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THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD?

01-01-2010

An eleven match unbeaten run has brought to a close an excellent 2009 for Birmingham City. Steve Beauchampé reflects on a successful twelve months on and off the field.

It’s arguable, to paraphrase Harold McMillan, that Blues supporters ‘have never had it so good’ as they have these last twelve months - or at least not for a very long time.

In May automatic promotion to the Premier League was secured at the first time of asking, the club having spent the entire 2008/9 season holding down either second or third spot in the Championship table, a notable achievement.

The football wasn’t pretty, in fact it was often dour and dogged, but the team kept accumulating points and, as we all know, points mean prizes.

And the prize was more than a return to the top flight of English football, with the lucrative TV and sponsorship income that comes with such elevated status.

As the fans were soon to discover, it was also renewed interest from South Korean billionaire Carson Yeung and his associates, Yeung had considered purchasing the club in late 2007, but as then owner David Sullivan tried pressurising him into a quick deal, Yeung backed away, probably unable at that juncture to meet Sullivan’s asking price and possibly wary of acquiring a club that seemed (and was) destined for relegation from the Premier League.

Not this time though! Back in August, Blues followers were aware of the team’s shortcomings (ageing midfield and lack of goal power being the most obvious).

Yet they were also conscious of how, under Coach Alex McLeish, Blues had the ability to relentlessly grind out results even when their performances suggested (and sometimes deserved) otherwise, and that as long as the team remained organised, kept their shape and stuck to their game plan, then the club were capable of staying up, even if it might involve a nail biting 14th or 15th placed finish.

How wrong that scenario may turn out to be. Because by early October, with Stoke and Burnley jostling for 9th place, and Carson Yeung wrapping up his takeover, it was becoming apparent that the Premier League - whose officials would have us believe is the best and strongest in the world - is actually stacked with decidedly mediocre teams.

There are a few good (perhaps very good) sides at the top, a few more decent ones sitting below them, but much of the rest are makeweights, no hopers battling it out for the privilege of securing themselves another season of struggle and a few good thrashings from the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.

Equally clear was that if Blues started playing a bit more adventurously (admittedly, early season injuries hadn’t helped McLeish), recognised that they were in the Premier League on merit, and displayed some self-belief, they too could reach 9th - and perhaps even stay there!

And they have (in fact, they’re currently 8th). 20 games played, 18 remaining and Blues have bowed to no one. While each member of the division’s lower orders has endured at least one sound caning, Blues - aside from a 3-1 reverse at Arsenal - haven’t lost by more than a single goal all season (and it hardly happened last term either).

Sure, each of their nine victories have been by a single goal, and with a mere 20 goals scored and 18 conceded, it’s really NOT just like watching Brazil.

But when Blues score first, back them to hold on and win - they virtually always do. The unbeaten run has to end soon (and the next Premier League opponents are Manchester United) and naturally there’ll be further tough games before the season ends, but we’ve seen enough over the last 18 months to know that, though the ‘official’ St. Andrews line remains that the priority is to reach the estimated 40-42 point safety mark, Blues won’t be anywhere near the relegation scrap this time round.

Yet neither are they likely to challenge for a Europa League spot. Though the new owners have placed substantial funds at McLeish’s disposal for the January transfer window, few players capable of significantly improving the squad are likely to be available and the coach will primarily seek to bring in cover to combat the injuries, suspensions and loss of form that can be reasonably expected as the season draws on.

Signing any genuinely international class players (if they can be attracted at all) must wait until the close season.

In short, what Birmingham City have - in terms of league position - they will probably seek to hold. That’s pragmatism and the simple mathematics of their league placing.

Even during the current run, once the side had reached around 7th-8th, they’ve found it impossible to climb higher.

The clubs who inhabit those spots above them will likely continue winning a good proportion of their matches, so while Blues were easily able to leapfrog the ‘middling’ teams, surpassing the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs requires almost title winning form for two-thirds of the campaign, taking into account that Blues’ first nine games garnered just seven points.

Behind the scenes, the club finally appears to have professional management, a welcome change from the self-obsessed drama kings (and queen) who preceded them.

The manner of their long overdue departure - not least the financial packages they awarded themselves - and former owner David Sullivan’s repeated sniping at his successors - tells us everything we need to know about a group of people who had run out of road at St. Andrews a very long time ago.

Carson Yeung has made it clear that he sees Blues as a vehicle for promoting Premier League football in China and South East Asia. Despite the promising start, time alone will tell if his ownership and stewardship of Blues will be to the club’s long-term benefit.

For Birmingham City and their supporters however the realistic ambition for this season should be a top half finish (i.e. 9th or above), which would amount to Blues’ highest league position in over fifty years.

Then everyone can get set for the pre-season tour to such exotic places as Shanghai and Guangdong and that exciting young Chinese player McLeish will be expected to sign next summer.

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