Birmingham City 1 Sheffield United 0
A 93rd minute strike from Kevin Phillips gave Birmingham City a dream start to their Coca Cola Championship campaign and the opportunity to blow their early-season jitters out of the water.
But their performance against a resolute Blades side was far from pretty and a warning to supporters that they may have to expect more of the same and some tough and scrappy battles this season at this level if Birmingham are to regain their place in the Premier League.
The wild celebrations from the Blues players at the final whistle, which came within a whisker of Phillips’ winner, were in stark contrast to the reaction from the Sheffield team, who slumped to the turf in disbelief.
In this division, every point is vital to push on beyond survival and Alex McLeish’s side knew this was a crucial win over a Sheffield team who also have serious aspirations of making it back into the top flight.
The appearance of Phillips just 15 minutes from time was as welcome to Blades’ fans as seeing your ex at your wedding and it was perhaps no surprise in the end that he turned the game and their fortunes as quickly as his turn-on-a-sixpence strike.
His last-gasp contribution delighted manager McLeish, who said: “He gets half a chance and takes it. It was evident that when we brought him on it turned the game a little bit. It was an anxious one for us and I think you can understand that, with it being the first home game of the season in the Championship.
“The expectation is high and everyone in the game is a wee bit edgy but the players held their nerve, the fans held their nerve and Phillips did what he does best. He is a quality finisher, a born finisher and a guy I would have liked to have worked with a few years ago.”
Phillips, one of a rare band of players to have played for all of the West Midlands trio of Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Blues, was the difference between the two sides with Kevin Blackwell also left to reflect on the 35-year-old veteran’s influence.
The United boss said: “What Phillips does is an absolute art and that is why he has made such a great living in the game.”
Blackwell also later claimed that he felt like “slashing his wrists” at the goal and it was perhaps no wonder he was so disappointed - Birmingham had barely troubled Sheffield goalkeeper Paddy Kenny
Birmingham, without Stephen Kelly who is suffering a groin strain, opted to give Stuart Parnaby a run out at right back while McLeish gave new signing Marcus Bent up front alongside James McFadden with Phillips, Garry O’Connor and Cameron Jerome all on the bench.
And while Bent seemed to be finding it more difficult to bed in, McFadden showed he had lost none of the attributes which he had abundance in the Premier League last season, testing United’s Sun Jihai from the third minute.
The former Everton star appeared determined to blunt the Blades’ defence but soon found that quite some task with Jihai and loane Gary Halford standing firm. At the other end, Martin Taylor was doing his best alongside Liam Ridgwell to make sure the visitors also made no headway.
At times, the football was scrappy as tackles flew in and the fans, who had braved an unseasonably wet start to the new season, saw little in the way of breakthroughs although McFadden did test the keeper in the 18th minute with a curling effort before Bill Sharp forced a fine reflex save from Maik Taylor.
Bent, who has played for 11 clubs including a brief spell at Bramall Lane in 2000 and joined Blues from Charlton Athletic last month, might have given his new club a goal before half-time but just failed to get his head on the end of a pinpoint McFadden cross.
Sebastian Larsson was then guilty of wasting a real chance when he sent a free-kick - awarded to Blues for a Jihai tackle on Gary McSheffrey on the edge of the area - high into the stands.
By the time the second half got under way, the home fans began to really get behind their team, sensing the need to get a goal at all costs but another free-kick, this time from McSheffrey, went begging without troubling Kenny before veteran Welshman Gary Speed tried to seize a goal, only to see his 56th minute header fly just over the bar.
Bent then missed another chance to score after good work from McSheffrey, before manager McLeish decided to freshen things up.
On came Phillips and O’Connor although they had barely made a mark on the game before the Blades won a valuable free-kick after a foul by captain Lee Carsley on Stephen Quinn. Up stepped Michael Tonge only to be denied by Maik Taylor and then before Phillips’ late, late show brought St Andrew’s back to life.
The diminuitive striker won the ball within seconds of the fourth official signalling that there would be three minutes of added time and he turned on the spot to fire it past the unfortunate Kenny. He then spun away to hsi team-mates - his outstretched arms mirroring his beaming broad smile. McLeish, in the dug-out, punched the air in delight.
The manager later admitted he had warned his team them before the game that it was not going to be pretty. He said: “I knew it was never going to be a walk in the park. I was preparing the players for that.
“We had to grind out that result. We would have loved to have played Sheffield United off the park and scored a few goals but football is not as easy as that. We lacked that bit of quality in the final third but Kevin Phillips is a born finisher. “
Scorers: 1-0.(Phillips, 90+3)
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2) Taylor, Parnaby, Taylor, Ridgewell, Murphy, Larsson (Jerome, 81), Nafti, Carsley, McSheffrey (Phillips, 64), McFadden, Bent (O,Connor, 72). Subs not used: Doyle, Queudrue.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: (4-4-2) Kenny, Naysmith, Morgan, Kilgallon, Halford, Jihai, Speed, Tonge, Quinn, Henderson (Stead, 81) Sharp (Webber, 60). Subs not used: Cotterill, Spring, Ehiogu.
Referee: Keith Stroud (Hants.)
Bookings: Blues - Parnaby, Carsley (fouls); Sheffield United - Stead foul )