Birmingham's future stars brighten miserable season

Blues Under-21s needed extra time to beat Millwall in the semis
Birmingham City Under-21s needed extra time to beat Millwall in the semi-final [Birmingham City FC]

It has been a miserable season for Birmingham City.

Relegated from English football's top two tiers for only the third time in their history - and for the first time in 30 years.

Six different managers picking the team, one disastrously ill-conceived appointment by ambitious new owners - and a daily ongoing social media debate as to where it all went wrong.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

And not just in terms of the amount of money that co-owners Tom Wagner and Tom Brady propose to invest in the club over the next five years to try to make Blues a global force in the game.

The lifeblood of any good club is the strength of its youth section - and the Blues youngsters have done themselves proud.

This weekend the club that, not so long ago, produced Jude Bellingham - and before that Trevor Francis - have two teams through to the Professional Development League National Finals, at both under-21 and under-18 level, a first for the second-city club.

Steve Spooner's under-21s will face Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Friday night before Martyn Olorenshaw's under-18s host Charlton Athletic at Ray Hall Lane - the Birmingham County Football Association headquarters in Great Barr - the following lunchtime.

Blues under-18's keeper Tyrese Warmington
Goalkeeper Tyrese Warmington was the hero in the shootout the under-18s semi-final win on penalties over Bristol City [Birmingham City FC]

Giving kids a chance 'is what it's all about'

And under-21s boss Spooner, briefly one of those six first-team bosses when Wayne Rooney was sacked in January, is the ideal man to say just how much success at youth level means to the club.

"It's a first for us," he said.

"Especially for me in a season when I've tasted all aspects of the football club. But, for a club like Blues, this is what it's all about - giving young players the chance of becoming first-team players.

"We might not have the budget and facilities of other teams but our aim is always to try to bring through one or two a year."

Without going back as far as the great Francis, over the past two decades or so, Blues have produced England striker Andrew Johnson and Darren Carter - the man who fired them to the Premier League for the first time in 2002.

Then there was England keeper Jack Butland, Nathan Redmond and Demarai Gray before the emergence of the two Bellingham brothers - Jude and Jobe - and this season Jordan James, the one stand-out player in a failing team and already now an established Wales international.

"A lot always relies on the first-team management," said Spooner. "A big attraction for any young player is knowing they have a chance to progress to be a first-team player. But our record is good.

“You get kids now who haven’t even heard of David Beckham. It’s the parents you have to convince.

“But it’s a good starting point – a good selling point. There’s nothing better than having the evidence."

Steve Spooner first did the job as Blues interim boss four four games in the Covid summer of 2020
Steve Spooner first did the job as Blues interim boss for four games in the Covid summer of 2020 [Getty Images]

'You should always learn from failure'

Spooner said he feels "lucking" working in his role developing young talent, describing the club's two most famous graduates - Trevor Francis and Jude Bellingham - as "one-in-a-million players".

“Jude had that mentality that separated him from the rest. He just wanted everything to be done the right way and had an insatiable desire to learn.

"And then there's Jordan James and his development this season. JJ was a scholar one minute, then got elevated into the first team. That is what happens to really good young players. They get fast tracked. But we’re very conscious of never just relying on what we’ve done and to keep the evolution going.

“We give a platform - we have a good team of sports scientists, physios, analysts and player-care people.

"And we keep striving to produce first-team players. We have Romelle Donovan who has played for England Under-18s, while George Hall has played at under-19 and under-20 level."

This weekend is now the stage for the Blues under-18s and under-21s to succeed where the club's more senior players have failed this season by putting smiles back on fans' faces.

But, for Spooner, it is all about the learning process - whatever the result.

“We turn up the dial a bit now," he said. "They're getting close to first-team level so they have been treated as such, with the best preparation.

"We need them to develop that winning mentality but, at the same time, make them realise that it can end in failure too. And you should always learn from failure."