Tottenham Hotspur 2 Birmingham City 3: McLeish off to a flier as Keane sees red
By heck, Big Eck. This was some way for the former Scotland manager to get his career at Birmingham City under way, with Sebastian Larsson driving in a wonderful injury-time goal from more than 30 yards to earn Alex McLeish an improbable winning start.
The strike will not, however, erase a moment of high controversy in the contest which came with a quarter of the game to go as the referee, Phil Dowd, sent off the Spurs captain, Robbie Keane. Dowd, after appearing to consult the fourth official, Uriah Rennie, using his radio microphone, deemed that Keane was guilty of a two-footed lunge at Fabrice Muamba. It was an incredibly harsh decision to colour an exhilarating contest.
"It is difficult to talk about the ref," said Spurs' assistant manager, Gus Poyet. "I don't know which one refereed today because he [Dowd] asked the fourth official. A referee on the pitch is in charge of the game and he should be the one making the decisions. I didn't know you could ask the fourth official to confirm. You have to make decisions in split seconds and sometimes one person can make a mistake but when it is two that is disappointing."
Dowd has a history of such decisions having consulted the fourth official, Andy Hall, before dismissing Coventry City striker Michael Mifsud in a Championship match this season.
Keane, who scored twice within three minutes to turn the game around, protested his innocence, claiming he was not "malicious". Spurs, who also lost Gareth Bale to injury, will appeal his automatic three-match ban and raged against a first-half penalty award to Birmingham which contributed towards Ramos's first taste of defeat since he took over at White Hart Lane in October. To add salt to the wounds both Larsson and Muamba are former Arsenal players.
The victory ended a sequence of three straight defeats for Blues and allowed them to leapfrog Spurs and move into 12th place. Despite creating the lion's share of opportunities, and despite flashes of inventive attacking football, it shows that Ramos is struggling to accommodate his star players – all unfortunately strikers – in what is a lop-sided team. With the January transfer window looming, Ramos should be making some hard decisions.
A commanding central defender is a must with Younes Kaboul – an £8.2m summer purchase by sporting director Damien Comolli – withdrawn at half-time to prevent him inflicting any more damage. The Frenchman was a liability – a real Kaboul in a china shop – conceding the penalty by clipping Gary McSheffrey as he ran into the area to meet Larsson's clever flick. McSheffrey drove the spot-kick straight over the diving Paul Robinson.
McLeish has already warned his players that he will ring the changes also. But they responded magnificently yesterday for the man who earned his " Big Eck" nickname back in his playing days at Aberdeen, when he was wrongly referred to as Alec, before going on to to manage Motherwell, Hibs and Rangers.
This was his first test in English football having stepped down from the Scottish national team post after the failure to qualify for Euro 2008. He trebled his £400,000-a-year salary in doing so even if his new team have a fight to avoid relegation.
It's certainly a fight that can be won with McLeish's boldness deserving of reward. The result also did nothing to lessen his reputation, worthy or otherwise, of being considering something of a "lucky manager". It was also a sweet early vindication for the Birmingham board who have had to deal with Steve Bruce's departure and a ham-fisted, doomed, takeover bid.
"It was a wonderful victory, obviously hard-earned and we must go forward," McLeish said. "It should enhance confidence and toughen the players' mentality a notch or two."
That mentality was stretched as Spurs surged back after falling behind. A curling free-kick by Bale was clawed away by Maik Taylor while a stream of attacks were hacked out by a resilient defence.
They were, however, quickly undone after the break when Didier Zokora broke forward and picked out Dimitar Berbatov who was rashly challenged by Johann Djourou and crumpled to the ground. Keane clipped the penalty away from Taylor and then quickly added another when he met Tom Huddlestone's clever chip to guide his volley home.
That lead did not last, however. McSheffrey turned the ball forward, it fell to Cameron Jerome and he evaded Michael Dawson before barrelling through Zokora's challenge, steadying himself and driving a low left-foot shot across Robinson. Spurs pushed on, creating chances, but the best ones fell to Birmingham with Mikaël Forssell volleying against the crossbar before Larsson dispossessed Berbatov to thump a swerving right-footed shot which tore beyond Robinson.
"A fantastic goal, a dream goal," said McLeish. "It was more than I expected. To win 3-2 was not how I thought it would finish." Ramos would agree with that sentiment.
Goals: McSheffrey pen (24) 0-1; Keane pen (50); Keane (53) 2-1; Jerome (62) 2-2; Larsson (90) 2-3.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-1-3-2): Robinson; Chimbonda, Kaboul (Huddlestone, h-t), Dawson, Bale (Lee, 75); Zokora; Lennon, Keane, Malbranque; Bent (Defoe, h-t), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Cerny (gk), Boateng.
Birmingham City (4-2-3-1): Taylor; Kelly, Ridgewell, Djourou, Schmitz (Parnaby, 63); Nafti, Muamba; De Ridder (Forssell, 66), Larsson, McSheffrey (Kapo, 77), Jerome. Substitutes not used: Doyle (gk), O'Connor.
Referee: P Dowd (Stoke-on-Trent).
Booked: Birmingham City Schmitz.
Sent off: Tottenham Keane (68).
Man of the match: Larsson.