Harry Redknapp’s latest Houdini mission will go to the final act after Gabriel Agbonlahor rediscovered his habit of settling local derbies.
Redknapp’s rescue job kicked off with defeat against Birmingham’s deadly enemies, with Agbonlahor choosing the perfect time to score his first goal since February 2016.
Agbonlahor has frequently proven the scourge of Birmingham over the years and this was his fifth in all, ensuring Redknapp is facing a nervy end to his three-game assignment.
Chants of “sacked in the morning” echoed around Villa Park towards the end of this latest Second City dust-up, with Birmingham just two points above the relegation zone.
Redknapp will face Huddersfield at home on Saturday before a potentially crucial final day at Bristol City, and though there were encouraging signs, time is running out.
This was a typically frenetic welcome back for the 70 year-old, who has inherited a team which had won only two games from 24 during Gianfranco Zola’s bewildering regime.
Redknapp threw out Zola’s back three and wing-backs idea, introducing a rigid back four, with lone striker Lukas Jutkiewicz the focal point of any ambition Birmingham showed going forward.
Villa were resilient yet devoid of any spark without leading scorer Jonathan Kodjia, who was suspended after his dismissal at Fulham on Easter Monday, until the arrival of their record Premier League scorer in the second half.
A midtable finish arguably presents some progress after the five years of mismanagement that preceded relegation from the Premier League but Bruce will be under scrutiny next season if he fails to mount a challenge for promotion. Another season in the Championship is not what owner Dr Tony Xia signed up for.
Xia was at Villa Park and squirming in his seat seven minutes before half-time when Birmingham contrived to miss the first opportunity of the game.
Jutkiewicz ambled into the penalty area, after a fine surge from David Davis, and his cross presented Che Adams with a simple finish but the £1.3million signing hooked his shot over the bar.
Redknapp wheeled around in frustration in his technical area, a huge chance wasted.
With the game threatening to flatline, it was the introduction of Agbonlahor that finally provided the inspiration.
He had only been on the field for a minute when he produced a fierce challenge on Adams in front of the Birmingham supporters/
And he provided the crucial finish 22 minutes from time, turning in the area to put away the loose ball after Birmingham failed to clear Henri Lansbury’s corner.
It was Villa’s only chance of the game but a huge moment for Agbonlahor, also providing a fitting tribute to the memory of former defender Ugo Ehiogu.
Villa (4-5-1): Johnstone; Hutton, Chester, Baker, Taylor; Adomah (G Gardner 75), Bacuna, Lansbury, Jedinak, Grealish (Agbonlahor 59); Hogan (Hourihane 83). Substitutes: Bunn (g), Elphick, Bree, Amavi. Booked: Agbonlahor
Birmingham (4-5-1): Kuszczak; Nsue, Shotton, Robinson, Grounds; Adams, Davis, C Gardner, Kieftenbeld (Keita 89), Maghoma (Stewart 85); Jutkiewicz. Substitutes: Legzdins (g), Tesche, Gleeson, Dacres-Cogley, Bielik. Booked: Shotton, Robinson.
Referee: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire)