Today, we didn’t get what we deserved. On a difficult surface we won the key battles across the pitch, created enough half-chances to have been a couple of goals clear well before the closing stages, had defended stoutly, had seemingly overcome a series of strange refereeing decisions (which ranged from the daft – giving them a corner when their forward clearly miscontrolled it out – to the blatently wrong – giving a foul against Fuller after he’d ridden one unfair challenge and managed to stab the ball out wide – and to the gutless – not giving us a blatant penalty in the second half), and had finally fashioned the breakthrough. Birmingham, who’d been content to see out a 0-0, brought on the giant Zigic having gone behind and went long. That they got their stoppage time equaliser was hard to take, especially after the lost leads of the previous two games. Those games explained the air of panic that descended on us for the final few minutes, and the devastation on the face of Kermorgant and others at the final whistle. It just shouldn’t have happened.
The team saw an unchanged defence, with Cort retaining the spot alongside Morrison over Taylor (not least with Zigic in mind) and Evina still keeping out Wiggins. In midfield Pritchard dropped to the bench with Stephens and Jackson in the centre and Wilson and Wagstaff out wide, while Dervite gave way for Kermorgant to return to partner Fuller in a basic 4-4-2. Given that the pitch was difficult – sticky in some places but fine in others – and not lending itself to a passing game, the set-up seemed reasonable.
The opening 10 minutes or so were pretty even, with Birmingham enjoying possession but not fashioning anything dangerous. We were competing well and began to fashion chances, with the tactic of Kermorgant winning the ball in the air and Fuller feeding off seeming to work, especially as they clearly couldn’t handle Fuller when he had time and space (and sometimes when he didn’t). A series of corners came and went, but Fuller then brought a fine save from Butland, who was to frustrate us a few times, just getting fingertips on a shot to turn it around the post. The best they managed was a poor appeal for a penalty after a superb challenge by Evina and a few wild shots. Through the half Jackson and Stephens worked hard to break things up, Wagstaff saw a good deal of the ball and almost got in a couple of times. We were steadily gaining the upper hand but without converting that into goals as the pass wasn’t quite right, the shot was blocked, or the cross didn’t quite work out.
If we’d edged the first half, we went on to dominate the second. And this time the chances became more frequent. Fuller somehow danced past their defender to the by-line but found a defender with the cross, Wagstaff had one soft shot saved and then a better one that Butland did well to get down to. The penalty we should have had came after we intercepted in midfield and created havoc, but it seemed that after the trip the ball still ran our way but with the shot stopped we didn’t get a clear advantage. After that a decent cross by Fuller saw Kermorgant glance it just wide and one cross that fell for Fuller saw him blaze over. They had a few moments, with one across the face of the goal and Cort throwing himself at King as he prepared to shoot, while a free kick just outside the box was hit harmlessly through to Hamer. But in general we were controlling the game, as reflected in their readiness to waste time. It was really a question of whether the goal would come.
Green came on for Wilson, who’d got into decent positions but hadn’t found the telling cross. And finally, with the clock ticking down, the goal came. Solly, Green and Fuller worked patterns down the right and one of the three curled in a peach of a cross for Kermorgant to finally give Butland not a prayer.
With just a few minutes on the clock to go, surely we couldn’t give it up this time. But on came Zigic. We put on Dervitte and Wright-Phillips for Wagstaff and Fuller and it was just a matter of seeing out the four minutes of stoppage time. We managed three of them, but, just as at St Andrews, not the last. Sure we were panicking but surely we’d get enough bodies in the way. I don’t really remember how they actually scored and have no wish to. They did and justice was not done.
I hope the players don’t dwell too much on a third successive game in which we got ourselves in a position to win only to be pegged back. I’d rather concentrate on the fact that we progressively overcame stubborn if limited opposition and put ourselves in the position to win. Fact is, you have to go back to before Christmas to find a game of ours that has been decided by more than one goal. You also have to go back to the start of December for the last clean sheet. But highlighting that would be unfair on the defence today, which one moment aside did all that could be asked.
On to two away fixtures, ones which will present different challenges. For me it was a day to focus on the positives, not the cruel last minute undeserved equaliser and the points surrendered in the last three games.
Hamer – 7/10. In truth he didn’t have a difficult save to make. The BBC stats show they had 15 attempts on goal and eight on target, but of those only one proved to be a real threat.
Solly – 8/10. Nothing wrong defensively and got forward to good effect in the second half, including involvement in the goal.
Evina – 8/10. I thought he had a superb game, including one well timed challenge in the first half. Nobody got past him.
Cort – 8/10. Immense. He was throwing himself in the way of anything dangerous and otherwise dealt with what came his way. Always a threat at set pieces.
Morrison – 8/10. Fact is, apart from the aberration of that final minute they didn’t get a look in on our goal.
Wilson – 6/10. Not a bad game, but he will know he screwed up a couple of crosses in good positions (the pitch might not have helped) and did get caught out trying to play his way out of defence.
Jackson – 7/10 – Not dramatic, but very effective in breaking up their moves and putting us on the front foot. He and Stephens won the central midfield battle.
Stephens – 7/10. Wasn’t easy on the pitch to measure a forward pass and not everything came off. But worked his socks off and like many others deserved to come off the pitch a winner.
Wagstaff – 6/10. Close to having a great game, with a couple of shots that might have gone in and enough possession in good areas. Just failed to make either really count.
Fuller – 8/10. They couldn’t handle him all afternoon. He made things happen from impossible situations. Only thing missing was putting it in the net.
Kermorgant – 9/10. If you give a guy a mark for putting in a stint it would be a 10. Worked tirelessly, missed one that he perhaps should have scored, but buried what should have been the winner. My French partner Suzanne is as gutted as Yan seemed to be at the finish; I hope we all have a decent bottle of wine tonight and focus on the positive.
Subs – Green (7/10 – effective for the last 20 minutes and was involved in the goal); Dervitte/Wright-Phillips (only on for stoppage time; sorry Brad, you were offside).