Charlton Athletic 2 Birmingham City 0

There are days in any relegation season when you instinctively know your team is going down.

To the Birmingham City fans who have suffered in silence this season, this immensely frustrating afternoon's work must have seemed the latest and cruellest of them.

Steve Bruce's men outplayed a poor Charlton Athletic team, did not take any of their chances and ended up getting badly stung by 'one of their own'.

Bryan Hughes scored the first, then made the Addicks' late second. And for Blues to be undone by an old boy on the day when they were parading a new signing seemed particularly harsh.

But if the Blues supporters (and more crucially the board) have put all their faith in Chris Sutton, just as they did in their last January saviour Christophe Dugarry three seasons ago, then they must give him time.

Dugarry, it needs to be remembered, was not an instant hit.

From the Frenchman's first five matches, Blues scraped just one point. And it was late February before he triggered the amazing run of seven wins out of nine that steered Steve Bruce's men to safety.

Dugarry's arrival it should not be forgotten, also coincided with a tough crop of fixtures.

Similarly now, Blues have in-form Liverpool and Arsenal after next week's vital trip to Portsmouth, where they must not lose. And it is not until mid February when they face four winnable games, West Ham United and Middlesbrough away, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion at home, in succession.

But, right now, Blues fans still need to keep patient.

It might be considered that not beating a team as woeful as Alan Curbishley's clueless Addicks is clear proof that it's next stop the Championship. But they would do well to have taken a long look at the impressively buoyant demeanour of the Blues manager at The Valley.

Bruce saw enough, more than enough, from his team to know that they are a long way from throwing in the towel. And, in Sutton, as Bruce can still remember from his own playing days, he knows he has a talent.

He might not be a Dugarry, but the initial evidence is that he can still be a real creative force at this level.

"I think he'll prove the best free transfer in this transfer window," said Bruce. "He's that cold, calculated winner as a player and a person.

"The players he's had up front alongside him all tell you he's the best centre forward they've played with.

And just ask Hermann Hreidarsson and Jonathan Fortune.

"They've probably not been in as physical a contest as that. It was hammer and tongs all afternoon."

It was chiefly thanks to Sutton's presence that Blues looked the better team in a first half that did little to improve on this season's usual generally torrid level of over-priced Premiership 'entertainment'.

Twice early on, the 'Route One' combination of a Maik Taylor punt and a Sutton flick-on nearly paid off.

Jiri Jarosik fizzed his right-foot shot just past the post with the second of those openings. And when set up by another Sutton knockdown, the Czech international flashed a left-footer wide.

Jarosik also caused chaos in the home defence when he got to the by-line only for his cross to be scrambled away, and Emile Heskey was not far away with a raking right-foot shot which flew just over.

Charlton, by contrast, managed just one worthwhile effort. But it was on target. And, to sum up what happens when you're down where Blues are right now, it ended up in the Blues net.

Dennis Rommedahl's right wing corner, the Addicks' first of the afternoon, was delivered with devastating accuracy into the six-yard box. Taylor opted not to come for it, and Jarosik, being the relative newcomer, was seemingly unaware of Hughes' presence in the box in such situations.

Having lost his marker, the Blues old boy showed he's lost none of his ability to ghost in, timing his run excellently to head home.

Blues were immeasurably superior after the break. But the second 45 minutes were to prove even more frustrating.

Myhre twice saved from Heskey, before Sutton shot wide after Stan Lazaridis had shown commendable persistence. And, after Fortune's foul on the impressive Muzzy Izzet, Jarosik's free-kick hit the top of the wall and flew over.

Bruce gambled even more for the final quarter of an hour by going with just three defenders at the back and throwing on a third striker in Mikael Forssell.

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And, comfortingly, the Finn twice showed something like his old sharpness.

A neat turn in the box earned a shooting chance, only for his left-foot shot to slide agonisingly across the face, when a more measured cross might have been the best option.

And, after Bent had given the ball away need-lessly with the sort of sloppiness that summed up Charlton's performance, it was from Forssell's neat flick that Sutton's fierce shot tested the alert Myhre at his near post.

Charlton had gone close just twice more. First, when skipper Luke Young cut in from the left to fire in a low curler which Taylor did well turn round the post.

Then again when Matt Holland raced on to Bent's through ball, only to be distracted by a great challenge from the inexhaustible Izzet.

But, for all their lack of threat, Charlton knew where the back of the net was when it mattered.

Deep into injury time, Hughes' clearing punt turned into a fine through ball, Mario Melchiot mistimed his covering run to leave himself flat-footed. And Bent took him to the cleaners, racing clear before belting his right-foot shot through Taylor.

"Steve Bruce must be looking at that and scratching his head," admitted Curbishley. "They can't work any harder than they worked today.

"If we'd been in that bad run still, we'd have been beaten.

"But they did not get their goal. And all Steve needs is their luck to turn around."