Birmingham on brink after catalogue of bad decisions – but may have bright future

Birmingham's Wayne Rooney decision was a huge mistake – relegation bump in the road of bright future
Wayne Rooney left Birmingham in January after just 15 games in charge - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

Ten years after their last mad scramble to safety, Birmingham City find themselves once again circling the plughole to League One.

This weekend, Birmingham must summon the spirit of their 2014 great escape to prevent a relegation that will prove a damaging blow to the short-term ambitions of owners Knighthead Capital.

It has been another turbulent season, from the dismissal of John Eustace in October to the disastrous Wayne Rooney experiment with its bold “no fear” football, 22 defeats and an imbalanced squad. There have been four managers in all, with Tony Mowbray stepping down for medical reasons in February and Gary Rowett returning to St Andrew’s a month later to lead the safety mission.

Birmingham’s task on Saturday is clear: they must beat Norwich City at home and hope their near rivals Sheffield Wednesday or Blackburn Rovers lose and Plymouth Argyle fail to win. It is situation critical yet, strangely, this year it feels different after eight relegation battles in a row.

When Birmingham defender Paul Caddis saved his club 10 years ago with a 93rd-minute equaliser at Bolton Wanderers, relegation would have been disastrous.

Administration and possibly worse were genuine fears under the ownership at the time. But now, under American owners Knighthead, there is a clear long-term strategy for the road ahead and optimism for the future. Dropping into League One for the first time since 1995 would set Knighthead’s ambitions back a year or two, yet may be the reset this club desperately needs.

Birmingham fans of a certain vintage will recall the 1994-95 season under Barry Fry, when the club won the double, as one of the most enjoyable. When Fry was appointed midway through the previous season, he famously insisted he would get Birmingham out of the division and, sadly, was not wrong. Nearly 30 years later, there is a buzz over what the future may hold.

Knighthead’s vision is exciting and focused, and last month chairman Tom Wagner has insisted their group will be here for the long haul.

“What happens in the next five games is going to have no impact on what we’re pursuing and our vision for the next decade,” he said. “You can’t talk about making a multi-billion-pound investment and worry about the next two fixtures.”

There is little doubt of their commitment. Tom Brady, the seven-time SuperBowl winner, remains fully in tune with the club, and is understood to have been on a recent Zoom meeting with officials at 5.30am US time. Knighthead have acquired 60 acres of land to build a new stadium, at a cost of around £50 million, and insiders with knowledge of the plans claim they are “jaw-dropping”.

Garry Cook, the club’s chief executive who counts Manchester City among his former clubs, has also built a strong infrastructure. Many former Manchester City officials have been lured to the West Midlands to take key roles. Mike Rigg, the former director of football at the Etihad, is the new Academy Technical Director with a vast remit to improve the junior levels that helped produce Jude Bellingham.

Whatever happens this weekend, Birmingham’s ownership will be reflecting on October 9 last year as the day that leaves them in such a perilous position. The decision to dismiss Eustace, with the club sixth in the table, was poorly timed. It had the whiff of a new regime wanting their own man, but it halted Birmingham’s momentum and damaged the feelgood factor.

John Eustace - Birmingham's Wayne Rooney decision was a huge mistake – relegation bump in the road of bright future
John Eustace was surprisingly sacked by Birmingham in October after 15 months in charge - Getty Images/Cameron Smith

Rooney’s arrival was inevitable and proved a disaster. Nine defeats in 15 matches tell only half the story. As results went increasingly awry, Rooney took out his frustration in withering post-match assessments of his squad. He was convinced Birmingham would give him money to completely revamp the team, but that was never going to happen with concerns over the EFL’s financial rules. Rooney may not have ‘lost the dressing room’ but his blunt remarks eroded the trust from his players.

Mowbray was a popular, sensible appointment as Rooney’s replacement and there was an initial bounce. In February, however, he had to stand down due to illness and while it was unavoidable the impact on the team was big. With Mowbray’s health still the prime concern, there are no guarantees at this stage that he will return for pre-season.

Rowett has steadied the ship with eight points from seven matches but is working with a squad packed with players facing uncertain futures. Discipline has been an issue, with one player dropped last month after arriving late for a team meeting.

With 15 players out of contract at the end of this season, the squad next season will look drastically different regardless of Saturday’s outcome. Recruitment needs to be improved this summer. Many managers this season have lamented the lack of leaders. It seems the club has moved away from the core of reliable professionals like John Ruddy, Marc Roberts, Gary Gardner and Lukas Jutkiewicz.

There appear to be too many players with talent but mental fragility. The failure to sign a striker in January, and let Kevin Long depart for the United States feels costly.

Birmingham need one of their players to be a hero this weekend. Jay Stansfield, the forward signed on loan from Fulham, has 12 league goals this season and will also be vital.

In the past, they always seem to find a way. Yet while the future may be bright, relegation is a bump in the road that nobody wants.

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