Birmingham City: A Mess Of The Blues
Since relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2011/12 season, life hasn’t been particularly easy for the supporters of Birmingham City. A fourth place finish the following season was a decent enough return to the peculiar world of the Football League Championship, but since then the club has returned only two relatively soporific mid-table finishes and a narrow escape from the further ignominy of a further relegation to League One, on goal difference. It may even be worth considering that the most entertainment that Blues supporters have been able to grasp at over the last three or four years or so has come in the form of the schadenfreude afforded to them by the recent fall from grace of their bitterest rivals, Aston Villa.
This season, however, had seen something approaching some green shoots of recovery at St Andrews. Birmingham could hardly be described as having torn the division up so far this season – at the time of writing, they’re in eighth place in the table, after a win against Ipswich Town on Tuesday night – but in a tight division they’re reasonably well positioned, if not necessarily for one of the two automatic promotion places on offer, then at least for a return to the nerve-shredding end of season drama that constitutes the play-offs. It may not necessarily be what the club’s new owners would have hoped for in August, but that’s the reality of life in a twenty-four team division with only two automatic promotion places on offer.
If there’s one thing that we know about this division beyond all else, though, it’s that new owners cannot be relied upon to make decisions that necessarily coincide with common sense. The appointment of Gary Rowett in October 2014 came somewhat out of left field. Rowett had, of course, considerable prior experience of the club as a player – he made eighty-six appearances for the club between 1998 and 2000 – but his managerial experience, two years at Burton Albion, was limited and there can be little question that he was a leap into the dark. With the club one place off the bottom of the Championship table at the time of his appointment, though, there can be little question that his time at St Andrews was reasonably – if some way short of overwhelmingly – successful. Two mid-table finishes and the team’s current upper mid-table position suggest incremental progress.
Rowett’s dismissal following Tuesday’s win against Ipswich Town, then, falls quite squarely into the category of Championship managerial replacements that say more about the levels of entitlement of the club’s owners than about any shortcomings on the part of the manager himself. A recent three-nil home defeat was a poor result, granted, and having this followed up with a heavy defeat, even if that loss was against the division’s current team to beat, Newcastle United, was not a particularly strong look for Rowett. Having said that, however, none of the usual platitudes normally apply in these situations – having “taken the team as far as he can”, for example, or having “lost the dressing room” – seem to particularly apply in this case.
There was also something appropriately unseemly about the haste with which Rowett’s replacement, Gianfranco Zola, was confirmed as the club’s new manager. It is believed that Zola’s arrival at St Andrews is related to the club’s new owners’ desire to spend a lot of money in the January transfer window and concerns that Rowett might not be able to deliver the players that they want. The new manager’s record since retiring as a player has been patchy. His time with the Italian under-21 team, as assistant to Pierluigi Casiraghi, was curtailed by the bright lights of the Premier League. His time at West Ham United was marked by one reasonably successful season followed by a fairly unsuccessful one. At Watford, he took the club to the 2013 Football League Championship play-off final, losing to Crystal Palace, before resigning at the end of the year after a bad run of form. His roles since then, back in Italy with Cagliari and in Qatar with Al-Arabi, were somewhat less successful.
He remains a big draw and has experience of the strange demands of the Championship, then, but may find himself walking into an atmosphere of some discord at St Andrews. The club’s new Chinese owners took control of the club in October – the Midlands, for whatever reason, has become a centre for Chinese football investment over the last couple of years or so, with Birmingham joining Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion as being under the control of new Chinese owners – and they’re impatience is showing. But in a division in which the top two are already starting to look too strong for the rest but those below them continue to resemble much of a muchness, what is the realistic hope for Birmingham City this season? The Blues are three points off third place in the table – only five points separate Reading from tenth placed Fulham – but this would seem to indicate that Gary Rowett was making solid enough progress with his team. Apart from being a “bigger name”, it’s difficult to understand what about Zola will a significant upgrade for a team that has been doing okay so far this season.
It may simply be that a close proximity to the gargantuan riches of the Premier League – along, of course, with the other benefits that come with membership of this particular club – encourage owners to act erratically. Large amounts of money have a tendency to turn the sanguine desperate, and the unseemly chase for a snout at that particular trough means that only a tiny number of managers in that division are likely afforded any job security whatsoever. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is in sight for owners who often seem to care more for status than the actual clubs that they’ve acquired, and that this should see them act this way perhaps shouldn’t surprise us too much. It also may be instructive to note that the two clubs that look the most likely to bag places in next year’s Premier League at present, Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion, may be benefiting from at least some degree of continuity. Following Newcastle’s relegation or Brighton’s failure to get promoted at the end of last season, either Rafael Benitez or Chris Hughton might have been shown the door at the start of the summer. Both, however, stayed, and both are proving their value this time around.
Modern football doesn’t have time for patience, though. Modern football is a bull in a china shop, charging around making bad decisions, chancing across good decisions, throwing enough mud at the wall to make something, eventually, hopefully stick. Birmingham City were, following the chaotic time of Carson Yeung and Peter Pannu, finally looking at a period of stability. It wasn’t particularly spectacular. Stability seldom is. But under Gary Rowett, the club had been making progress and was continuing to do so in a division that can be punishing to get out and of unforgiving of failure. Rowett will be fine. His success at both Burton and Birmingham means that he will not be out of work for very long. Indeed, it’s even been rumoured that he’s already lined up for another Championship club job.
But what of Birmingham City, though? The modest progress made over the last couple of years has now been ripped up. A change of tactic has been decided upon, and perhaps the big names and promotion in a blaze of glory will now follow. On the other hand, though, perhaps it won’t, and it’s at this point that these erratic decisions start to look a little troubling. Few Birmingham City supporters would want theirs to become yet another football club with a trigger-happy owner capable of rocking the boat in the pursuit of reflected glory. The club’s new owners may well have lofty ambitions, but they’re far from the only club in the Football League Championship to be stricken with that particular affliction. It is to be hoped that this hair trigger turns out to be the exception for the club, rather than a new rule.
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