Derby give Hughton opening-day Blues
One hundred and sixty days since the best afternoon in their recent history and 75 after one of the worst, Birmingham City rounded up the stragglers and the strangers to kick off a campaign with a difference. As the boisterous, bouncing Bluenoses chorused: "We're all going on a European tour". They are. They are also embarking on a nationwide journey to places they didn't visit last season, to Doncaster and Millwall, to Peterborough and Barnsley.
They lead a double life now, heading to Portugal and Portsmouth alike, playing in the secondary leagues of both their country and their continent. Few combine the Championship and the Europa League in the same season, but that is Birmingham's lot after a campaign of first celebration and then relegation. So, too, is a state of uncertainty as their owner, Carson Yeung, awaits trial on money-laundering charges, which he denies, and their prize assets attract covetous glances.
Meanwhile, the last men standing from an injury-hit, wafer-thin squad were condemned to a 2-1 defeat. The Championship should not be a culture shock to City, demoted thrice in six years, but a fitter, faster Derby team benefited from the Birmingham firesale. They began with a flourish whereas Birmingham are virtually starting from scratch.
Just three of the Carling Cup-winning side started, with selection simplified by adversity. With one fit striker on the books - barring a loan forward who had not even trained with his new team - Chris Hughton played with one in attack. "When you have got three players in Cameron Jerome, Marlon King and Nikola Zigic - three very, very good strikers - out, it's always going to be difficult," the manager said.
Resources are already stretched to breaking point. Should Jerome and Scott Dann go, an entire side, minus only the full-backs, will have joined the exodus, along with many of the replacements. Hughton's time at Newcastle showed him to be a specialist at salvage jobs, but his level-headed attempts at recovery were aided by stability among the playing staff. He has had no such luck at St Andrew's.
Yet even supposed strengths have become weaknesses for Blues of late. Their trademark solidity deserted them in the final few weeks of last season and while the theory was that the defence formed the most dependable department of this team, that premise seemed rather less sound after 45 minutes. "It's disappointing when you go in at half-time feeling you have done enough to be winning," said Hughton, whose side had taken, and then lost, an early lead after conceding what he termed "disappointing goals".
The first two came from dead-ball situations - this is not known as the set-piece league for nothing - and all three involved a Davies. First Birmingham's Curtis Davies headed in Jordon Mutch's corner. Then Derby levelled from a Ben Davies free kick, Jason Shackell marking his debut with an effort that crept in. With three minutes of the first half remaining, County's Steve Davies let fly from 20 yards. His swerving shot evaded Boaz Myhill's half-hearted attempts to save it and flew in.
To add to the three goals, there were a hat-trick of close shaves. Birmingham's Liam Ridgewell had left the bar reverberating with a header from Jean Beausejour's free kick. Derby's Jamie Ward followed suit after strike partner Steve Davies headed the ball into his path and then, after a glorious solo run, Blues' new winger Chris Burke struck wood with his shot.
"I thought we showed an awful lot of qualities today," Derby boss Nigel Clough said. "I thought the character of the team was superb to come back from the deficit and see the game out as well as we did, which had been a problem in the last 12 months."
He is benefiting from continuity and a supportive board, an advantage Birmingham may not have. This is a club that vows to keep right on to the end of the road, but their destination is unknown.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steve Davies - Brought speed and skill to the attack, as well as some over-enthusiastic tackling. But he linked up well with Ward and merited his winner.
DERBY VERDICT: They played with great verve and no little skill. If there is no out-and-out goalscorer, Steve Davies and Ward compensated with energy and endeavour, while Ben Davies' set-pieces rendered him a threat. Shackell, the biggest summer signing, was a defiant figure in the defence while Craig Bryson, another newcomer, fared well in midfield.
BIRMINGHAM VERDICT: They posed a threat in the air, especially from set-pieces, but the striker shortage is one concern. Adam Rooney may have been the fourth-choice forward, but he led the line with others out injured and among the potential departures. One of their Premier League regulars, Ridgewell, looked a weak link as Derby attacked enthusiastically on their right flank. Of the six debutants, the lively Burke and the midfield anchorman Morgaro Gomis, whose passing impressed, offered the most, but it won't be easy for this yo-yo club to bounce back.
KEEPING UP WITH THE DAVIESES: Besides their involvement in the goals, and compounding the confusion, referee Neil Swarbrick booked Davies, Davies and Davies in the second half.