John Tandy makes a case for there being signs of a method in Barry Fry's madness
What’s it like watching Birmingham City these days? Imagine you’ve tuned in to Coronation Street. You want to find out whether Kev’s going to buy the garage. Instead you find two strangers that you’ve never seen before, and they’re making no sense at all. You check the Radio Times and discover that they only joined the cast the day before. They’ve not had time to learn any lines yet but they’re making it up as they go along. Then Reg Holdsworth disappears. It’ll turn out three weeks later that he’s been transferred to Brookside in part exchange for Barry Grant. You tune in the next day, and Curly’s been flogged to Pobol Y Cwm.
The received wisdom nationwide is that Barry Fry is some kind of comedy kleptomaniac, signing players left, right and centre forward, in some foolhardy attempt to amass the biggest squad since the Roundheads took on the Cavaliers over two legs, and selecting his teams using methods made popular by Anthea Turner. But this popular picture is some way wide of the truth. The truth is far, far weirder than that. We could start with some statistics. There have been 57 transfer deals at Birmingham City this season, but Fry has actually sold more players (29) than he has brought in (28). Financially, the club has made a surplus of £550,000 – mainly through the transfer of Liam Daish to Coventry for £1.5 million (a profit to the club, incidentally, of £1.45 million). If that’s not a balance sheet to keep a board happy, I don’t know what is.
And it’s not true at all that he’s out to create the biggest squad in the League, as anyone who has ever seen Jason Bowen, Steve Barnes, Paul Devlin, Andy Legg and Martin Grainger will tell you. There is fast emerging a picture of the sort of player Fry buys: Number Two haircut, 5' 6" or thereabouts, looks about 15, lower division or non-League background, scurries a lot: running out these days they look more like Kevin Francis and ten mascots than eleven Premier League contenders. It’s when you start to look at the details a touch of the David Lynches starts creeping in. Take Gary Bull (someone had to). It took Fry 18 months of sustained and public pressure to talk the board into signing Gary Bull. Eventually in November 1995 we landed the Tipton Tyke. Six games and some time on the bench later he was on his way to York.
Or take Bart Grieminck. “We need cover in goal for Ian Bennett, who’s worth around £2 million. I know, I’ll look in the Dutch amateur leagues.” Fry keeps telling us this is all part of a master stategy that’s starting to fall into place. It’s actually a method that makes some kind of sense. If you’re not in a position to compete with Premier League wages, then you’re not in a position to compete for Premier League players, so all you’re going to get from that direction is twilight players approaching their sell-buy date.
In which case you might as well trawl the lower league. And Sweden. And if one of your deals turns into David Platt you’re a genius. And if they don’t, then hey, there’s always Peterborough to take them off your hands. (And let’s not forget there’s a clause in Fry’s contract involving a cut of the transfer fees – a legacy of his time at Southend . . .) A lot of players find their level and settle there. Steve Claridge is a very good First Division player who would struggle for pace in the Premier. On the other hand, a lot of the players Fry has off-loaded are doing good jobs for teams in lower divisions: De Souza at Wycombe, Charlery at Peterborough, Saville at Preston, which seems to suggest he’s done the right thing by them. Admitting you’ve made mistakes may make you look incompetent, but it’s more ethical than keeping schtum and leaving players rotting in the reserves.
I look at the squad we’ve got at the moment and on first impression (which is all you seem to get these days) there’s a lot of potential (and Ricky Otto). The trouble is that potential is a bit like having games in hand: you’ve still got to deliver the goods. It may well be that Fry can find the players, but it may well take another manager – George Graham, for example – to make a team of them.
It’s certainly been a funny season. We spent the whole of Kevin Francis’s lay-off putting high balls up to midgets, and now he’s back we’ve started playing it on the ground. We spent the Sunderland game demonstrating our mastery of the hospital pass. And it’s still the case that the team’s most poised and committed player, club veteran Paul Tait (25) is one of the only ones not bought by Fry. But at least we’ve been consistent: a few weeks back the record showed Won 12, Drawn 12, Lost 12, Scored 47 and Conceded 47. Hardly play-off material, but then for some reason we always seem to do better after transfer deadline day . . .
Off the field there’s always some kind of mayhem going on. There’s been the odd well-publicised spat with David Sullivan and Karren Brady, of course, but let’s face it, compared to Stan Flashman, Sullivan’s a pussy cat. I know a seven-year-old who thinks that half time was invented so that Fry can smash plates. If the rumours are true, there’s no chance of Wedgwood going bust this side of the millenium.
Then again, it was a bit disconcerting when they sacked the backroom team Fry had worked with for fifteen years or so, for playing late-night cards with Vinny Samways. On one hand it makes sense: Samways has certainly been playing like a bloke who’s been up all night playing cards. And apparently they’d been warned by Karren Brady. On the other hand, if you catch three people in flagrante, you surely don’t just sack two of them. Anyway, Ed Stein got off light. He got the P45. David Howell got signed by Stevenage.
According to the next Blues matchday programme, this was all part of a strategic master plan that was starting to fall into place, but hands up how many of you believe that? Exactly. After three years I’d like to say that it looks as if Barry Fry is beginning to get things right, but I’d like to say it very quietly, just in case I’m wrong. Perhaps the answer would be to give Fry the England job. Then he’d have all the players he could want to choose from. At least that way Stan Collymore would get a game.
From WSC 111 May 1996. What was happening this month