MARC ILES' BIG MATCH VERDICT: Bolton Wanderers 2 Birmingham City 2
IF Dougie Freedman never draws another game at home again in his Bolton managerial career, it will probably be too soon.
How the Scot could have done with one final convincing hurrah before the summer break.
How he craved to send the home fans away for the summer feeling more convinced his grand plan was on track and ready to bear fruit.
Facing a defining summer in his tenure at Bolton, Freedman will swing the axe on several players today to make room for the next stage of his rebuilding process.
But thanks to a set of recurring problems he has thus far been unable to obliterate, the next few months will be spent discussing whether Wanderers really are building towards something worthwhile.
Credit to Birmingham City, who stole all the headlines as defender Paul Caddis headed home a late equaliser that kept the Blues in the Championship at the expense of Doncaster Rovers.
Their celebrations at the end seemed a tad hollow, considering the failures of the previous nine months. But on the basis of 90 minutes they showed enough heart to take a point.
Sadly, that can’t be said of the Whites. After two months of almost-meaningless football, they chose this day of all days to produce their most vanilla performance of the lot.
Having trailed 2-0 to goals from Chung-Yong Lee and Lukas Jutkiewicz there should have been no way back for Lee Clark’s side.
Even after Nikola Zigic halved the deficit, there were gilt-edged chances to put the game to bed completely.
But as so often in Freedman’s tenure it was the lack of killer instinct that cost points – and unless the Whites boss finds the man to solve that problem over the summer, it is a problem that will recur time and again.
Jutkiewicz is clearly the man the fans want. His introduction added an extra dimension Wanderers simply didn’t have with Jermaine Beckford as the solo striker.
The Middlesbrough man appears out of reach financially, though, just as Craig Dawson was last season. And we all know how that panned out.
Freedman’s cause wasn’t helped by the fact that some normally-dependable types went on holiday a week early.
Neil Danns – fresh from signing a 12-month deal for next season – chose a wretched time to chalk up his worst game since arriving at Bolton. The former Birmingham man wasted two glorious chances in the second half to seal the points but had been wasteful on the ball all afternoon.
Another ex-Blue Rob Hall seemed to choke on the occasion. The youngster’s maturing displays had been one of the high points of the final five games but this was an occasion on which he disappeared into nothingness.
Home-grown full-back Oscar Threlkeld provided some solace, impressing again in his second senior performance, much like late sub Andy Kellett, whose energy nearly won the game. Will the pair survive to contest a first-team place next season once Freedman has been able to bring in a handful of his own players, though? Who knows?
Birmingham were nervy from the off but the lack of cohesion in the Wanderers attack meant they were rarely troubled in the first half.
Lee Novak brought a couple of half-decent saves out of Andy Lonergan, in for the injured Adam Bogdan, while Tim Ream also made a vital block on Emyr Huws’ goal-bound shot.
Beckford was a relative loner up front for Wanderers, whose chief attacking threat came from Chung-Yong Lee, who blasted over his side’s best chance of the half.
Blues fans listened intently to see how Doncaster were faring at Leicester – but with both games scoreless at half-time, the first goal was always going to be the crucial one.
It fell to Wanderers. Ex-Whites defender Paul Robinson conceded a free kick, which was swung into the box by Hall and deflected by David Wheater into Chung-Yong’s path. Unlike so many of the Korean’s efforts this season – this one was struck true and arrowed into the bottom corner.
The travelling fans responded instantly with a demand for their side to get back into the game. Lee Clark tried to change things from the bench and the introduction of Liverpool loanee Jordan Ibe certainly caused a few problems.
Federico Macheda wasted one glorious chance for an equaliser and a few moments later, news filtered through that Leicester had taken the lead.
“We only need one goal,” cried the Birmingham fans – but 60 seconds later Jutkiewicz drilled a shot past Darren Randolph at his near post to seemingly wreck their hopes.
Again the travelling support refused to buckle. Two minutes later Zigic – the £6million 6ft 7ins striker whose £55,000-a-week wage has been such a millstone around the club’s neck since the Premier League days – climbed above David Wheater to halve the deficit.
Zat Knight came on to add some stability in his final game for Wanderers but by now Birmingham’s need was at fever pitch.
Freedman sent on Andy Kellett, whose pace on the break created glorious chances for Jutkiewicz – denied by Randolph – and Danns.
It was inevitable going into six minutes of injury time that a fairytale ending was on the cards and it fell to Caddis to provide the killer touch after Tim Ream had cleared Zigic’s header off the line.
Pure and utter delirium followed. You couldn’t be a football fan and not derive some sort of pleasure.
Birmingham celebrated twice as joyously as Leicester had a fortnight ago, and they had won the title.
The Wanderers fans who had not already turned on their heels clapped politely as the team did a lap of the pitch.
It wasn’t the high point that anyone wanted but in a way it summed up entirely what had gone before.
Freedman, the players, the whole club owe the fans who dig deep into their pockets every single week something to smile about. And soon.