You know we belong together? We really, really don’t.
A nil-nil draw wouldn’t ordinarily warrant much post-match focus, but clearly this game was different. We were at home, while they were at home, but we were also both kind of away. We’d done our best to introduce some equilibrium to the match by offering up half of the allocation to the Blues fans. As a gesture, it felt like a decent thing to do, although I doubt Her Majesty’s Police Force would agree.
I’m not a season ticket holder this year on account of the fact that our club plays in Birmingham and I’m not from there, meaning it’s harder for me to commit. But I’ve worked past the fury and realised that there’s very little benefit in wishing my life away. So I went, and below are some thoughts that I’ve worked up in thrilling detail. You can read them below. Feel free to slag me off at the bottom if you wish.
The thing about Birmingham is that driving can be a real pain in the arse. That leaves the train, which on the face of it has the potential to be a mega laugh. “Wheyyyyy all aboard the tinny train, we’re all off out on the old razzle dazzle!”
The reality is slightly different. It’s mostly gobby kids having a go at families in the quiet zone, and the seemingly interminable repetition of songs with too few syllables to match the melody. But everyone is having a great laugh and pumped up for the game and you have to pretend to be the same.
Not being a Cov native, I take the slightly more sedate Warwick – Moor St route, which still lands you in the Bull Ring zone of chaos. Again – it’s fine; it’s familiar, so you can deal with it with minimal fuss. At this point you’ve got a few options for your onward travel: you can nip on a train to Bordesley, jump on a bus or take a Taxi, or just take an easy wander down to the ground. I’ve done the walk before but yesterday we cabbed it and battled our way through the traffic to get within walking distance of the ground.
It’s not ideal, but if you get into a routine it’s all doable. I get it.
With the Trillion Dollar Man Ted Dibiase Stadium now within sight, we were left with the not entirely comfortable wander into Police territory. Talk before the game was of a “unique occasion, where we could show appreciation to our landlords”. That was a lovely notion, but really it was never going to be the case. We’re local rivals, and there was essentially 20k fans adopting an away fan mindset for the day. People seemed pretty angry and the police presence reflected that. Not that I personally saw anything, but there were some young’uns holding onto their parents’ hands pretty tightly which you’d prefer wasn’t the case.
Sacking off the “let’s show our appreciation” ideas turned out to be the right call. Nobody was in the mood for those sorts of niceties. We’d have ended up being the nappy-laden Red Dwarf hippies to the Birmingham City Rimmer pouting in a sex outfit. (There is absolutely no way you will understand that reference.)
While the fanbase ratios will change for the replay, you get the feeling the Police could definitely do without another game like this. But a midweek return ought to temper things slightly.
Being at home while also being away ain’t half disorientating. The queues to get into the stadium were huge, with my specific entrance having a solitary door servicing what I can only assume was everyone else on the planet. It was tight, but once in there was a proper atmosphere. Both sets of fans seemed ready for the occasion, coupled with a palpably indignant approach towards the circumstances.
Oddly, the one chant I expected to be blaring out all afternoon was that one about violating The Villa, faecally, but inside the ground there was very little mention of them. Weird.
I found my seat in front of the loudest clapper in history and entered matchmode AKA concerning myself quite a lot that the Championship side would end up being too good for us. I needn’t have worried.
We’ve played the lower league role for quite a while now, and it’s always fascinating to see which version of both team turns up. From our perspective, you know you to put in the energy of Man Utd (2008)/Blackburn (2009)/Stoke (2018) proportions to offset what is likely to be the gulf in quality. Conversely, sometimes you come up against teams that stand out and you’ve got no chance whatever you do. Spurs away was a great example of us being totally outclassed against the bigger boys, while this season’s trip to Watford was a lesson in athleticism.
Birmingham showed their literal strength in two areas. Defensively, they proved too much for Godden who was left with the thankless task of trying to be a foot taller, but can still be pleased with how he was able to make a menace of himself. Up front, Jutkiewicz appears to have added a stone of muscle and threatened early on to be too much for each of our defenders.
But as the game moved on we adapted to those physical challenges and began to excel in the other important area: quality. Of course we know how good we are this season, but you’re never too sure just what that means when placed out of context of League One. As it happened, it played out well. The Birmingham fans were rightly annoyed with their team’s showing against a lower club, but for us – it was still a real test and certain players showed their capabilities in the face of that more than others.
One of the more regular questions on The Nii Lamptey Show (when we’re not having to explain which player we’d prefer to cuddle) concerns who we feel could make the step up to the league above.
When we answer this, consistency is always a crucial factor. Liam Kelly remains a popular answer while Dabo is often noted for his obvious athletic qualities. Yesterday however, the standout player was Liam Walsh.
Of course we have to acknowledge the “one-off game” factor, and there’s a chance that he was just “in the zone”. But there was nothing in his performance that I’d not seen from him before, and that’s what struck me as being most impressive. He seemed at complete ease with the reduced time on the ball; the physical challenge; and it felt clear that he was playing to his capabilities. There was a comfort there. He revelled in the occasion and by the end had established full control of the midfield.
Elsewhere, Dabo continued to establish his reputation as an absolute machine, while the back three settled themselves after some shaky behaviour in the first half. Somewhat oddly, Kelly had a less metronomic performance than we’ve come to expect from him. Time on the ball proved to be a struggle early on, but much like the rest of the team, he figured this out and eventually found his feet. Shipley was another one who appeared to be battling with the lack of time compared to the day-to-day of League One.
McCallum offered a very neat and tidy presence on the left-hand side. It’s not until you study him closely that you notice just how reliable he is becoming at the basics. His first touch excites me far more than modern society would allow me to describe.
The dynamics of the game didn’t really suit Godden, and by extension Shipley and Westbrooke had to work incredibly hard to conjure up any cohesion with him. In League One, that isn’t always the case and I regularly praise the combination of that triangle. Fortunately, Westbrooke started to loosen as gaps appeared in the second half and will probably be a little frustrated that he wasn’t able to complete the game, being removed just as he’d found a rhythm.
But ultimately, it was a Max Biamou kind of afternoon and Robins moved relatively early to change our attacking system, bringing on Max and Callum O’Hare. There’s always an argument to question why Robins didn’t start with these players, but the reality is – it’s impossible to tell how a match is going to pan out. Football isn’t really about predicting what will happen because there are simply too many unknowns, but the ability to interpret and adapt to the ebb and flow of a game is critical, and Robins now has a bench that allows him to do that. It may not be a popular notion given that we place so much importance on the starting lineup, but Callum O’Hare’s attributes make him a prime substitution for the final 20 minutes. He thrives when given time to turn and exploit pockets of space – so as players tire, those gaps grow, and it’ll will always be set up for him to make an impact.
That said, it was actually Max who proved the biggest threat. Nicking the ball, bustling their defenders into mistakes and generally raising all kinds of menace with a lively performance. He was joined late on by Bakayoko, who for all the grief he has to endure, continues to toil away and prove his worth in the squad.
Naturally there was focus on O’Hare pre-match given his Villa connection, and it was he who had the chance to write the script that people say you couldn’t write, even though you very easily could. As we pushed for a winner late on, Walsh drifted a lovely ball over Brum’s fastly-vapourising defence and – contrary to what some anti-Baka maniacs will tell you – he did the perfect thing and headed the ball back into the path of O’Hare who was gifted with an open net from a yard out. He missed it big time.
He won’t need anyone to tell him that he should have scored because he’ll know. It could have been a magic moment but we had to make do with a draw. I’m sure we’ll all get over it.
Naturally the press described the game as dull, but I enjoyed it, so in the immortal words of *insert Home and Away rascal here*: they can all rack off.
The replay will be different in the sense that it won’t be a 50/50 split this time around. How can it be? They’ve got obligations to season ticket holders so it’ll likely be a return to a far more traditional away game. You’d hope that we’ll still pack it out because we are witnessing something brilliant with this season’s team. They deserve our support.
Sure, circumstances mean that we won’t achieve massive attendances at St Andrew’s every week. It’s easy enough to get to, but speaking for myself – it’s too much of a pain to do on a regular basis. But a big cup game away to a local rival? I’m sure there will be plenty of us ready to put in the effort for the lads once again.
In short: It was a strong performance yesterday. Fair play.