna has become a master at breaking Birmingham fans’ hearts when it comes to promotion dreams; he was the man who scored the decisive penalty that sent Blues tumbling out of the Championship play-offs in 2001.
On a day when the Preston skipper passed Sir Tom Finney’s appearance record for the club by chalking up his 473rd game for the Lilywhites and in the style of his celebrity namesake, McKenna’s 30-yard wonder strike left the majority of those inside St Andrew’s in a deflated trance.
Ross Wallace’s 88th-minute winner, another sublime effort from distance that gave goalkeeper Maik Taylor no chance, would have received equal cheers of joy in Sheffield and Reading.
Sheffield United are now just a point behind Birmingham and, if Reading manage to beat Norwich City tonight, even they can also steal the final automatic promotion slot on goal difference.
That means that Sunday’s final-day fixture at the Madejski Stadium between Reading and Birmingham has been transformed from being a potential dead-rubber to a monumental encounter that will be win or bust for both teams.
Birmingham manager McLeish now faces the tough task of lifting his squad’s rock-bottom morale following the heartbreak of Saturday, it won’t be easy.
There’s no doubt that the needless double sending-off of Lee Bowyer and Lee Williamson in the 61st minute following a petty grapple in the centre circle affected Birmingham more than it did Preston, McLeish admitted that himself.
Since arriving at the club, Bowyer has been the driving force behind Blues and his absence was always going to be felt. Birmingham, reduced to ten men for the third successive home game, did create chances after Bowyer’s sending off, most notably Cameron Jerome’s off-side headed goal followed by a nomination for miss of the season from six yards, but they never looked the same. Even for the last five minutes, including four for injury time, when Preston were reduced to nine men after Wallace’s goal celebration had seen him collect a second yellow card as the latest victim of the ridiculous rule against removing shirts.
Understandably, there had been a tentative start to this match but it was Preston, still chasing a play-off spot, who looked the more nervous, particularly in defence.
Goalkeeper Andy Lonergan spilled a Sebastian Larsson effort that presented the out-of-sorts Garry O’Connor with a chance that was blocked by Billy Jones in the six-yard box.
At the opposite end, Neil Mellor’s low cross from the left wing struck Taylor’s far post before Chris Sedgwick blasted the rebound into the side netting.
Franck Queudrue survived a penalty scare in the 42nd minute after replays showed that he had handled the ball during a melee in the Birmingham area, 15 minutes after being booked for the same offence at the opposite end.
The second-half started in the same evenly-matched vein but after Birmingham-born Sean St Ledger headed a glorious close-range opportunity wide, the hosts found a breakthrough.
James McFadden’s wonderfully-flighted cross from the right met Fahey’s charge into the box and the Irishman directed his header beyond Lonergan for what appeared to be the promotion clincher.
McKenna struck seven minutes after both sides had been reduced to ten men. The ball bobbled up perfectly for the Preston midfielder 30 yards out before he fired a dipping volley into the bottom right-hand corner.
With Jerome and Kevin Phillips introduced as McLeish searched for a similar reaction to the one at Watford the weekend prior, Birmingham pressed as the tension continued to rise.
Jerome was denied by the linesman’s flag and then his own sense of panic when blasting a close-range effort well over in the 80th minute.
Taylor denied Preston substitute Chris Brown from close range in the 86th minute but the Birmingham goalkeeper could do nothing to stop Wallace’s superb free-kick flying in off the right post two minutes later.
The winner brought boos and tears of despair for the home crowd and the Birmingham players were left to face a deflated lap of honour on an evening that had promised so much.
Scorers: Fahey (57) 1-0, McKenna (69) 1-1, Wallace (88) 1-2.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Carr, Jaidi, Queudrue, Traore; Larsson (Jerome, 54), Bowyer, Johnson, Fahey; McFadden, O’Connor (Phillips, 72). Substitutes: Doyle, Martin Taylor, Carsley.
PRESTON NORTH END (4-4-2): Lonergan; Jones, St Ledger, Mawene, Nolan; Sedgwick (Whaley, 76), Williamson, McKenna Wallace; Parkin (Brown, 58), Mellor (Chilvers, 90). Substitutes: Neal, Carter.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).
Bookings: Birmingham – Bowyer, Jaidi (both fouls), Queudrue (deliberate handball); Preston – Wallace, Parkin (both fouls).
Sendings-off: Birmingham – Bowyer (violent conduct); Preston – Williamson (violent conduct), Wallace (second bookable offence).