Cod Almighty | Match Report
by Tony Butcher
23 October 1999
A greyish day with a very slight wind blowing across from the Main Stand, though quite temperate for the time of year. All in all a perfect day for football. Birmingham brought about 700 supporters who made the occasional chant, but mostly sang "Keep right on to the end of the World" (they'll have to with Francis in charge). The drummer made an unspecial guest appearance in his corner of the Pontoon, and kept up a solid 4/4 rhythm for most of the first half. The Town support was extremely muted, mostly apprehension through memories of last year's stuffing.
The Town team showed several changes, which added to the crowd's fears. Town lined up as follows: Coyne, Butterfield, Gallimore, R Smith, Lever, D Smith, Groves, Burnett, Pouton, Lester and Allen. The subs were Croudson, Black, A Buckley, Clare and Chapman. Groves returned to centre midfield, with Pouton wide right and (at last) Allen starting a game. The crowd awaited developments before deciding upon the merits of Lever's returned. There was hardly any cheering of the players names as they were read out, which added to the tension in the stands. Birmingham's kit is horrible, strange white stripes down the centre of the shirt at front and back.
Town kicked off away from the Pontoon and nothing much happened for 30 seconds. Then Birmingham launched a clearance down the Town left and R Smith allowed the ball to trickle out for a goal kick. Unfortunately the referee was so good he noticed something no-one else saw – a glance off a Town player's head. The corner was headed over at the far post by one of the centre-backs. A couple of minutes later Birmingham broke down the Town right, with Johnstone getting to the bye-line within the area. Pouton received a triumphant purr from the crowd by tracking back and simply easing Johnstone away and dribbling out of defence.
There were no particular chances created by either team in the first 15 minutes, though Town were beginning to create space down the right with Pouton prominent. The first real effort on goal from Town came after about 20 minutes when Lester and Allen combined down the centre, with Lester trying a shot from a central position 20 yards out. It deflected off the defender and was saved comfortably by Bennett, low to his left. Lester and Allen had begun to forge a bit of an understanding. This effort had been created when Lester left a ball rolled to him from the right and Allen spun to provide a wall pass which Lester ran on to. Allen had drifted into an unmarked position on the edge of the area when Lester shot. Birmingham's only effort was a 35-yard snap shot from Wreh which lacked the pace to get past Coyne (who had cut off the floppy bits from his hair. A sensible hair cut and a sensible display).
The next moment of discomfiture in the Birmingham defence was created by, of all people, Lever. His deep through-ball/cross from the right curved around the first defender, in between him and the keeper. The second centre-back had to lunge and divert the ball over the bar for a corner. Sniffer Allen was lurking unmarked behind the last defender. After 27 minutes (so said the intermittently working scoreboard) the ball fell loose 20 yards out just left of centre. Allen swivelled and hit a low first-time right-footed shot about a foot wide of the keeper's right-hand post. Town were beginning to control the middle of the pitch and to advance into the Birmingham area more. They had already forced four corners, of which only one plopped gently in to the keeper's hands. Pouton's corners from the right were low and flatly hit, and were penetrating the centre of the defence (though, of course, no Town player touched them either).
After 34 minutes something tangible occurred when the ball was knocked up to Lester, about 30 yards out on the Town centre right. He was pushed and the referee awarded a free kick, which was taken immediately. The ball was rolled to Butterfield who advanced five yards, drew the defender and passed to Pouton (who had been hugging the touchline in front of the Findus). Pouton hit a curling first-time cross, about head height, between the goalkeeper and defenders to Allen, about seven yards out, near the centre of goal. A simple flick from his head and the ball glided into the side of the net on the keeper's right. His finish was very similar to his goal against Port Vale, as was the move. The Birmingham left side had played very narrowly and Pouton's line hugging had created the space, and his cross was superb. So the Master Sniffer struck again.
The response from Birmingham was immediate. They stepped up the pace of play and most certainly increased their commitment levels. Prior to the goal they had strolled around playing complacently, afterwards they put themselves about, utilising their superior strength, speed and height. Their modus operandi changed too. Instead of short passing and flicks and tricks, they went more direct and tried to hit Adebole's head as often and as quickly as possible. This caused Town 10 minutes of difficulty, during which Birmingham scored. A couple of minutes after the Allen goal Birmingham pressed down the centre left, the ball was half cleared and the defence advanced past the 18-yard line. Unfortunately, Lever didn't and Rowett ran on from right-back, past Gallimore and D Smith. The ball was flipped over the top and Rowett got to near the bye-line and crossed behind the defence to Wreh, about 10 yards out. He controlled the ball, shimmied and feinted, waited for R Smith to commit himself to a block and shimmied again. Wreh then calmly rolled the ball inside Coyne's left-hand post.
A couple of minutes later Adebole headed a deep cross back across goal from the Town left to Wreh, who shimmied and feinted again. From a central position 12 yards out Wreh lifted the ball a foot over the bar. The referee gave a corner, despite no Town body parts being involved. In the next five minutes Birmingham repeated that move a couple more times; fortunately R Smith and Burnett blocked the shots. Town had to defend rather desperately during this period, but they survived until half time with no further scares. The last five minutes of the half went back to the previous pattern – Town having possession with Birmingham breaking away half-heartedly.
The referee had managed to book several players in the first half, including Lester and D Smith. He seemed to take the view that if a player remained on the ground after a tackle, then a yellow card is mandatory. Though neither Lester or D Smith can complain as they left their feet in late.
Overall the Pontoon (and presumably the rest of the Town supporters) were content with the scoreline. Town probably shaded the first half, though not in terms of shots on goal. Birmingham could have scored three by half time, but they had not really impressed. Compared to last year's performance they had been timid and not committed. Apart from the 10 minutes after Town scored they didn't impose their style of play on Town, one that we know is likely to succeed against us. On the plus side Pouton had been very good. His crosses were causing difficulties and he had displayed great commitment in tracking back and tackling. Allen and Lester had looked a promising partnership, with the signs of an understanding developing. Allen's movement around the box had been very noticeable. He always seems to be free and unmarked, and he always follows in shots looking for rebounds. His link play outside the box had been adequate too. Burnett and D Smith had had a quiet half. D Smith particularly looked a little lost and behind the pace of play. However, both had contributed defensively, both at least stayed in their positions so that Town kept their shape. Birmingham's midfield had not got through to the Town box once.
One-one at half time was acceptable, and the performance had been OK. The Town supporters would have settled for that being the full-time score too.
No changes were made at half time by either side.
The Blues kicked off with a rush. For the first six or seven minutes of the second half Birmingham played a more physical (not dirty), direct and fast game. Within a minute of the restart Adebole had been set free on the right edge of the Town area and hit a low shot straight at Coyne. Exactly the same position he had from scored last year. After 51 minutes the Birmingham centre-back, Purse, thundered a header against the bar from 12 yards following a corner on the Town left.
After that Birmingham stopped playing, they seemed to sit back a little and be content with a draw (with the hint of a breakaway goal). Town recovered well from the early pressure and regained a semblance of control over the midfield and, surprisingly, raised the pace of their own game. Town started to take quick free kicks and, especially, quick throw-ins (mainly down the right) which put Birmingham on the back foot constantly. For the next half hour it was all Town pressure with Birmingham holding on. The Birmingham defenders played relatively intelligently, particularly against Lester who they did not tackle when he went into the area, they simply crowded him out and blocked.
Most of Town's efforts were from outside the area, which says much for the quality of the Brum defence. Town's first real effort of the half came from Pouton, who hit a right-foot volley just over the angle of post and bar from 20 yards. Allen produced a couple of shots from the edge of the area which, though accurate, did not have sufficient power to cause Bennett any difficulties. Town really piled on the pressure between the 60th and 70th minute. After a period of pressure, with the ball going across the goal from right to left, a clearance hit D Smith in the face. The ball rebounded to the centre, where it was half cleared to Groves, about 20 yards out on the Town left, about level with the six-yard box. Groves shaped his body superbly and smacked a right foot volley against the foot of the keeper's right-hand post. The ball rebounded off the post on to the keeper's head and went out for a corner.
A few minutes later D Smith picked up a loose ball about 30 yards out, turned and advanced towards the area. From about 25 yards out, slightly to the left of centre, he drove a shot towards the top right corner of the goal. Bennett leapt like a stick of rhurbarb (copyright D Gibbins 1997) to his right and tipped the ball over for a corner. It was a fantastic save as the ball seemed to be dipping over him and creeping under the bar.
Birmingham had only one period of pressure which resulted in Coyne tipping over a header from the far post, but the referee gave town a free kick for pushing. So no danger anyway.
With about 15 minutes left Town had their last real chance. Allen won the ball centrally near the half way line and set off towards goal. The Birmingham defenders retreated, conceding the space to Lester and Allen. Allen advanced to the last defender and passed to Lester. Allen then set off on a run behind the defender and was unmarked about 30 yards out, right in the centre, with an unimpeded run towards goal. Rather than pass to Allen, Lester decided to dribble into the area. He beat two defenders and got to the bye-line, about six yards to the left of the goal. He produced a loopy chip to the far post where D Smith was waiting, about eight yards out. Unfortunately for D Smith, there was not much pace on the ball and, by the time it had dropped, two defenders and the goalkeeper had thrown themselves across the goal. D Smith's volley was blocked a yard or two off the line by the human wall of blueness. Town had had several corners which had produced a modicum of panic in the Birmingham defence. The combination of Pouton's flight and Lever's presence saw the ball drift through the centre three or four times. Unfortunately, the ball seemed to go just behind a Town player, with Groves being the nearest when he was five yards out but the ball went a couple of feet behind him. Pouton nearly produced an outrageous attempt at goal when a D Smith cross went behind him and he attempted to do a back flick, but he missed, so it wasn't. Maybe next week then.
In the last 10 minutes Birmingham came forward more, and again reverted to a more direct game. This produced several moments of danger, particularly from Wreh. They produced a further four efforts on goal, with them all falling to Wreh, who put every one of them over the bar. A couple were exact replicas of his first half miss (Adebole heads down to Wreh who shimmies, side steps and hoofs over the bar). In the last minute Wreh had a shooting opportunity from the edge of the area, in a central position. His shot was worse than anything Pouton has yet conjured up and it screwed way, way high and wide. That was the last opportunity of the game and, despite the referee playing two minutes more added time than was shown on the board, that was that.
Overall Town shaded the game with a committed performance which included one or two things Town are not renowned for: quick throw-ins, flat fast crossing, a poacher sniffing out loose balls in the area. Pouton was superb and you will not find anyone coming out of Blundell Park advocating Donovan's return. D Smith improved as the game went on; I think the whack on the head did him good. Lever produced an acceptable performance, with only one wild mis-kick. He marked Adebole very well, neutralising most of his aerial threat. In fact no-one can be criticised too much. Lester did provide a constant threat (mostly to my blood pressure), though he was marked intelligently and, especially in the second half, played with little awareness of his team-mates positioning. Lester appeared to want to beat the fourth and fifth defender before considering his options.
Yet again Coyne had little to do and I can't remember him being forced to make a save of any distinction. He was not at fault for the goal, and didn't miss any crosses today. He came out for one cross and punched it away solidly. Such was the defensive solidity that Birmingham were kept away from the six-yard area. Butterfield was defensively sound, though his distribution is Agnew-esque and his crossing worse.
The crowd left Blundell Park pleased with the performance and result. It was a fine and interesting game of football and Town certainly deserved at least a point. This was a fixture that no-one seemed to be looking forward to. The crowd turned up fearing the worst but left smiling. Birmingham did'’t enjoy their trip this year, that says a lot about the game, doesn't it. Things aren't too bad at Blundell Park.