Perhaps the idea of “High Noon” was that of a television executive. If it was, the Premier League supporters could probably be forgiven for throwing a few curses his way for scheduling two matches for midday on a Sunday lunchtime in the middle of a Bank Holiday weekend. The supporters of Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers haven’t come off as badly from this as those of Newcastle United, who would have needed to leave for Anfield at a time that could be credibly described as “late last night”, but still… midday? These West Midlands derby matches have a reputation for occasionally getting a little rambunctious, but would giving the overwhelming of majority of Birmingham and Wolves supporters that don’t much fancy the idea of thumping anyone an hour to go to the pub be such a crime?
Even a kick-off this early is unlikely to mean that nerves won’t be jangling at St Andrews this morning. Birmingham City will be playing in Europe next season thanks to their League Cup win, but they are still in danger of being relegated at the end of this season. They are currently on thirty-eight points with the “normal” threshold of forty looking as if even that might not be enough to keep anybody safe this season. A win today, against a Wolves team whose defence has been rather porous over the last few weeks, will ease nerves slightly but even this won’t quite guarantee their survival. Wolves, on the other hand, have given the impression of being lackadaisical over the last few weeks. Since their win at Villa Park six weeks ago, they have taken their eye spectacularly off the ball, and three-goal defeats against Everton, Newcastle United and Stoke City have seen them slump into the relegation places with, arguably critically, a hint of the doom-laden about them.
Within the opening ten minutes, those nerves have crept in and left an indelible mark upon the game. What should a routine clearance from the Birmingham goalkeeper Ben Foster is miscued, and the ball heads straight to Matt Jarvis, whose through-ball finds Stephen Ward. Ward chases through on goal and is brought down by Foster. Steven Fletcher scores from the penalty spot and Wolves, again, have a glimmer of hope in the battle to stay in the Premier League. The goal, however, seems to concentrate the minds of the Birmingham players. A free-kick on the edge of the penalty area is struck goalwards by Sebastian Larsson and hits the post – the free-kick from whence it came could even have been called as a penalty – but the sense that a Birmingham goal has been coming for a while and, when it does, it is gift-wrapped by the Wolves defence. An enormous clearance by Foster should be a routine clearance for the Wolves defender Michael Mancienne, but Mancienne misjudges the descent of the ball and Larsson nips in behind him and slides it past Wayne Hennessey to bring Birmingham level.
The feeling that this match is inexorably sliding Birmingham’s way, however, doesn’t last for long and within three minutes of the home side drawing level, they are down to ten men. Craig Gardner had already managed to get himself booked inside the opening ten minutes, so quite what he thought he was doing in theatrically leaping over Jody Craddock’s challenge is a curious question. What we can say for certain is that there was no contact, and that the second yellow card was probably well merited. It doesn’t stop the referee, Kevin Friend, incurring the ire of the crowd – let’s not forget the Wolves penalty and the Birmingham free-kick that might have been a penalty – for the remainder of the first half.
The second half cannot match the drama levels of the first. It is a disjointed affair, two teams that seem so afraid of their own shadows that they are unable to break out of their psychological strait-jackets and play football. The match needs a calming head to try and play a way through the opposition defence. Instead, what we get is a one-dimensional combination of half-hearted attempts to pass the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, with a sprinkling of aimless long balls played through the air like bombs bursting through air. There are occasionally, and only occasionally, glimmers of something better – another Larsson free-kick sails narrowly over the crossbar and Cameron Jerome, slightly off-balance, finds a little space on the left-hand side of the penalty area and shoots well wide. It’s scrappy and fitful stuff, though, a match between two sides with a lot on their minds.
Come the end of this season, Birmingham City will probably be okay. There are worse teams than them in the Premier League and it seems difficult to believe that they will not somewhow scramble their way to safety. Wolverhampton Wanderers, on the other hand, are quite a different matter. They failed to assert themselves with a one man advantage for over an hour this afternoon, and these are opportunities that they simply cannot afford to squander at this stage of the season. If Wolves cannot fashion a win from the circumstances in which they found themselves this afternoon, with a one man advantage against a team just a handful of places above them in the league, one can only wonder where another win will come for them this season. Having worked so hard to avoid the drop last season, there is something disappointing about the supine way in which Mick McCarthy’s team seems to be giving away its Premier League status this time around.
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