The baseball player Babe Ruth once said: “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” No truer word could be spoken about this Birmingham City side, who will quite literally never throw in the towel.
On a night where they were outplayed for 90 minutes, second best in all areas of the park, they managed to find a way to fight back. They secured a draw, right at the death – a point that has almost certainly ensured their top flight status once more.
We were second best….But the fact that we find a way, it tells you that this group has got character – it’s got desire; it’s got everything you need.
CARLA WARD, BIRMINGHAM
The Second City Derby is always a feisty occasion and Aston Villa arrived in Solihull wanting to avenge the Blues’ victory at Villa Park earlier in the season. They will also have been wounded by the late equaliser they conceded to Bristol at the weekend. Marcus Bignot made one change to his side, who took up their standard 3-4-1-2 formation, with Jodie Hutton coming in for Elisha N’Dow.
Birmingham, meanwhile, were unchanged from Sunday’s draw with Reading, with Carla Ward opting for the same personnel and formation from the start. Claudia Walker remained leading the line, with Sarah Mayling and Jamie Lee Napier supporting on the flanks.
Shania Hayles was Villa’s outlet from the off. Her strength and pace makes them so dangerous on the transition and she almost set Mana Iwabuchi up for the opener, only for the effort to get a vital deflection wide.
Under pressure, Birmingham were dealt an early blow when Ruesha Littlejohn was forced to withdraw through injury. She was replaced by Lucy Whipp. They were struggling to create much of any note, being forced to feed on the scraps of set pieces but without the delivery to cause much damage.
The counter was where Villa were most dangerous, and they took the lead in style on the 28th minute. Clearing a corner at the near post, Iwabuchi set Hayles away. Bursting towards the box, she spotted the open Freya Gregory, who blasted her first shot against the crossbar before turning home the rebound. A notable way to score her first professional goal against her former club.
The Blues were shaken by conceding but ended the first half on the front foot, putting considerable pressure on the Villa penalty area. But all too often, Walker was isolated, holding up the ball well but without much support to create an opportunity.
Ward knew a change was needed, bringing on Emily Murphy for Napier at the break. It almost paid off immediately when Walker set her away down the right. The Chelsea loanee showed great strength to reach the area but saw her eventual effort blocked behind for a corner. She then produced another shot from distance that dipped wide of the mark.
With half an hour to play, Ward switched things up bringing on Veatriki Sarri for Emma Kelly in an attempt to make her attack more potent. Meanwhile, Bignot seemed to look to shore things up, bringing on Marisa Ewers for the goalscorer Gregory.
It wasn’t shaping up to be a classic end. Birmingham struggled going forward while Villa were quite happy to run the clock down in the corners. However, there is always a danger with trying to preserve a 1-0 lead; things can change at any minute.
Deep into injury time, Birmingham were awarded a free kick for handball down. On replay, it was a dubious decision, as was the referee allowing Sarri to move the ball to a more improved angle. On those points, Villa were right to feel incensed, but you still have to defend. For the second time in as many games, they allowed a last-minute free kick to dip over the defence and nestle in the back of the net.
There was pandemonium on the Birmingham bench as Sarri wheeled away in celebration. Everyone piled in, including their head coach, who feels the passion of the game as much as anyone. Clearly moved in her press conference afterwards, she was full of pride for her group of players: “It’s emotional. I was with them in the middle at the end and…well, I feel like I’m going to cry now. It’s been an interesting ten months, put it that way. We’ve dug in. Like I said, it was project survival….It means a lot.”
For Villa, there will be plenty of annoyance at how they have outperformed their opposition in the last two games but lacked the concentration to see it through. The battle continues at the weekend, with another season-defining fixture against West Ham. They will need three points to ensure their safety and avoid having to pinch points off Arsenal on the final day of the season. A nervy end to a season in which they have showed plenty of promise but also inexperience in the top flight on English football.