Mission accomplished as a brilliantly battling performance finally saw Uwe Rosler’s men over the line to secure Play Off qualification, Callum McManaman’s excellent finish after just three minutes in the end proving to be the difference between the sides in a massively tense encounter at St Andrews.
It’s taken a couple of games of frustration, but this was a very disciplined performance in very difficult circumstances, the hosts battling for their lives at the foot of the table and, buoyed on by a vocal support, they chased every lost cause in a pulsating final spell of the game.
Latics should have added to their advantage in a dominant first half and the opening spell of the second but Birmingham doggedly held on and made life as difficult as they possibly could for Uwe Rosler’s men.
They pumped high balls into the box and forced Latics on to the back foot but Latics stayed resolute until the final seconds and everyone at the club can breathe a big sigh of relief after a job well done.
The return of club captain Gary Caldwell for his first start of the season was the headline news as far as the line-ups went, although there was a recall for Scott Carson in the Latics goal too, while Rob Kiernan also returned to the defence.
Latics shaped up with five at the back, Jean Beausejour and James Perch as wing backs either side of Caldwell, Kiernan and Emmerson Boyce in the centre; interestingly, Boyce retained the captain’s armband for the night. James McCarthur and Jordi Gomez operated in front of the five, with Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman and Martyn Waghorn fizzing about in front of them like goldfish at feeding time.
With the team anxious to secure the three points and wrap up their Play Off birth quickly – and Birmingham desperate for a win at the other end of the table, it was;6 crucial for Rosler’s men to dictate the pace of the game from the off – and that’s exactly what they did, scoring the quickest goal of the season with just three minutes gone.
Former Blues player Beausejour had already threatened down the left when Gomez single-handedly took on the Birmingham midfield, galloping through the centre of the pitch with the ball, holding off the challenge of three defenders before finding McManaman just inside the area, on the left hand side. He dropped his shoulder brilliantly to cut on to his right foot and curled a beauty into the far corner of Darren Randolph’s far post.
The pleasing aspect from Latics’ point of view was the bite that went with the fast flowing, passing game, matching Birmingham physically, then trying to play around them; Uwe Rosler’s calmness on the touchline testified to how well his team was playing.
Maloney powered through on the right after 10 minutes before being brought down 20 yards out, but Gomez’s free kick was into the wall. Latics threatened again ten minutes later when McManaman rampaged down the left after great work from first Waghorn, then Maloney, his cross was not dealt with properly by Birmingham but Gomez was not able to make anything from the loose ball and it was bundled away.
McArthur was next to try his luck, a bullet of a shot after a short corner routine on the right, which was well blocked by the Blues defence but Latics’ one-touch game was really starting to get into gear, Waghorn cleverly back-heeling it into the net after a great move but he was judged to have fouled the keeper.
McManaman then tried – and virtually succeeded – in taking on the entire Birmingham defence, five players having to combine to dispossess him, and even then the ball eventually fell for Maloney, whose shot was blocked on the edge of the box.
Birmingham’s only real effort before the break had Carson at full stretch when Emyr Huws’ curling effort from the right would have dipped under the crossbar but for his tip over.
Blues manager Lee Clark threw on giant Serbia striker Nikola Zigic for the second half in place of Lee Novak in an attempt to regain the initiative but as in the first period, it was Latics who were on the front foot from the off, only a last ditch tackle from Paul Caddis preventing Maloney from bursting clean through.
McManaman did manage to evade his marker in the box but slipped as he was about to pull the trigger. Waghorn then raced clear on the left, but was not able to find anyone from a tight angle. A McArthur shot went wide as Latics continued on the front foot. Surely a second would be around the corner such was Latics’ superiority.
But the second goal just would not come and buoyed on by a hugely vocal following, Birmingham kept chasing every ball and the situation was getting tense. Rosler replaced Waghorn with Marc Antoine Fortune on the hour mark but it was the home side who continued to enjoy their best spell in the game, forcing Latics onto the back foot and into making mistakes in possession for the first time in the game.
Zigic added an extra dimension to City’s game and a succession of high balls were pumped up to him. It was crucial for Latics to keep their discipline in what was an increasingly pressurised situation, the longer the game went on, the more belief grew within the home side.
Latics were fighting hard from their side to regain the initiative and McArthur tested Randolph from long range from a short corner as Latics attacked on the break. The Scot was then ruthlessly brought down by Tom Adeyemi, who earned a yellow card – but at least the pressure was alleviated for a spell.
Nicky Maynard replaced McManaman in the 83rd minute to try and bring fresh legs into the attack but Birmingham continued to attack. Frederico Macheda forced Carson into conceding a corner but nothing came of it. Huws struck a free kick from 40 yards at goal, but Carson collected calmly.
Rosler’s final throw of the dice came as the match entered injury time, Leon Barnett replacing Shaun Maloney in an attempt to shore things up in what was inevitably going to be a nail-biting few minutes. The referee needed to stay strong and he booked Zigic for shoving Kiernan as another ball whistled into the box.
As the clock ticked agonisingly toward the end of the allotted four minutes extra time, Latics did everything they could to hold on to the ball but there was time for one last punt into the area, Carson saving from Hayden Mullins and Latics breathed an immense sigh of relief. Then after almost SIX minutes, the final whistle blew, to a roar of delight from the 1,000 strong away support!