Sunday’s fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers saw the reincarnation of Kevin Phillips who had only played in fifteen minutes of league football since October 17. At 36 years of age, it seemed that Phillips’ career at the Midlands club was slowly ebbing away due to a combination of niggling injuries, increasing age and a strike force of Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez that was working, albeit working without scoring too often.
However, Phillips’ arrival to the muddy St.Andrew’s pitch sparked something new – suddenly Birmingham looked dangerous going forward in a game that they had otherwise looked lacklustre. His substitution saw the removal of Benitez due to injury and from that point onwards, Birmingham’s performance made a goal look achievable. Phillips, a mercenary in front of goal, attempted a volley which although resulted in nothing more than a brief ‘ooh’ from the fans, still showed an ambition that is not seen from the goal-shy Benitez. For all of his hard work, the Ecuadorian has yet to show the Birmingham hierarchy that he truly justifies being awarded a contract at the end of the season – it would cost Birmingham upwards of £6 million to sign him and he does not look like he is good enough to merit such a price tag.
Phillips on the other hand, has intelligence in the box that Benitez cannot compete with – his two goals, chiefly his second, showed the league exactly what Birmingham have been missing this season. As many pundits have commented, his movement for the first goal was superb and will have been exactly what Alex McLeish wanted to see from the veteran striker. So, the question that remains from this intense but fairly pallid team performance – will McLeish start Phillips and does he deserve a starting berth against West Ham after one 30-minute cameo?
The man in charge has obviously pondered such a question. When asked about the situation, McLeish told the on looking press that: “After today he probably deserves a start. I’ve got to consider the right tactics for the team but, if you get the ball into the box, Kevin will score.” McLeish is understandably tentative about starting Phillips because of worries about Phillips’ durability over 90 minutes. At 36, it is very unlikely that he will be able to last an entire game. The fans perception of Benitez makes this decision even more difficult; Benitez is one of those rare players that, even if he does not always play well or produce the necessary goods, he shows effort that is appreciated enough to warrant his selection in the first XI.
It could be hypothesised that Cameron Jerome should make way for Phillips, but the idea of playing two strikers of such a small stature is one that does not suit Birmingham’s football and would not work. Even though Phillips is able to hold the ball up well, Jerome’s height and strength almost guarantees him a start unless a striker comes in that is able to do a better job, namely Roman Pavlyuchenko but that move never materialised.
It would be a surprise if McLeish does start Phillips, particularly when taking in to consideration Birmingham’s consistency in selection – the same XI have now started the last fifteen league games and it would be unfair to remove someone that has helped Birmingham on their brilliant run. No matter what selection choice McLeish makes, it is a headache that he will be glad to have and one that he would not have expected after failing to sign a striker in January.
Fans have bemoaned the boss for failing to sign a much needed goal scorer but Phillips’ performance against Wolves appears to have shown fans enough to bail McLeish out. Although two goals does not eradicate striking problems, the general threat of Phillips shows that Birmingham now have an extra option – a viable solution to their attacking deficiencies. Perhaps the most pragmatic decision that McLeish could make is to start Benitez and bring Phillips on when he is needed – this way, he will show that Phillips is going to be an important part of the team in the remaining fixtures but that he is unlikely to start because of the concerns over his age and ability to be a persistent danger to the opposition. Phillips’ fortitude is not in question and his two goals showed his desire to continue his Birmingham career, but McLeish needs to calculate the risk of starting a player that could easily fade half way through a game, with a great degree of care.