CHAMPIONSHIP: Preston North End 1 Birmingham City 0
They call him ‘The Beast’ and Preston North End striker Jon Parkin lived up to his nickname as he savaged Birmingham City’s seven-game unbeaten record with an injury-time winner.
He may not look like a professional footballer, more like a pub player with his portly appearance, but Parkin demonstrated a cool head as he chested down Ross Wallace’s pinpoint cross which was misjudged by Liam Ridgewell and then easily beat Maik Taylor from close range to hand the Lillywhites their fourth consecutive home victory.
Preston had an enviable home record before Blues’ arrival and a point would have been a decent return for Alex McLeish’s side.
They looked on course until Parkin’s strike, but there was a sense that this was a game that was there for the taking for Birmingham.
Blues had shaded an entertaining encounter and created several opportunities, the best of which fell to Kevin Phillips, but unusually he was unable to take them.
However, that final piece of decisive quality was missing and after inflicting defeats on Southampton and Crystal Palace with last-gasp winners, it was Blues’ turn to be on the receiving end.
It may have been a body blow but it certainly wasn’t a knock-out punch to Birmingham’s promotion hopes.
At the halfway stage of the season, they are still in the top two and with the likes of James McFadden, Sebastian Larsson, Stephen Kelly, Damien Johnson, Gary McSheffrey and Garry O’Connor all likely to return soon, Blues boss McLeish can have good reason to feel confident his side can push on and sustain their challenge.However, McLeish will know that if Blues are to be successful at securing a second consecutive instant return to the Premier League, he must bolster his squad during the transfer window and this defeat highlighted the weaknesses.
With Larsson, McSheffrey and McFadden out, McLeish was forced to use full-back David Murphy on the left of midfield and while the defender did an admirable job, Blues can’t continue to push square pegs into round holes.
Murphy had a great chance in the first half to open the scoring when he was played in on goal by Marcus Bent but he lacked the composure of a more accomplished attacking player and blazed his shot wildly wide.
The former Middlesbrough and Hibernian defender did produce a superb piece of skill to set up Phillips for Blues’ best chance of the game on the hour mark but the striker’s downward header from six yards out was saved superbly on the line by Preston goalkeeper Andy Lonergan.
Blues could certainly do with a wide player with the attributes of Preston’s Wallace, who was a constant threat with his intelligent, teasing runs and precise crosses and who set up Parkin for the decisive winner.
Wallace, who is on loan at Deepdale from Sunderland, is a player McLeish knows all about. In fact, he considered the former Celtic winger for inclusion in his Scotland squad when he was the national team manager, but decided against it.
Wallace seemed to be a player with a point to prove as he took the game to Blues. On more than one occasion, he tested Taylor with good efforts from outside the area but the Blues keeper was more than a match. Blues had their own wing threat in Quincy but it was another frustrating afternoon for the former Arsenal winger.
His pace is frightening and Preston were having to double up on the Ghanian international, but too often the on-loan winger was unable to produce a final ball of significant quality and that is his Achilles heel.
He did set up Phillips with a clever low ball into the box in the first half but the Blues striker’s shot was well saved again by Lonergan.
The visitors’ most attacking threat in the first half actually came from right- back Nicky Hunt, whose super crossing caused panic in the Preston box and had any of the chances fallen for Bent instead of Murphy, then Blues could have had quite a comfortable cushion, but nothing seemed to fall for the visitors. They must put this defeat to the back of their minds and hope some of their walking wounded return to face Reading at St Andrew’s this weekend.
The Royals moved to within a point of Blues with their 2-0 victory over Norwich City and next Saturday’s clash could prove to be a decisive moment in the season.
It will certainly not be a game for the faint-hearted.