Hopeless Football League Teams 3: Birmingham City, 1993-94
The term ‘rollercoaster season’ is over-used – but Birmingham City’s 1993-94 campaign certainly deserved that label.
The season started with high hopes, which quickly subsided, only to rise again, then fall once more, then rise a final time, before being dashed at the very death.
But if it ultimately ended in disappointment, it was also a season which marked the beginning of a long overdue turnaround in Birmingham’s fortunes.
For at the start of the 1990s, the club was at a very low ebb.
Since the the mid-70s, a slow and steady malaise had set in at St Andrews, when the club had made the headlines mainly for the behaviour of its fans.
Third division blues
In 1989, less than a month after Hillsborough, Birmingham were relegated to the (old) third division for the first time in their history, amid unpleasant scenes at Selhurst Park.
Two mid-table seasons in the third tier later, and average crowds were down to 7,000. Blues fan and stand-up Jasper Carrott would joke: “I was at St Andrews on Saturday, and I turned to the bloke next to me, and shouted ‘OI!’
The ground itself was a heap of crumbling concrete and corrugated iron, surrounded by wasteland, and the job of converting it to all-seater — to meet the requirements of the Taylor report — looked a major challenge. There was nothing in the coffers, with Birmingham’s owners, local retailers the Kumar brothers, having had no more joy in turning the finances round than their predecessor Ken Wheldon.
Surprisingly, Blues scrambled up and out of the third division in May 1992 under the management of ex Leeds full back Terry Cooper. But the financial pigeons were about to come home and roost.
With the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International later that year, the Kumars’ businesses went into receivership, and Birmingham City FC was placed in administration.
Four months later, without a buyer in sight, the club propped up the division and looked on the verge of extinction. It couldn’t even afford to pay for replacement light bulbs in the floodlights; only two-thirds worked
An unlikely saviour
Enter an unlikely white knight in David Sullivan, publisher of the Sunday Sport and owner of a lucrative, ahem, adult entertainment empire.
He installed the 23-year-old Karren Brady, a sales executive on the Sport, as chief executive, and gave Cooper £500,000 to spend on players.
In the summer, Cooper was given more funds to strengthen the squad. Chris Whyte, a league championship winner with Leeds United just a year before, was brought in at centre half. Gifted but erratic Scottish winger Ted McMinn joined from Derby.
The season started promisingly, and a 3-0 home win over Derby put Blues in 7th. But the growing expectations around St Andrews were soon dashed. By the end of November, a dreadful run of form, culminating in a 0-3 home defeat against Tranmere before less than 10,000, saw the team plunge to 20th. Cooper fell on his sword, and the first major decision of the Sullivan era loomed.
Barmy Barry arrives
Across town, the profile of their second city rivals had rarely eclipsed Birmingham City more. Sullivan looked enviously at the acres of coverage Villa received under the media-savvy Ron Atkinson, and decided it was time to up the stakes; he appointed a motormouth to rival Big Ron in Barry Fry from Southend United.
Sullivan later said: “We tried to make the club talked about. The place was in such a mess when I came in we needed to improve the Birmingham City brand.
“With Barry, it wasn’t a case of picking a Johnny Vegas or Chubby Brown just to get noticed, we had to pick someone who could actually do the job as well and he was perfect.”
Fry, who had made his name by taking Barnet into the league before falling out with owner Stan Flashman, had raised Southend United to the giddy heights of 3rd in the first division. His new masters at St Andrews expected similar.
The new manager picked up his first win against Charlton a week before Christmas, and then hosted West Bromwich Albion in a derby on 28 December. Anticipating a big crowd — the 28,228 who turned up was the biggest in the division that season — Sullivan had unveiled a £5.5m stadium redevelopment plan in the match programme, grandly entitled ‘The Old Trafford of the Midlands’. The team did not let him down, coasting to a 2-0 win.
Meanwhile, Fry was busy spending more of Sullivan’s millions on new players. Lots of them. Blues’ owner would later compare his manager to “a kid in the sweet shop”. By the end of the season, the squad was bulging towards the 50 mark.
Some of Fry’s signings had obvious potential, and would go on to prove their worth: striker Steve Claridge and centre half Liam Daish from Cambridge, goalkeeper Ian Bennett from Peterborough.
More questionable were players like Kenny Lowe, who at 31 was signing his first professional contract when he arrived at St Andrews.
One thing was certain. Trying to integrate so many new players mid-season was madness.
The first sign of trouble came in a humiliating third-round FA Cup exit at home to local non-leaguers Kidderminster Harriers.
That form continued in the league. Blues went 14 matches without a win, and by the beginning of April, were rock bottom and looking doomed.
Hope springs eternal
They weren’t quite. Fry’s one signing with genuine top flight pedigree and experience was ex-West Ham midfielder Mark Ward, and he proved the catalyst for an unlikely spring revival.
Unfortunately, due to the redevelopment of St Andrews, Birmingham’s remaining fixtures were all away from home.
Undaunted, they went to Portsmouth and won 2-0, before travelling across town to The Hawthorns for the return derby against West Brom, who were suddenly just a point above them.
In a memorable and topsy-turvy game, Blues went a goal down before hitting back to win 4-2, including goals from Claridge and an unlikely long-range effort from Louie Donowa.
A remarkable escape looked on the cards. But Fry could only draw at Bolton in the penultimate match while Albion beat Grimsby to move out of the bottom three on goals scored.
It meant the final Sunday of the season would be a shoot-out for survival between the two West Midlands neighbours; Blues, travelling to 3rd-placed Tranmere, would have to better the result of Portsmouth-bound West Brom.
Sunday, 8 May 1994, was a gloriously sun-drenched afternoon, and Birmingham’s travelling hordes were determined to make it a carnival atmosphere at Prenton Park, come survival or relegation.
They were backing the form team of the division, and with Tranmere perhaps eyeing the play-offs they had already qualified for, Blues ran out comfortable winners, 2-1.
But it was to no avail. At Fratton Park, Albion had won 1-0. It would not stop the carnival on the Wirral though. Fry was chaired around the pitch by Blues fans, in recognition of his efforts during the final weeks of the season, as they accepted relegation with considerably more grace than five years previously.
Fry would later joke: “When I was appointed I promised the owners I would get them out of this division; I just didn’t tell them in which direction.”
Few teams relish relegation, but Birmingham City will look back on that year in the third tier during 1994-95 with fond memories.
Fry’s squad was comfortably the strongest in the division, and after an uncertain start, put together a four month unbeaten run which lifted them to the top of the table.
In January, Blues enjoyed the national spotlight with an FA Cup third-round tie against Liverpool, who they took to a replay, and eventually lost to on penalties at Anfield.
The Autowindscreens Shield, to give the Football League Associate Members Trophy its 1995 name, also proved a boon for the club.
Birmingham pioneered the ‘kids for a quid’ scheme during the competition, and instead of the usual empty seats in the early rounds, they were rewarded with crowds of over 20,000 in the redeveloped St Andrews.
The momentum continued all the way to the final at Wembley, where Blues were backed by 50,000 fans, and won with a golden goal in extra time, made infamous by Paul Tait’s t-shirt celebration.
In the league, Birmingham would eventually finish top, three points clear of 2nd-placed Brentford.
Fry rubbed his hands at the prospect of another crack at the second tier. But 1996-97 would prove a disappointment. Though in the play-off positions at Christmas, the season tailed off quickly, with Blues eventually finishing 15th.
It seemed that Fry, for all his ebullience and wise-cracking, was essentially a very good lower division manager who had over-achieved at Southend. That’s what Sullivan and Brady thought anyway. They sacked him in May 1997, and installed Blues legend Trevor Francis as successor.