TTU Season Preview 2012-13: Can Clark revive the second city Blues?
Lee Clark is trying to reignite his managerial career at Birmingham City – but he may be hampered by off-the-field troubles at St Andrews. By Frank Heaven.
“Why would anyone take this job?”
It was a sentiment often expressed by disgruntled Birmingham City fans after Chris Hughton’s unsurprising but much-lamented departure to Norwich City earlier in the summer.
At the time, the club’s problems, even by the standards of modern football’s financial mismanagement, were sizeable: an owner on money-laundering charges with his assets frozen, a transfer embargo (since lifted), an apparently ongoing fire sale of players, debt running to tens of millions, a set of accounts its auditors refused to endorse…
Birmingham did find someone to take the job: former Huddersfield boss Lee Clark. But as the new season dawns, most Blues fans are pondering two questions: one, what can Clark achieve with such financial uncertainty surrounding the club; and two, what prospects are there for Birmingham exiting this mess anytime soon?
Hungry as a terrier
Clark, in relative terms, looks a decent choice. He is a fresh face, his managerial career still very much in its infancy, unlike other tired names linked with the role such as Steve Bruce and Mick McCarthy.
His departure from Huddersfield, after a 43-game unbeaten league run, caused uproar in the mainstream media – but not in all quarters.
Terriers fans criticised his kid-in-a-sweet-shop tendencies in the transfer market – helped by a budget wildly different to what he can expect at Birmingham – but admitted he was still learning the ropes.
At the Galpharm, his style of play was at times thrillingly attacking, but became more pragmatic during Huddersfield’s long unbeaten run. What will his approach be with Blues?
Chris Hughton brought a welcome dash of flair back to St Andrews, after the more mundane Alex McLeish era, and Clark will inherit a surprisingly well-rounded squad – given all the transfers out – which should allow him to balance solid defence with a sharp cutting edge in attack.
Anyone not been sold?
At the back, the inevitable departure of Ben Foster to The Hawthorns on a permanent basis has been quickly forgotten with the meteoric rise of Jack Butland. On loan at Cheltenham last season, the 19-year-old found himself called into the England Euro 2012 squad before joining Team GB at the Olympics where he rarely looked out of his depth.
Any concerns about Butland’s inexperience should be alleviated by the presence in defence of the evergreen Stephen Carr and Curtis Davies, showing glimpses of the form that put a £9 million price tag on his head before his ‘pub player’ spell at Villa.
In midfield, Birmingham have spent their first transfer money of any significance for two years, a reported £250,000 on Darren Ambrose. He is a player who never fulfilled his early promise, dropping down into the second tier with Charlton five years ago, who he later left for south London rivals Crystal Palace. But Ambrose brings experience, and with Republic of Ireland international Keith Fahey, plus free transfer arrival Hayden Mullins, Blues have a solid-looking core.
Clark will hope the central midfield can unleash what looks like a potent forward line. Chris Burke, McLeish’s last bit of transfer business, contributes goals and assists by the bucket load on one wing, while on the other, there is the exciting promise of Nathan Redmond.
Marlon King will score steadily at Championship level, and is likely to be partnered by Peter Lovenkrands, a surprise free transfer from Newcastle, or £55,000-a-week beanpole Nikola Žigić. Like another gangling striker who played in Birmingham’s royal blue, Kevin Francis, Žigić has never scored consistently enough to justify his wages or transfer fee, but is a ‘curve ball’ to throw at defences, and may be used most frequently as an impact sub.
Given the sale of over £30m-worth of talent in the last 15 months, that is a decent team. Pre-season results have been encouraging, including a 2-2 draw at Borussia Mönchangladbach and a 5-1 demolition of League One Bury at Gigg Lane.
With Clark bringing his characteristic energy and enthusiasm to the role, it is not hard to imagine Blues getting on a roll if the season starts well.
Bailing out Blues
But any discussion of Birmingham City’s prospects cannot be indulged in without mentioning the troubling financial backdrop, which unfortunately could put the skids under any run the team puts together.
One TTU contributor reported seeing the squad return from its recent Austrian tour on a Ryanair flight – budget cuts even apply to first team travel it seems.
The finer points of the Carson Yeung saga and its associated ills have been discussed in detail on the excellent Blues blog Often Partisan, and from a different perspective, on the Heroes and Villains forum.
But a few issues are worth addressing.
The Football League lifted the club’s transfer embargo during the summer after Blues belatedly filed their accounts for the year to at Companies House – yet they hardly suggested a clean bill of financial health. The accounts for the year to 30 June 2011 – the first published since relegation – prompted auditors’ BDO to issue a ‘disclaimer of opinion’ due to being unable “to obtain sufficient audit evidence”.
That ‘evidence’ may be tied up with parent company Birmingham International Holdings Limited, who are still to post their own results. Incidentally, given that BIHL’s sole source of revenue is Birmingham City Football Club, it seems strange that the Football League were happy to lift the transfer embargo.
Meanwhile, the financial storm clouds are gathering around the parent company too. Legal proceedings have been started against the company by a creditor over non-payment of around £3.5 million of loans. Given the chain of ownership, a worst case scenario could see more assets stripped from St Andrews to pay off this and any other BIHL debts.
A better case scenario is that Birmingham’s player sales to date have put the club, and its parent company, back on an even keel financially. Certainly, it seems unlikely a fee would have been paid for Ambrose if there were further debts to be paid off.
If that is the case, then the prospects look brighter. Blues are not short of income. They have £36 million in Premier League parachute payments to come (including this season), and can expect to average nearly 20,000 per league game, possibly more if Clark can get the team playing.
What Blues fans would love is for Carson Yeung to sell up and end the uncertainty. At the moment though, there seems little reason why he would. The former hairdresser paid an astonishing £85 million to buy the club, and will want some of that back. Yeung may reflect on the deal struck by former Portsmouth owner Sacha Gaydamak; after selling Pompey in 2009, the Russian arranged for all parachute payments due to the club following relegation to go to him, as repayment for outstanding loans.
Should Yeung be found guilty, and face a prison sentence, then administration for BIHL – and the football club it owns – has to be a possibility. That would probably give Blues a new owner. But as Yeung only owns 31% of BIHL, it is far from a certain outcome.
In the meantime, if Lee Clark can keep his squad together, the St Andrews faithful and the housebound Carson Yeung should enjoy a competitive season – even if the latter has to watch it on an internet feed.