Between the battle at the top of the table and the chaos at the bottom of it, the achievement of Birmingham City in finishing in ninth place in the Premier League last season feels as if it was rather overlooked. It was their first season back after promotion the year before and, significantly, it was their highest league position since 1959. Those that continue to look back at the 1970s as being somehow the halcyon days of the club (which, one rather suspects, may at least in part have entered into local folklore because of the club’s dominance of their cross-city rivals Aston Villa) would do well to look at last season’s final Premier League.
It could, of course, yet end in tears. Carson Yeung swept into St Andrews in October of last year with the type of grandiose plans that always seem to come as part of the package with such buy-out, but, whilst some money has been spent on new players during the summer, the club’s spending hasn’t been of the largesse that had been anticipated when he took over in the first place. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, though, and the normal caveat, that there are still two and a half weeks before the start of the Premier League season, still applies. There is plenty of time for further reinforcements yet to be drafted in. Birmingham City supporters would, however, be best advised to keep asking difficult questions and to not fall into the (all too easy trap) of assuming that he is at the club out of the goodness of his heart. He might be, but it is usually best to start from the default position that he isn’t.
Potentially the club’s most difficult job of the summer has been persuading manager Alex McLeish to extend his contract beyond the end of the coming season. McLeish has been hugely successful since resigning his position as the Scotland coach to take over at St Andrews in December 2007, but his success with the club last season ignited predictable rumours that he could be on his way to Liverpool following the departure of Rafael Benitez. He opted to stay, although it has only widely reported that he has agreed his contract extension over the last couple of weeks or so. Having been so successful during his time with the club after the initial blip of relegation following Steve Bruce’s mid-season resignation, his signature may prove to be more important to the long term health of Birmingham City than any player could be.
Other key positions, however, have also required filling. Last season, their goalkeeper Joe Hart was on loan from Manchester City and his stock rose to a sufficient level (he won the club’s Player Of The Year award and was nominated for the PFA’s Young Player Of The Year) to persuade Roberto Mancini to take him back. There may or may not be an element of gamble about their choice of replacement for him, Ben Foster. Foster is a curious character, twenty-seven years old yet still often talked about in the press as if he is a teenager. A mixture of bench-warming and some bad luck with injuries have stymied his opportunities thus far, but now perhaps it is time for him to stop demonstrating potential and move onto the actual. This is his opportunity to re-establish himself in the England squad, after all.
McLeish’s other two signings are similarly intriguing. Nikola Zigic, the 6’8″ tall Serbian striker, failed to set the world alight during his time at Valencia, but he has played almost fifty times for Serbia and he may find the rough and tumble of the Premier League more to his liking than La Liga. He will, at the absolute minimum, be an imposing sight next season. About their other new signing, Enric Valles, we know relatively little. He was a product of the Barcelona youth system and has played a handful of games for NAC Breda in the Netherlands, and that is about it. He is also tall (at least for a left-winger), at 6’2″, and turns twenty years old next month. We shall see.
Other than these aforementioned three it has, as elsewhere, been a quiet summer so far in the blue corner of Birmingham. If McLeish can get into the loan market – Premier League clubs can bring in two players on loan from other Premier League clubs – with the same inspiration that took Joe Hart to St Andrews last summer, Birmingham could yet look even better than they did last season. Still, however, supporters of the club could be forgiven for thinking that last season was as good as things will get. The last time they were relegated from the Premier League, in 2008, it came after three seasons of mid-table finishes. In addition to this, last season’s three relegated teams were comfortably adrift at the foot of the table – it seems unlikely that Newcastle United will repeat the chaos of two years ago under Chris Hughton and West Bromwich Albion should be seasoned enough in the Premier League to be able to do better than they have done during their recent temporary stays in the Premier League. Even if we follow pre-season received wisdom and treat Blackpool as dead wood (which could yet be misplaced), at least two of last year’s Premier League clubs seem likely to at least be fighting for their lives next season. There’s no reason to think that one of them will be Birmingham City, but previous experience should shy them away from complacency.
With coach Roy Aitken having left the club to join David O’Leary in Dubai with Al-Ahli during the summer and supporters likely to remain tetchy until the ink is dry on Alex McLeish’s new contract, Birmingham could well find this season to be more difficult than last. However, the prizes on offer are within grasp if McLeish can get it right. A good run in the Cup? Why not, if the draws favour them? A place in Europe, if they get the wind behind them? Well, if Fulham can make the UEFA Cup final, anything’s possible. The occasionally melancholic air that occasionally may prevent their supporters from dreaming of the stars, and a more realistic aspiration may be, in the first season that Birmingham, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers have all been in the top division since 1983, to finish as the top West Midlands club. Finishing in the top half of the table again will be a tall order, but Birmingham City seem, at this early point, to have too much about them to struggle this season.