Dean Whitehead's first Premier League goal in 85 matches, stretching back to the midfielder's Sunderland days in 2008, was not the prettiest he will ever score. Yet it ensured that Stoke ended a run of four defeats with a victory that had looked unlikely when Birmingham roared back from 2-0 down with less than 20 minutes remaining.
Despite the attentions of three defenders, Whitehead's scuffed contact with Matthew Etherington's low cross was enough to carry the ball over the goalline. Birmingham, who had scored twice in as many minutes through Keith Fahey and Cameron Jerome, to nullify Robert Huth's opener and Ricardo Fuller's sublime second for Stoke, were desolate.
The result was a "massive relief" for Tony Pulis, who appeared to be starting to believe there was a conspiracy – manifested in a series of controversial refereeing decisions – to deny the Potteries club their just desserts. In fact, the ball appeared to have struck Whitehead on the hand during the build-up to the winner, but the Stoke manager insisted he had not seen this reversal in his team's fortunes.
"I thought Mark Clattenburg was very, very good tonight," said Pulis, who is to fulfil a long-standing commitment to be a guest speaker at the North Staffordshire Referees' Club tomorrow night. "If he's missed that [the possible handball], then I'm very pleased."
He added: "When they got the second goal it was very deflating because the first half was as well as we've played this season. The only disappointment was coming in just 1-0 up. We got a fantastic second goal, but after that we had a mad 15 minutes. They had nothing to lose and fair play to them, they nearly nicked something. But it's about time Dean scored."
Commendably, Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, declined to make an issue of any touch Whitehead may have applied to the ball, though he admitted having "watched the replay 10 times". "It would have been a great point," the Scot said. "We were right on top at 2-2 and felt the momentum was with us. But the winner was a dog's breakfast of a goal."
Stoke's first-half pressure told in the 44th minute. Etherington's cross was laid off neatly by Whitehead to set up Fuller for a shot which broke off a defender into the path of Huth. The German's drive from 12 yards went into the net off Ben Foster's body, Stoke's first goal against Birmingham in eight meetings since Ray Wallace scored in 1996.
The contest looked to have swung decisively in Stoke's favour after a Birmingham corner was cleared to Fuller. Picking the ball up in his own half and surging along the right flank, the Jamaican left Barry Ferguson trailing and cut inside past Liam Ridgewell before curling a left-footed shot beyond Foster from 20 yards. The goal was strangely reminiscent of Tuncay's at the same end against Manchester United in Stoke's previous home game.
Birmingham, however, had come from two down to draw with West Ham at the weekend. As on that occasion, a substitution transformed them, Fahey firing home after Nikola Zigic had laid the ball off following a skied clearance by Danny Higginbotham. When Jerome headed Sebastian Larsson's centre past Asmir Begovic Stoke were reeling, and it took a fingertip save by Begovic to prevent Craig Gardner putting the visitors ahead.
But the spirit of Pulis' side has perhaps been strengthened by their brushes with officialdom. Etherington, whose industry and delivery from the left should make him a contender for the England squad to face France next week, was the provider, his low cross starting a game of pinball in Birmingham's six-yard area. The ball passed through Scott Dann's legs and Whitehead's finish, as scruffy as Fuller's had been sumptuous, went past Foster.
Stoke edged up the table after their first win in more than a month. Birmingham replace them in 17th, just above the drop zone, having won three of their last 22 league fixtures.
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