A rebuilding job for Chris Hughton at Birmingham City
If you listened carefully enough, writes Joe Brewin, you may have been able to hear the faint sound of celebration when it was announced that Alex McLeish would be leaving Birmingham this summer.
Of course, this may seem odd coming from the fans who had seen their club pick up its first piece of notable silverware for 48 years, but simply put, relegation was the final straw. In truth the Blues were far from favourites for the drop even in the latter stages of the campaign, but a lack of goals ultimately cost them dear.
But while McLeish’s side were leaving opposition goalkeepers to finish off their Sudoku puzzles all season, there were bigger issues at the back. Birmingham had built themselves on a solid foundation the season prior to conjure an admirable ninth-place finish, despite scoring only 38 goals (just one more than their relegation season). In the absence of the injured Scott Dann this year, however, the Blues’ defence floundered.
Now, back in the Championship after a two-year absence, change is afoot. The debris of McLeish’s bitter departure has finally died down, and the club have now secured their new man at the helm – former Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton.
Hughton is well aware of what it takes to mount an assault on promotion from the second tier, having guided the Magpies to the Premier League just two seasons ago. He was a surprise casualty from his post at St James’ Park last season, and on the surface represents a good appointment for the West Midlands side.
Despite Hughton’s achievement, the task ahead is still daunting. The Championship has scarcely looked stronger, with the majority of the division looking able to secure a top-six finish. Birmingham chairman Peter Pannu has previously stated that there will be no fire sale, but an exodus seems almost too difficult to avoid.
Several of the club’s top stars have already been linked with big money moves away from St Andrews, including Ben Foster, Scott Dann, Roger Johnson, Liam Ridgewell and midfielder Craig Gardner. First-teamers from last season in Sebastian Larsson and Lee Bowyer were among the names on the released list, along with stalwart striker Kevin Phillips. And with the loans of Alexander Hleb, Obafemi Martins, David Bentley and Matt Derbyshire all expired, Hughton has a major rebuilding job to do.
The Blues have already captured Cardiff winger Chris Burke, Dundee midfielder Morgaro Gomis and controversial striker Marlon King without spending a penny. Whatever your views on the latter, King enjoyed an excellent season with Coventry last season and should cast his mark on the Championship once again in a better side. Burke on the other hand endured a poor season for the under-achieving Bluebirds, but has proven his worth as a tricky customer in seasons gone by.
Birmingham fans may end up disheartened with the departures, but a switch at the top may be the tonic required for a change of heart in this corner of the West Midlands. McLeish – the anti-Christ to many – was persistently targeted for his so-called negative tactics during his time at the club. The Blues’ lack of goals in the last two seasons certainly does not lend itself to free-flowing attacking football, and there is only so long any fan can stand by and grit their teeth. Of course there are the few that have stood by McLeish through it all, but the jury has remained out in the blue half of Birmingham for some time now.
But with new life comes new avenues. The club has found itself at the centre of managerial storm in the past fortnight, making it easy to forget that they are indeed just one round away from Europa League group stage qualification. For winning the Carling Cup they bypass the first three rounds, and face a two-legged play-off clash to secure their place.
The tie is set to throw up a stubborn obstacle in a strong European side, however, and ultimately the tournament stands as a second-rate priority. The Championship is a gruelling campaign in itself, and Birmingham may well follow in the footsteps of their West Midlands rivals by fielding a second string line-up in the competition.
Either way, Birmingham fans are in for an exciting year. Promotion back to the Premier League is, and always will remain, top priority, and the Blues stand in a strong position to make a swift return if they play their cards right.
They are no strangers to the second tier, having gained automatic promotion from it twice in the past five seasons, but next year will undoubtedly stand as their biggest test yet.
If it’s excitement they’re after, Birmingham fans are in the right place.