MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 3-1 Birmingham
THE Road to Damascus might well double up as the M62 for Wanderers as they stand on the precipice of another potentially season-defining game.
If this was a vision of the future under Dougie Freedman’s management then it gets the thumbs up from me. The football played to beat Birmingham City so convincingly was great to watch and decidedly more incisive than it has often been since the Scot’s arrival.
Both Freedman and his captain Kevin Davies spoke of promotion hopes in their programme notes, but if the Whites are really to push on, and transform themselves into genuine contenders, then there is no better time than a New Year’s Day clash against a wobbling Leeds United team to wipe the slate clean.
This game was all about fresh starts too. At the back, Tim Ream barely put a foot wrong to muster his most confident and commanding performance of the campaign so far. The same could be said for Tyrone Mears, a constant outlet on the right.
Marcos Alonso headed a perfectly-executed equaliser moments after his relaxed defending had allowed Chris Burke to cross for Nikola Zigic to score the opener. And from there on in, the young full-back was a consistent threat.
Chung-Yong Lee was another man who capped his return to the team with a well-taken goal to make it 2-1, while Keith Andrews – scorer of the third from the spot – helped marshal a midfield with Jay Spearing that set up the platform for victory.
But it was another man who really stood out on Second Chance Saturday, and one whose announcement in the team pre-match had actually brought about moans and groans from the terraces.
Darren Pratley has barely got going since arriving from Swansea City the summer before last, and a few were even tipping him to leave the Reebok in January.
And yet his workmanlike, lung-bursting display left me wondering if that is what has been missing all along.
He may lack the suave sophistication of Chris Eagles and Chung-Yong Lee, the bustling style of a Mark Davies, but there is something plainly effective about the way Pratley linked up with Davies, Spearing and Andrews through the middle against the Blues.
Whether he can continue to have that influence is the key question but the reports from Euxton would suggest the 27-year-old has knuckled down as hard as anyone in an effort to nail down the first-team place that had eluded him on a regular basis under successive managers.
Defeats against Peterborough United and Sheffield Wednesday had ensured a decidedly downbeat mood heading into this one, and one that was hardly helped by Zigic’s early goal.
Just moments after Spearing had flashed a shot just wide at one end, Burke swung in a cross from the right, missed by Zat Knight, and headed in at the far post by the big Serb, who would later go on to blot his copybook with a late red card.
The mood around the ground dropped. Passes began to go astray. It was happening again.
For a few moments after the goal, the game threatened to leave Wanderers’ grasp.
But a bit of trickery from Davies, backheeling into the path of Eagles to drill a shot right along the six-yard box, relit the touchpaper. Three minutes later, they were level.
More good build up through midfield, and wide to Mears who crossed left-footed finding Alonso to head home his second goal of the season.
Birmingham had nothing with which to respond. But for the long ball up to Zigic, their main avenue of creativity, Burke, dried up completely.
Chung-Yong’s second was no less than the Whites deserved. Again the move started from the back, with Davies supplying the key pass for the speedy Korean to out-strip Stephen Caldwell, keep his balance and dance round Jack Butland before clipping an angled shot over the line.
From there, it was a matter of how many Freedman’s side could score.
Butland denied Davies and Eagles either side of the break, while Spearing saw one effort deflect off Curtis Davies and inches wide of the upright.
For just a brief moment, Wanderers’ excellent work in possession went sloppy. Robbie Hall’s effort from the edge of the box, saved by Adam Bogdan, acted as a kick up the backside.
Pratley, Andrews and Spearing regained control and the game was then settled from the penalty spot after Caldwell had compounded his poor afternoon by handling the ball under pressure from Davies.
Andrews had reasoned with supporters to stick with the side after Boxing Day and it was fitting that he should underline the result with another well-taken penalty, his third in a week.
Birmingham’s misery continued right up to the end as Zigic picked up a booking for standing in front of Bogdan as the keeper was kicking the ball out of his hands, then 60 seconds later clattered into Ream to leave ref Simon Hooper with little choice but to send him off.
Former Wanderers full-back Paul Robinson was the only Blue shirt to stick around at the final whistle, acknowledging the crowd with which he often had a mixed relationship during his three years at the club.
But this was a win for others who have found themselves not being flavour of the month, and who now have a chance to make their impact on this season.
As we are quickly finding out, the Championship has little regard for star quality, so maybe it will be the names less revered who will flourish in the new year .