26 January ~ While a week may be a long time in politics, 45 minutes can change not only a whole season but potentially the medium-term future of a football club. Before the Upton Park leg of the League Cup semi-final, Birmingham City had won two games in succession and scored six goals in the process. We were slowly moving up the table and there was real optimism that Alex McLeish would finally be allowed to sign the centre-forward we have been crying out for all season.
But our failure to show up in the first half and subsequent inability to kill off a ten-man West Ham may well prove to have repercussions wider than our ability to enjoy an all-too-rare day trip to Wembley. It has exposed a series of problems that both fans and club have been unable to deal with all season.
Blues’ season is on a knife-edge. Crowds have dipped thanks to a combination the team’s inability to meet raised expectations, fans picking and choosing games in a time of austerity and the novelty of being in the Premier League beginning to wear off. The 22,000 gate against Aston Villa embarrassingly contradicted our protests that the Birmingham derby is overlooked in favour of less intense rivalries, and St Andrew’s has become as sterile as any stadium in the Premier League. Last season’s remarkable ninth-place finish is fast becoming a fading memory.
This angst has only intensified over the past two weeks. The team threw away what would have been a significant win against Villa, who of course then broke their transfer record to sign Darren Bent. In contrast, we made an embarrassing volte-face in our very public attempt to sign Robbie Keane, saw Kenny Miller favour a move to Bursaspor and suffered the ignominy of Sebastian Larsson’s agent accusing the club of treating his client "like cattle."
We’ve also seen acting chairman Peter Pannu criticise McLeish’s signings and tell contributors to one of the fans’ message boards to “find another club to support”. Real concerns have been raised over who actually owns the club and how it is financed. And to top it all off, we got thumped at Old Trafford.
Ten years ago, Blues faced Ipswich in the same point in this competition. Like today, we were a goal down and playing cautious football under Trevor Francis. A fawning media praised Ipswich’s history and youth policies, and rumour had it that Ipswich were so confident of victory that they had already started printing their tickets for the final. Despite this a vociferous St Andrew’s roared Blues to 4-1 win.
Blues fans will expect nothing less than a repeat performance tonight. Not only is this the only realistic chance we have of reaching a major final, but it might start the process of getting us out of the existential hole into which we have dug ourselves. Chris Sanderson