Birmingham City recorded their first home win of the season as supporters returned to the Tilton Road End on Friday evening.
Troy Deeney stole the headlines in the build-up but it was Scott Hogan and Jeremie Bela who sealed the deal on the night as Lee Bowyer’s Blues turned in a thoroughly professional display.
Here’s what stood out.
Scott Hogan’s start to his Birmingham City career, when he first came on loan in January 2020 and seemingly scored every chance he had to keep Pep Clotet’s side in the Championship, created something of a false impression.
As did his total loss of confidence under Aitor Karanka last season when sometimes it looked like the last thing he wanted was a clear sight of goal.
This term there’s been more of a balance to his production levels, missed a few, scored a few and it all seems far more sustainable over an extended period.
The most important fact is that he’s getting chances in every game and hopefully, having been starved of them for months last season, as he becomes used to that fact he’ll realise that he doesn’t have to anxious in front of goal and treat every chance like his last.
Bowyer has built a team that is creating a good number of opportunities for his strikers and while Hogan remains engaged and industrious he should keep getting his share. He should keep taking them too and the dialectic of Pre and Post Lockdown Hogan will be consigned to history.
Friday night’s neat finish was his 50th Championship career goal and he took to social media afterwards to point out ‘Not bad for a warehouse worker and tyre flipper who only started at 21’.
For all Tahith Chong’s stardust and Deeney’s fanfare, the biggest boost to Birmingham City’s season would be if Hogan could approach 20 goals.
Lee Bowyer made two substitutions against Derby. The first saw Deeney given a standing ovation on to the pitch before he’d even touched a ball for Birmingham City.
His journey from bricklaying Blues fan to playing for the club appeals to everyone.
Deeney did OK, held the ball up, put himself about, had half a glimpse at a Jeremie Bela cross, it was very much an easing back into the cut and thrust of Championship football. His time will come.
There was a feeling that Deeney’s arrival had given Blues a lift when the game had started to fall a little flat.
However, Bowyer’s second replacement probably had more impact on the pattern of the game.
Even after Deeney’s introduction Derby went on to have a good spell of pressure, Sam Baldock’s shot blocked by the impressive Harlee Dean, Ravel Morrison’s drive over from distance, Lee Buchanan’s cross which needed palming away.
Gary Gardner’s late appearance in Hogan’s stead ended all of that. Derby didn’t have another shot on goal after the 29-year-old came on to plug midfield.
Not because Gardner performed heroics but his physicality and industry clogged up the middle. The supply line into the peevish Tom Lawrence was cut, Morrison’s space crowded and Blues saw out the game comfortably, even adding to their tally when Bela got the reward his 40 yard support run deserved.
Bringing on Gardner was yet another shrewd in-game move from a head coach who is excelling at them.
On an evening replete with story lines, Deeney’s debut, Chong’s manic magic, Hogan’s goal, the club media team brought the unheralded Matija Sarkic to the press room for post-match interviews.
That was a tacit recognition of the quiet competence the Grimsby-born Montenegrin has displayed in goal this season.
Once of Aston Villa, now from Wolves, as if the 24-year-old didn’t have enough baggage to bring down the Birmingham New Road with him, he then went and had a shaky pre-season.
Wobbles during friendlies with Northampton and West Brom will have had the fanbase wishing a speedy recovery to Neil Etheridge.
But Sarkic has put together an unfussy and unflustered six-game run, including four clean sheets – as the media men pointed out – in which he has been judicious in dealing with crosses, almost flawless with his kicking and very sharp with his ‘keeper sweeping’.
He’s been superbly protected but he’s held up his end of the bargain too.
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It is impossible not feel a warm satisfaction when looking at the Championship table – even though it’s only six games old and Blues ended the night having played a match more than all the others in the top half.
But fourth. That’s notable not so much for the promise of a play-off challenge or even promotion as for the fact that this season, it actually might be alright, that the spectre of relegation and League One might not stalk us up and down the country for the next eight months.
Fulham on Wednesday night will be a test. But one Bowyer’s first team will be better prepared for than when the teams met in the Carabao Cup last month.
After that you see the fixture list open out a little, Peterborough, Preston and Nottingham Forest lie in wait, as do QPR and West Brom – but for once Blues have a team that doesn’t need to fear for itself.
Their defensive organisation, physical edge and options up front mean they are a going to be in every match, at least until injuries hit.
But if we’re not reading too much into September 11’s Championship table, consider awhile Bowyer’s results since he scooped the squad off the floor in March.
His record reads played 16, won eight, drawn four and lost four – half of those defeats coming in dead rubbers with an experimental team at the end of last season.
Even with those on his record Bowyer is rolling along at 1.75 points per game – which extrapolates to 80 over an entire season.
Take the Blackburn and Cardiff reverses off the record, given they were effectively end of season friendlies, and Bowyer’s return is two points per game, the accepted standard for p…… no, let’s leave it there for now.