Birmingham City 2 Reading 0 (28/04/2012)
Not many cities look at the best in the rain, but Birmingham probably needs more of a helping hand in the aesthetic stakes than most. It’s true, Reading doesn’t exactly rival Venice as a tourist hotspot, and Britain’s brownest city may boast of having more miles of canals than the Italian architectural gem, but as the clichéd joke goes, the ones in Venice don’t have rusting shopping trolleys in them.
Driving home, being stuck on a road pointing towards the city gave a chance to have a lingering look at the imposing Birmingham city centre skyline. In a 1970s promotional film, Telly Savalas once described the skyline as “a view that took my breath away”, presumably in the same way tuberculosis does, as it points lumpily upwards like an exhibition of bad architecture.
The area around Birmingham’s St Andrews ground, once a lovingly landscaped wasteland of bricks, rubbish and old car tyres, has at least seen a great deal of urban regeneration – one dilapidated old factory opposite excepted – and the ground has been tarted up in recent years too.
My first visit to the place, way back in 1987, had seen a mere 5500 souls rattling around in a ground reputed to hold 45000. It’s main feature was a vast terrace which swept around two sides of the ground. It was hugely evocative, making you think of how it must have looked in the past, packed to the rafters with unfeasibly large 1950s crowds in caps, mackintoshes and smoking woodbines.
A rather ugly mess of stand stood at the other end. While quite large, this stand was so decrepit that a later trip, when the away stand was in this end, was enlivened by the realisation that many of the seats in this stand were no longer there. Whether they’d been smashed and not repaired, or just been worn away by atmospheric erosion, was hard to say.
All three of the sides have since been replaced. The large terrace is now replaced by a single tier of seats taking up almost exactly the same space. As is always the case, this seated area looks far smaller than the terrace it replaced, but at least it’s nearly full most weeks now.
The previously decrepit Railway End has been replaced by a new double decker stand. This is higher than the other two new(ish) sides, even without the addition up the upper deck. In contrast to the large lower tier, the upper tier is tiny, but no doubt offers and excellent view. Why they didn’t just extend the lower tier back by the few extra rows is a mystery though.
The only remaining part of the ground from my first visit is the Main Stand. A new roof fascia only seems to heighten the tired and dreary look of this stand, once the modern focal point of the ground, showing just how times, and tastes, change.
Another change is that my previous visits to Birmingham have normally seen pretty poor turnouts by Reading fans. On this occasion over 4000 made the journey up the M40, for what looked at one stage like a crucial fixture, but turned out to be no more than a party with the Championship title already secured.
With the taking of inflatables to the last away game of the season already a tradition, the title and sheer number of fans gave it real edge, with the Gill Merrick Lower becoming a progressive stormy sea of inflatables as kick off approached.
Birmingham were in no mood to let anyone party on their patch though. They needed the points themselves to guarantee a top 4 finish and home advantage in the second leg of the play-offs, and it was clear in the first half they just wanted it more. It was no real surprise that they went ahead with a nice finish on the break, and really should have gone 2-0 in first half injury time. This time a glancing header from a set-piece looked in all the way, until it somehow curled away late to hit the post and bounce to safety.
Reading, with pride at stake, if nothing else, came out more determined in the second half. Several half chances came and went before a penalty was awarded just after the hour. Ian Harte, normally deadly from spot-kicks, stepped up to take it, but couldn’t beat the keeper. It was Reading’s sixth miss from the spot this season.
It seemed to drain the Reading team, now looking every inch the patched-up playing-on-adrenaline team they’ve been for the last few games, and a penalty for Birmingham killed the game a few minutes later. A further penalty for Birmingham in injury time, this time saved, left Reading fans knowing this could have been worse on the day, even if over the season, things could scarcely have gone better. As a glance to the final 2011/12 table up on the scoreboard showed, we may have lost the battle, but we certainly won the war.