RELIEF was writ large on the face of Birmingham boss Alex McLeish after his side beat an improved Sunderland, ahead of eye-watering away trips to Liverpool and Chelsea.
The monotone manager doesn’t do elation with the press, but the three points which took the Blues above Sunderland in the Premier League table (on goal difference) certainly keeps the wolf from the door for a couple of weeks at least.
And, on top of that, his Carling Cup-winning side’s spirit in the face of adversity against Steve Bruce’s men gave him fresh cause for hope for the rest of the campaign.
“It was a big win,” he exhaled deeply. “A big win.
“We started brightly but then we stopped, got casual and Sunderland took advantage and we nearly came unstuck.
“Our first goal was against the run of play, but you take it – it was a great gamble by Seb Larsson. The second half was difficult again for us, but we’ve never had an easy game this season – every week we have been tested – and this game was no different.”
It was generous of the Scot to concede that Sunderland were the better side in both halves.
But he was delighted with the way his players dug in – a quality they will need in the next two away games – and pointed out that, when you’re battling at the bottom like Birmingham and Sunderland are, that sort of resolution is vital.
“What has turned things around for us is getting players back who are fully fit and getting over the hangover of winning the Carling Cup,” he said.
“Mentally, a few went on holiday, but we have regrouped and we have got experienced bodies back.
“Just look at Roger Johnson in the centre of defence – he was concussed in the game the previous week but was determined to play and he was exceptional. That’s the sort of attitude and character you need.
“I don’t think it’s easy for Sunderland, because there’s no doubt confidence is a massive factor and it’s not easy to go anywhere away from home in this league.
“But I think Sunderland are too good to go down. They have some great players and they will stay up – I only hope that we do, too.”
Birmingham and Sunderland are five points above the drop zone with games running out for the teams below. But McLeish is sure more points will be needed by both teams before the Blues and the Black Cats can breathe easy again.
“I don’t think 38 points is safe by any means, but it’s better than 35,” he said. “The problem you’ve got is that not a single team is going down without one hell of a fight.
“The bottom half is the most competitive for many a year and whatever teams go down will be really unlucky, in my opinion.”