Football League Review: Birmingham’s Silent Revival

Chris Hughton

Bruce Halling has been monitoring Birmingham City’s slow and steady progress and comments on other issues arising from the latest Football League weekend.

It is incredible how quickly a team can be forgotten in football. Early in 2011, Birmingham City were a team that a lot of people were talking about. The Blues possessed one of the best home records in the Premier League, they were Carling Cup winners, and seemingly on an upwards trend.

A poor end to the 2010/11 season, however, saw the team relegated, and this was followed by a summer of upheaval as a number of big players left and weren’t really adequately replaced. Alex McLeish left the club to join rivals Aston Villa, and question marks over the club’s financial stability as owner Carson Yeung was arrested on money-laundering charges. Needless to say, Birmingham had a stuttering start to the season and completely fell off the radar.

In some ways, however, this seems to have helped them, as Chris Hughton is really turning around the fortunes of the St. Andrews’ club and yet, bizarrely, nobody really seems to have noticed yet. Following a 0-0 draw against Brighton on Saturday, Birmingham are now unbeaten in eight games in all competitions and have climbed the table almost unnoticed, with two games in hand on most of the teams above them. It surely will not be too long before the early title contenders, Southampton and West Ham, will have to stand up and take notice.

Elsewhere in the Championship, Millwall are beginning to generate a little bit of momentum also. After a torrid run in which they had gone winless in almost two months, they’ve now not been beaten in four games and have been particularly impressive in their last two outings, recording convincing victories over Leicester City, a result which led to Sven-Goran Eriksson’s dismissal as Foxes manager, and Ipswich Town.

Kenny Jackett’s side do have some tricky away games coming up but their next three home games are against the three teams currently in the relegation zone, so the Lions will surely fancy their chances of getting on a roll at home and getting some decent points on the board.

For the real action of the weekend, however, we must turn away from the Championship and turn our attentions to League One, which produced a sensational afternoon of football. A third of the teams in the division found the net three or more times as an incredible 48 goals were scored in the twelve games played on Saturday afternoon, in which the highlight was undoubtedly the 4-4 draw between Sheffield United and Exeter City at Bramall Lane.

It was a game which Danny Wilson’s side really ought to have won on paper, but if it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times, football games aren’t played on paper and the match was a brilliant advert for the Football League.

The thrills and spills were certainly not limited to the one game, however, as the games at Glanford Park, Brunton Park and the Weston Homes Community Stadium all produced six goals apiece.

Bobby Grant netted twice for Scunthorpe, who found themselves twice battling from a goal down against Tranmere before eventually running out 4-2 winners, while Carlisle fought back from a 0-3 deficit to earn a point against Oldham, inspired by a magnificent individual performance from Francois Zoko.

The tie between Colchester and Notts County, however, was perhaps the most remarkable of all, as it went from being goalless at the break to a six-goal thriller by the time the final whistle blew, with Colchester blowing County away with a devastating eight minute spell midway through the second half in which Michail Antonio, Ian Henderson and Kayode Odejayi all found the back of the net.

League One also saw one of the most bizarre moments of the season so far in the game between Walsall and MK Dons. It had been an even game until an incident, just after the half-hour mark, in which Saddlers’ keeper Jimmy Walker stormed off his line to sweep up a loose ball, lost his bearings, quite clearly picked the ball up outside the box and despite protesting his innocence, was dismissed.

From this moment on, Walsall were up against it, partially through being a man down but also partially owing to having no substitute keeper on the bench, something which has become a worryingly common practice this season since the number of substitutes permitted in Football League games was reduced back down to five from seven.

Moving on now to League Two, and the first signs are perhaps beginning to emerge that the race for the title in this division could be fought out between just two teams. Crawley Town, who started the weekend top of the table, slipped up and were held to a draw by Accrington Stanley, allowing Southend United, who recorded a 2-0 win at Macclesfield, to go back to the top of the table.

The two sides have now pulled a six-point gap over the chasing pack, and with the form that both sides have shown this season, could be beginning to establish their places at the top of the table. I said in last week’s blog that both sides look like they have all the attributes necessary to challenge for promotion and I stand by that view.

With that said, Crawley do look the more vulnerable team when they don’t have their strongest eleven available to them, so that could be something to watch out for as the inevitable strain of a 46-game season takes effect.

On a final note for this week, I’d like to make a special mention for the teams that competed in the Carling Cup last week. Aldershot performed valiantly but I think it was inevitable that the class in Manchester United’s side would show through, and that was evident with the quality of the goals that they scored.

I still think, despite the defeat, that the experience of the game will help drive the players of that club on to want to move the club forward onto another level and that can only be a good thing for Dean Holdsworth’s team.

Elsewhere, Cardiff produced a battling performance to see off Burnley to book their spot in the quarter finals, where they will host Premiership strugglers Blackburn Rovers, but for me the performance of the round came from Crystal Palace who did a phenomenal job in making Southampton look very, very average.

They face a trip to Old Trafford in the quarter-finals and that will not be an easy game for Dougie Freedman’s side but they have nothing to lose now, and I would back them to be a bit of a nuisance and cause United a couple of headaches in that game.

Follow Bruce on Twitter @brucehalling!

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