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WANDERERS: Wanderers middle men hailed as the best
By Gordon Sharrock: Birmingham City 0, Bolton Wanderers 0COLIN Todd gave his players a reminder of what awaits them in the Premiership on Saturday when he took a block booking at the Nottingham Forest-Chelsea game. Twenty-four hours later he saw them put their name back in the frame for an automatic return to the top flight.
The weekend's schedules meant, for a couple of mornings, Wanderers woke up to find Bradford occupying runners-up spot behind runaway leaders Sunderland.
But it was only a short-term interruption and normal service was resumed at St Andrew's yesterday afternoon.
Wanderers are back in the top two and that's where they intend to stay. It only took a point. Three would have been preferable and there are those who will suggest they should have done better, on the basis that clubs chasing honours should never be happy dropping points and they were up against a team disrupted by injuries and suspension.
But Wanderers have developed a habit of bringing the best, sometimes the worst, out of teams and they've never made a habit of winning at Birmingham.
Hence the general feeling that this was a good day's work, under the most difficult of circumstances.
They had to contend with a team fired-up and determined to turn the official opening of their new 8,000-seater Railway Stand, into a carnival both on and off the field. They also had to cope with opponents who, under specific orders from their manager Trevor Francis, set out to combat what he described as "the best midfield in Division One."
To their credit, the Blues did just that. They prevented Scott Sellars and Co from getting into their customary rhythm which, in turn, meant the quality of the football suffered and the game developed into a hard fought but largely uninspiring contest in which the defenders took the honours.
Given such a scenario five months ago, Wanderers would not have come out of the game with a point, never mind three. But the clean sheet - their sixth in eight games - is further proof that they have the foundation for a full-blooded promotion push. Individually, Neil Cox, Mike Whitlow and Mark Fish are turning in consistently high performances while Robbie Elliott's performance yesterday made a mockery of the fact that he is only a stop-gap centre-back. Collectively and with the help of an organised midfield, they are playing with a discipline that makes them difficult to break down.
The task they face now is to rise to the challenge to their midfield supremacy.
"Our midfield is getting a reputation for itself," Todd acknowledged, "and teams are setting their stalls out accordingly.
"Trevor Francis says we have the best midfield and that his side set out to nullify that. You could see that by the way they were marked a bit more physically than they are used to. But it's something we're going to have to adapt to. Every team we play against seems to raise their game. "We are going to have to overcome everything that is thrown at us. Every game from now until the end of the season is going to have some clout about it."
Michael Johansen, out of favour at the start of the season but now playing a key role, accepted the challenge on behalf of the midfield cavaliers.
"We are playing quite well anyway but it's a good sign if teams are saying they are afraid of our midfield," he acknowledged, "It shows they respect us.
"And if that makes them play harder, it means we'll just have to play that much harder ourselves." The game wasn't entirely bereft of midfield magic: Johansen's cracking 10th minute shot came back off the bar after a slick and penetrative Bob Taylor-Dean Holdsworth combination and Sellars delivered the pass of the game when he sent Holdsworth racing into acres of space in the 67th minute only for Taylor and Per Frandsen to be frustrated when the cross was intercepted.
If he lives to be 100 Holdsworth will never know how he failed to put Wanderers ahead just before half time, when he got on the end of a perfectly executed near-post corner routine featuring Sellars and Fish. He pounced on the chance and, remembering everything he's been taught since his school days, headed the ball down; unfortunately he got too clean a strike and the ball bounced up and over the bar, helped by a deflection off Simon Charlton! But it wasn't all Wanderers by a long chalk. They might have had the best of the clear-cut scoring chances but Birmingham had the majority of the possession and Jussi Jaaskelainen was far and away the busier of the two keepers.
The big Finn, whose ability is improving as fast as his confidence is growing, was never seriously stretched because his positioning was sound and his handling secure; the best of his saves coming at a pivotal moment six minutes before half time when he prevented Paul Furlong's shot squeezing in at the near post.
The resulting corner saw the keeper beaten for the only time in the game, Gary Rowett rising high to reach Graham Hyde's corner with a header that was a goal all the way until Sellars cleared it off the line! The TV cameras picked out occasions when both sides could have had penalties - Jonathan Bass escaping a handball and Mike Whitlow apparently getting away with a push on Peter Ndlovu. But neither side made issues of the incidents.
A point apiece was a fair reflection, even though both camps had mixed feelings about the result.
"I'm delighted but some of the players are disappointed because they feel they can win every game," Todd said after seeing Wanderers fail to make it seven straight wins while managing to extend their unbeaten run to 15 games. "The result puts us back into second place and still with a game in hand, which is psychologically important. "I have to give credit to my back four because they threw everything at us at times. We were very solid and the only way they were going to score was if we made silly mistakes.
"We went there determined to have a good shape and to be disciplined, without being negative. We wanted to win the game; that was why I made the substitutions. Dean Holdsworth and Claus Jensen were just the unfortunate ones who had to come off. They'll be disappointed but I had to try something different."
Bo Hansen had little time to make an impact on his debut following his £1 million transfer from Brondby but he looked an enthusiastic and willing worker.
The consensus is that Wanderers will fulfil their potential and finish with Sunderland in the top two. Francis has said that all along and has still seen nothing to change his mind while Rowett, who played in the Premiership with Derby, isn't altogether convinced that Peter Reid's men have the title sewn up.
"I honestly believe Bolton can possibly catch Sunderland, if they can go on a bit of a run now," he suggested.
"They (Sunderland) are more or less home and dry with Bolton looking very much favourites to get that second spot but you never know.
Not surprisingly, having built the game up as a "must win" fixture, Rowett was disappointed at the result. "We are chasing that second spot ourselves and we needed the three points," he conceded. "There are one or two sides pushing harder than us at the moment."
Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.