The atmosphere amongst Leicester City’s away stand was borderline riotous. Filled with over 1,400 travelling Birmingham City fans, the North East corner of the King Power Stadium was full of boisterousness, and rightfully so, as striker Matt Green had just drilled in his 100th career goal, yet first in the Football League after a summer move from Mansfield Town, giving the Blues a surprise 12th minute lead against a team that is an undeniable favourite to achieve promotion to the Premier League come May 2014.
Resolute defending from the likes of Dan Burn and keeper Darren Randolph saw the next 65 minutes go past with the slender lead intact and, with 10 minutes left on the clock, Birmingham were on the verge of picking up a most welcome three points away from home.
And then, the familiar capitulation happened, and an often-heard groan of disheartenment fell upon the fans that had travelled the several miles across from the Second City.
Exquisite strikes from the Foxes’ Jamie Vardy and Andy King, and a solid (albeit controversial) David Nugent penalty well and truly turned the tie on its head as, within a time frame of little over 10 minutes, Birmingham had conceded three times. Not even a stunning Chris Burke effort could shake the shellshock, and the travelling contingent left Leicester with the feeling that they had somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Close defeats such as this, or as a cynic would put it, games in which they very really should have won but typically failed to nudge themselves over the finish line – have become somewhat commonplace for Birmingham, however they have rarely lost in such a dramatic fashion as they did at Leicester in August.
Regrettably, poor results have become part and parcel of the 2013 version of Birmingham City: a team that, while still combining the strong, physical side of the English game with fine elements of finesse, has been in a steady decline since the day they defied the odds and beat Arsenal in the final of the League Cup almost three years ago.
Despite the highs of that famous day at Wembley in late February 2011, long-term injuries to the likes of key players Scott Dann and Barry Ferguson saw the team take a dramatic and completely unexpected nosedive in terms of league points.
The resulting sucker punch of relegation from the Premiership, confirmed on a heart-breaking final day at White Hart Lane only three months after the cup triumph, took wind out of the Blues, both on the field and in the back rooms of St. Andrew’s.
That summer saw, in what was to become common practice in the coming transfer windows, the departure of big names such as Seb Larsson and Wembley MOTM Ben Foster as the club prepared, financially and physically, for life in the Championship. Unfortunately, a play-off defeat to Blackpool in May 2012 ended the club’s hopes of bouncing back to the Premier League at the first attempt, and the tightening of the financial belt increased.
Coupling the Chris Hughton-led team’s failure to gain promotion with the arrest of chairman Carson Yeung on money-laundering charges in Hong Kong (and the lack of fresh investment), and the Blues were beginning to stare into the abyss.
The repeated rumblings of a takeover have not helped matters. With Yeung’s on-going trial and incredible unpopularity with the fans effectively rendering his position untenable, Birmingham City Football Club has officially been up for sale for the better part of two years.
Reports that an Italian consortium fronted by former QPR chairman and Gianni Paladini appear to be wide of the mark, and despite his recent interview with local radio show The Goalzone claiming that a pre-sale agreement had been agreed with acting chairman Peter Pannu, a deal seems far from imminent.
Conceivably, the most damaging impact that the continuing takeover saga has had is on the morale of the supporters. Indeed, Rob Wildey, of the Made in Brum fanzine, has commented that the fans “have left the exit labelled ‘hope’ and into the door labelled ‘fear’.”
The fear that Wildey notes is referring to the commonly-held belief that the longer the Hong Kong regime of Yeung and co. is in effect, the further Birmingham City will be driven into the ground, and the more likely the current administration fears will be realised.
These concerns have led to the fans making their opinions clear with the emphatic decrease in attendance numbers, with St. Andrew’s currently attracting around the 13,000 mark – less than half the stadium’s 30,000 capacity.
Now we are well into the latter months of 2013, it appears that the financial situation is starting to come to a head in other areas too. After another traumatic summer that saw the systematic sale of prized assets Marlon King, Curtis Davies and Nathan Redmond for far less than their true value, Birmingham are struggling to stay afloat.
Rumours are circulating (via the Daily Mail) that Yeung has until Christmas to save the club from the looming administration and, inevitably, the strain has begun to have an impact on the pitch.
Lee Clark, a manager with effectively two hands tied behind his back, has been put in a precarious position. Having to rely on free transfers, bosmans, loans and young faces from the academy from here on out, Clark is under instruction to slash the wage bill by any means necessary and, of course, that means any player that has any nuance of market value is to be shown the exit door as soon as possible. As an unfortunate side-effect of this approach, results have started to suffer.
Currently languishing towards the Championship drop zone, Clark’s team simply do not have the quality of the Birmingham squad that took the league by storm under Chris Hughton. Particularly poor showings at Burnley in September and the battering at the hands of Leeds in late October have proven that Clark’s new-look squad, try as they might, have yet to show the form that will steer them away from relegation to League One.
Of the summer arrivals (a group in which a fee was only paid for Paul Caddis), few have had any impact of note, Darren Randolph aside. In fact, many of them have had a tough time in adjusting to life in the West Midlands. Andrew Shinnie, a nominee for the PFA Scotland Player of the Year for Inverness, has had trouble finding the form that made him a star of the SPL last season, while Lee Novak, a free transfer from Clark’s old stomping ground Huddersfield, has had a most uninspiring start to his Birmingham career.
Despite being a staple of the starting XI since Birmingham’s pre-season tour of Ireland, Novak’s poor performances have seen him score only a single goal in competitive football thus far and, in turn, fall out of favour with the fans in dramatic style.
To say that Birmingham are on a complete downward spiral would not tell the whole story, however. Perhaps the most irritating aspect for the St. Andrew’s crowd regarding Clark’s new team is their maddening inconsistency that sees them show good form one week, and dire the next. So far this term, Birmingham have proven that, on their day, they can still compete in the division, as the remarkable 4-0 rout of Millwall and the Jesse Lingard-inspired thrashing of Sheffield Wednesday, both on home turf, can attest.
The team were also unlucky to come away from high-profile games against the likes of Watford and QPR with nothing to show for them, with either refereeing decisions or single moments of quality being the only separation between the teams.
But, in a quote that is often thrown around English football, the Championship is a results-based league, and Birmingham need to begin transforming those positive performances into points on the board.
Incredibly, the League Cup has seen the team come to life. Although recently eliminated from the tournament by Premier League opponents Stoke City in an enthralling contest that saw 10-man Birmingham score four to take the tie to penalties, the team has flourished with the competition giving a variety of players a chance to be featured without the added pressures of a league game.
Youngsters Olly Lee, Mitch Hancox and Callum Reilly have been amongst the names that have proven their worth in the ties, and veterans such as second-choice keeper Colin Doyle and striker Peter Lovenkrands were instrumental in not only the Stoke game but the deserved victories over Plymouth Argyle, Yeovil and holders Swansea in the previous rounds.
Alas, as gloomy as the forecast currently is, Birmingham’s priority must now be the league. The size and history of the club dictates that they should be looking up towards promotion, but this season’s goal may be to stay firmly where they are.
A further relegation would not only see another cut in both on and off-field personnel, and reduce crowd attendance and faith even further, so steadying the ship in the Championship has to be the sole aim, albeit one that’s route may be difficult to navigate. The players that Lee Clark has at his disposal may not be good enough to warrant a serious charge towards the Premier League, but they are solid enough to stay in the league that they are currently sitting – only, of course, if they play to their full potential.
Happily, the Blues are not factoring in the possibility of a descent into the third-tier of English football. As Clark himself recently noted in an interview with BBC West Midlands, he is positive that there will be a point when the fortunes turn around and the team gets the results that they have often deserved, but failed to grasp (as seen in the defeat at Leicester).
Birmingham City is in a delicate position of uncertainty at this juncture. Staring directly down the barrel at a double blow bullet of relegation and administration, the team need inspired performances in order to achieve the results that not only keep them in the Championship, but keep the club afloat as a whole. And that would be in the best interests of everyone, from £65,000-a-week striker Nikola Zigic to the long-suffering fan sitting in the Gil Merrick stand.
The star players may no longer reside at St. Andrew’s, but this team needs to reach deep down and fight to give fans a reason to believe in their abilities. As the famous Birmingham terrace song goes, keep right on until the end of the road, but it is still uncertain whether that route will take the club to Championship stability or administration.
Thank you for reading!
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