With safety assured – mathematics finally catching up with reality – an uninspiring fixture against Birmingham City, themselves disabused of slim play off ambitions many weeks ago, signalled the dog days of a season which began with despair and foreboding but ends with hope born of witnessing a fresh and very different approach turning an apparently poor squad in to a reasonably competitive outfit.
With at least 2 and possibly 3 huge clubs descending from above, the Championship will remain very challenging even with increased spending, but supporters could be forgiven for distracting themselves with thoughts of what Wagner can achieve with a full pre-season and a squad bolstered by his own selections.
To the unbridled delight of the visiting fans, who even carried out a mock funeral of their rivals, replete with claret and blue draping a home made coffin, one of those huge clubs is Villa where poor decisions and a remote ownership has relegated the bigger of the second city’s clubs with little sign that an immediate revival is likely.
It was, perhaps, inevitable, that the distracted moods of both set of fans would be mirrored by a game which was intermittently entertaining but lacking the intensity of more meaningful competition.
With Paterson and Huws restored to the starting line up, Wagner handed Dempsey another chance at right back while his team had an opportunity to improve what has been a disappointing home record over the season. It was also a chance to do the double over the Blues – the away victory in early December was Wagner’s first and signalled both a change in fortunes and, with the performance, vindicated his appointment even though their hosts had a severe striker crisis at the time and perfectly suited Town’s away style in their weakened and vulnerable state.
Gary Rowett, who has proven himself a very astute manager, has marshalled thin resources (compromised by yet another foreign ownership model) and kept Birmingham in the top 10 all season and, this time, could call upon Clayton Donaldson, Lafferty (who was rather oddly coveted by Championship clubs despite high wages and a poor scoring record in England) and Fabbrini, who was to prove a poor man’s Forestieri with less talent but all the drama.
It was hardly a surprise that the visitors proved rugged and resolute, in the image of their manager, but this was to be a day when Town’s failure to convert large expanses of possession in to enough chances and those that were made were largely wasted.
Kicking off, Town managed to maintain largely pointless possession for nearly 2 minutes before a misplaced Hudson pass let in Lafferty to blast over wastefully – the captain made several errors in the first half but, on the whole, the defence coped comfortably with the visitors until Steer had to save sharply from Davis mid half.
Before then, with Paterson lively and with Town playing some decent balls between the lines, Lolley fired an effort wide – despite several efforts throughout the game the Villa fan couldn’t add to his record against Brum or, indeed, trouble the keeper.
Many corners were wasted during the afternoon – Town had 15 – but an early one saw a Hudson flick elude defenders to allow Huws a headed effort only for the keeper to make a good one handed save while changing direction.
The best chance of all, though, fell to Wells when an incisive passing move set him clear of his marker. With too much time to think, however, the in form striker mishit his attempt and it screwed wide.
With Steer under employed and Town dominating possession, there were occasional passages of good play but they fell a little short in intensity – no matter how hard you try to guard against the dulling impact of games of little consequence, even the small blunting of sharpness is noticeable.
Huws, who Dean Hoyle confirmed was too expensive to buy before the game, and Paterson, who, it seems, possibly isn’t, pulled most of the midfield strings allowing Van La Parra, in particular, to provide decent if ultimately thwarted thrusts at the opposition. He was well supported by Davidson down the left, though the Australian’s well known flaws persist defensively.
Sometimes pleasing on the eye, Town found the visitors resolute in defence once the final third was reached until Wells’ chance just before the end, which would have changed the game and yet again emphasised the importance of scoring first.
More chances were created in the second half than the first, despite the slightly odd substitutions just on the hour with Van La Parra and Paterson making way for Mitmour and Bunn, a seemingly weakening of Town’s creativity. The Dutch winger had set Wells on his way only to be upended trying to support him – alone in the area, Wells shot wide from too an acute an angle.
Lolley, fed by the hard working Wells who had stolen the ball from a dilettante defender, had a shot deflected wide when he may have done better and then, when Wells was felled dangerously near the area, Lolley fired the free kick,over the bar.
Matmour’s half hour was, again, very encouraging. While his footballing intelligence and poise is sometimes let down by hesitancy, once free and in space, he looks dangerous and difficult to dispossess. His best run, starting with a dummy and continuing with tight control as he ran at Brum’s back four was followed by a sublime ball with the outside of his right foot which bent around the retreating defenders only for Bunn to just fail to connect.
Had that chance been converted it would have completed a comeback following the concession of a lead the visitors barely deserved. Whitehead, booked yet again in the first half, halted the progress of a Birmingham attack with an unnecessary foul and the sloppiness continued with a badly constructed wall inviting Cotterill to fire through a gap; a slight deflection wrong footed Steer, but an attempt at a save would have been nice.
Scannell’s introduction offered a different approach and the winger, who has had a regularly interrupted and largely ineffective season, looked more like the rejuvenated player of last season. It was his typically clever run which lead to an equaliser the home team deserved when a rather weak shot fell to Lynch in the area. The impressive centre back pivoted and coolly slotted home.
Just before the end, yet another corner was poorly delivered and spun up in the air off Lynch. Matmour executed a good overhead kick which took a slight deflection and brought a good save from Kuszczak and the points were shared.
A patchy performance largely let down by a familiar lack of ruthlessness in the final third was a little disappointing, though there were some good performances.
Huws’ calm patrolling and passing through the lines, Wells’ work rate and movement and Paterson’s lively prompting was complimented by Matmour’s obvious class.
Dempsey’s apprenticeship at right back was moderately successful – his energy and willingness to get forward are tempered by his rawness but he offers a good alternative to the less fluid Smith and has plenty of time to mature and develop.
Perhaps more important than a game a little blighted by its dead rubber status was Dean Hoyle’s reported excitement at the prospects for next season; excitement predicated on the arrival of new players to a squad which will allow us to “go for it”.
Seasoned Town supporters may well counsel people to retain some cynicism given the regularity of disappointment, but there is nothing wrong with hope – indeed, it has often been all we have had, however forlorn they turned out to be; at least we seem to be creating our new future on sound principles.