WATFORD 0 BIRMINGHAM CITY 1
The finishing line is in sight for Birmingham City – but there’s still the possibility of stumbling on the home straight.
The route to automatic promotion, Blues’ only priority since relegation last May, is simple, win their last two fixtures and they are back in the promised land of the Premier League.
However, as had been proven this season, life in the Championship is never that simple.
Should Sheffield United, now the only realistic contenders to Birmingham’s claims for a top two finish, lose at Burnley tonight, then Alex McLeish’s men will be four points clear with two games remaining.
That would mean that their return to the top flight could be confirmed on home soil on Saturday with victory over Preston North End.
On the other hand, if the Blades win tonight and repeat the same feat at home to Swansea on Saturday then, with the Preston game being a 5.20pm kick-off, Birmingham could find themselves back in the dreaded play-off positions when they line-up against the Lilywhites.
For now at least all the pressure is on Kevin Blackwell’s side thanks to this hard-earned victory at Vicarage Road, a stomping ground that had turned Watford into formidable opponents in recent months.
There was always the danger that this fixture could have gone horribly wrong for McLeish. After all he was missing the rock-solid spine of his team through Maik Taylor’s and Lee Carsley’s suspensions and the long-term injury blow to their most consistent defender Liam Ridgewell.
However, McLeish’s trio of deputies didn’t disappoint. Newly crowned player-of-the-season Franck Queudue may be prone to the occasional lapse in concentration but, alongside a sturdy Radhi Jaidi, there was never any danger of that happening in sunny Hertfordshire on Saturday.
Colin Doyle attracted praise from McLeish after the game for being calmness personified after making his first Championship start of the season.
Doyle was a virtual spectator for large parts of the first-half but when needed the Irishman produced a superb save low-down to tip wide Grzegorz Rasiak’s goal-bound header wide in the 63rd minute.
Most impressive was Damien Johnson who has made the imminent return of Carsley difficult for his manager. The club captain has been simply inspirational since stepping into the side at Charlton three games ago, the length of Carsley’s suspension for his sending off against champions-elect Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The Northern Ireland international put in another tremendous shift in the middle for Birmingham at Watford alongside his equally hard-working central midfield partner Lee Bowyer. And it was Johnson who turned creator for Birmingham’s 73rd-minute match-winning goal.
Johnson broke up play before unleashing Cameron Jerome, on as a substitute just three minutes prior, down the left before the striker cut in and directed his shot into the far corner via the legs of Watford midfielder Ross Jenkins.
It was a deserved goal for Birmingham who, apart from the a bright start to the second-half for Watford, were much the better side at Vicarage Road.
While it was simple catching practice for Watford goalkeeper Scott Loach in the first-half, he was still a busy man. The Hornets had set their defensive stall out with a 4-1-4-1 formation, with on-loan Chelsea teenager Jack Cork placed in front of the defence, that was there to be ground down by Birmingham.
Having seen Birmingham’s pre-kick-off huddle return after a minute’s applause to mark the death of former Watford player and manager Mike Keen, Sebastian Larsson, Keith Fahey, James McFadden and Lee Bowyer all had efforts on target throughout the first goal, the majority, however, being straight at Loach.
Bowyer did ensure that Loach wasn’t simply a blocking machine with 40th-minute drive from 25 yards that looked bound for the top left-hand corner.
At the other end, Doyle watched a tricky Lloyd Doyley shot from distance fizz wide of his right post before tipping over Jobi McAnuff’s near-post effort.
The introduction of Rasiak at the interval made a marked difference to Watford who showed more attacking intent in the second-half.
Twice Jaidi was called upon to prevent the Poland international scoring and creating an opener for Watford.
However, as Watford tired, the introduction of Kevin Phillips and Jerome saw the hosts’ bright spell begin to peter out.
Importantly for McLeish, he saw his decision to rest the speedy legs of Jerome vindicated when the Yorkshireman grabbed the only goal of the game.
It is now nine unbeaten for Birmingham as Premier League football slowly draws closer.
Scorer: Jerome (73).
WATFORD (4-1-4-1): Loach; Mariappa,Williamson, DeMerit, Doyley; Cork; Smith, Jenkins, Rose (Harley, 59), McAnuff; Hoskins (Rasiak, h/t). Substitutes: Lee,Cauna, Stepanov.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Doyle; Carr, Jaidi, Queudrue (Traore, 85), Murphy; Larsson (Phillips, 64), Johnson, Bowyer, Fahey; O’Connor (Jerome, 70), McFadden. Substitutes: Lyness, Bouazza.
Referee: Anthony Bates (Staffordshire).
Birmingham man of the match: Damien Johnson – both Johnson and Lee Bowyer were neck and neck for this honour. However the Northern Ireland international has done nothing to suggest that he should be dropped when Lee Carsley returns from suspension on Saturday.