Sunday 27th February 2011 is a date that will live long in the memory of Birmingham City supporters, with Obafemi Martins’ 89th minute winner earning the club its first major trophy since 1963. Subsequent events, however, have impinged upon the euphoria that followed League Cup success, with revelations about Birmingham’s uncertain financial future and a home loss to local rivals, and fellow relegation candidates, West Bromwich Albion, curtailing the joy engendered by victory over Arsenal.
After such a soaring high the comedown has proved both sharp and sudden. A formal celebration was delayed by safety fears, which put paid to the customary open top bus parade, and fears that any festivities associated with the West Brom match would act as an unnecessary distraction to the players prevented that possibility. When the squad eventually took to the pitch for Sunday’s civic reception St. Andrew’s was only around a third full, with the previous day’s defeat having dampened the mood considerably.
The team that suffered defeat to West Brom was much changed from the cup final line-up, with the outcome emphasizing just how important those missing through injury, most notably Barry Ferguson, Nikola Zigic, Sebastian Larsson, and long-term absentee Scott Dann, are to the team. Alongside these players, Stephen Carr, Ben Foster and Roger Johnson give Birmingham the core of a very competitive side, with fans fearful that relegation would lead to their departure, and the need to dismantle a promising group of players.
While earlier exuberance may have been tempered by these pressing league concerns, the effect of that historic cup victory cannot be overstated for a club accustomed to chronic underachievement. Fans delighted in a day out at Wembley that ended in unexpected success, and, although the League Cup has been increasingly devalued through the disinterest of England’s elite clubs, the infrequency of such grand occasions in Birmingham’s less than illustrious history gave the game added significance.
Beyond that day in the limelight this weekend’s results were a reminder of the testing times ahead. Birmingham are embroiled in an almighty relegation scrap, with the fight for survival looking tighter than ever this year. Just eight points separate Wigan in last place from Fulham in 11th, and, having slipped back into the bottom three, Birmingham are being put under increasing pressure by the resurgence of West Ham and Wolves.
Despite failing to live up to the remarkable standards set in last season’s 9th place finish, where the team kept eleven clean sheets in the league, the defence has again been solid, although an over reliance on set pieces has seen Birmingham struggle as an attacking force. In part this is due to the cautious mindset of manager Alex McLeish, whose overt emphasis on containment stifles the team’s creativity and restricts goal scoring opportunities. So while Blackpool have shown this season that attack can sometimes be the best form of defence, McLeish remains wed to a rigid system that has seen enigmatic talents, like Alexander Hleb, suffer for their lack of effort and defensive discipline.
The football may be a little dour, but the results speak for themselves. In delivering the club’s highest league finish for 51 years last season, and its first major trophy for 48 this, McLeish can stake a reasonable claim to be Birmingham’s most successful manager of the modern era. He has built a team lacking in fantasy and forward invention, but one with great togetherness, based around a strong team spirit fostered through the player’s industry and hard work.
Ferguson functions as the team’s midfield general, dictating the play from in front of a back four who are regularly lauded for their commitment to the cause. In the manager’s attempts to lash greater goal scoring potential to this reliable defensive base, the club’s expenditure on wages has risen dramatically, with hefty sums being commanded by the Birmingham squad’s most recognizable names. Zigic, Hleb, Martins and Bentley are all believed to earn in excess of £40,000 per week, and, while loan deals for the latter three expire at the end of the season, this week’s worrying announcements have brought such large costs into question.
News of Carson Yeung’s need to arrange a multi-million pound loan and seek external investment has raised legitimate concerns over the wealth of an owner who struggled to raise funds when first trying to buy the club in 2007, before completing a deal two years later. Some media stories this week have seemed eager to paint the club as another Portsmouth, a tale of contrasting emotions, of cup success and European participation compromised by unsustainable expense. Given the recent experiences of other high profile clubs it would be foolhardy not to heed such warnings, but suggestion that there is a threat to the club’s long term future seems premature.
Regardless of the scale of such concerns, Premier League survival would provide an undoubted boost for Birmingham and help to avoid the mass turnover of players that would otherwise ensue, enabling McLeish to build on some solid foundations. As the League Cup run showed there is undoubted potential for the club to grow and achieve, and to do so it must continue to overcome the entrenched apathy brought on by the previous regime of Gold and Sullivan, the unfeasibly high ticket prices charged for uninspiring football, the lack of consideration for the realities of a working class support.
In comparison to much of Birmingham’s 136 year history these are heady days of success, yet financial fears and the lingering unease caused by the spectre of relegation have undercut the intense emotions experienced after the award of much longed for silverware. And with an FA Cup quarter final against Bolton on Saturday, McLeish must decide whether to prioritise league survival or another shot at cup glory.