Blue burden

Chris Sanderson assesses Birmingham City’s mixed season and how a return to the Championship has affected the club’s finances and tactics

In a Premier League awash with money and abetted by a hyperbolic media, journeyman teams like Birmingham City face an impossible dilemma. How can we join the celebrity foam party when we turn up wearing M&S slacks, looking for the carvery?

With relegation, scapegoats are needed, and the ire of some Blues fans has been directed at Alex McLeish and his defensive tactics. The statistics certainly make grim reading: a paltry 37 goals in 38 matches, a measly nine points from our last 12 games and a striker who hasn’t scored in six months. When Alexander Hleb, who we apparently had on loan last season, moaned that at Birmingham “you need to just fight and run, not too much passing” he reflected the frustration at the predictable and often clueless approach we have persisted with. Over at West Brom, Roy Hodgson’s expansive team created the suspicion that fans of other clubs might actually be enjoying their football.

Add the fact that the recession has worsened the city of Birmingham’s existing economic problems and it is no coincidence that attendances have fallen. The atmosphere at home, always a source of pride among Blues fans, has largely vanished and with the return of crowd violence against Aston Villa, one could be forgiven for thinking that St Andrew’s is at the epicentre of the current tedious 1980s revival.

But the reality is far more complex. The real reason clubs like Blues, Stoke and Blackburn have adopted a pragmatic style is because it generally works in making the most from the limited resources at their disposal. McLeish’s record speaks for itself. Promotion at the first attempt, a ninth-place finish in 2010, two consecutive Cup quarter-finals and in our League Cup victory, the weird and hitherto unknown elation of actually winning something.

Blackpool and West Ham may well have been applauded for their more attacking style – and are duly patronised by the Match of the Day sofa for their contribution to the Premier League “brand”. But like predecessors such as Bradford, Barnsley and Reading, this approach has hardly guaranteed a permanent place in the Premier League.

Indeed, an alternative narrative of Blues’ season would rightly point to the injuries to the likes of James McFadden and Scott Dann as hampering the progression to a more attacking style, not to mention  the part played by McLeish in rehabilitating Stephen Carr and Barry Ferguson. Even the reliably comic Nikola Zigic threatened to evolve into the elusive 12-13 goal-a-season centre-forward before he too fell to injury.

The narrative would also look at the difficulty clubs like Blues have in attracting players, even when they offer large wages. Despite costing a combined £200,000 a week, flops like Hleb, David Bentley, Matt Derbyshire and Obafemi Martins were brought in when preferred targets such as Roman Pavlyuchenko and Charles N’Zogbia failed to sign.

Curiously, while fans have focused their frustration on the first team, many are sanguine about the more problematic questions of the club’s finances and ownership. Birmingham City are a subsidiary of Birmingham International Holdings Ltd (BIHL), a Cayman Island-registered company. Despite protestations that the club is personally financed by club president Carson Yeung, the latest set of accounts (October 2010) stated that the club needed to raise a total of £24.65 million to “continue operating within its agreed bank facilities” and for “general working capital and financial support”. No mention was made of what might happen in the event of relegation.

A share issue at BIHL in March, underwritten by Macau casino owner Pollyanna Chu, raised £7.15m, but a second issue intended to raise the remaining £17.5m was postponed. While Blues’ budgets have been passed by both UEFA and the Premier League, relegation doesn’t normally entice new investors, and managing director Peter Pannu has so far declined requests to explain how we will survive financially in the Championship. As a perennial yo-yo club, watching Birmingham City is often a mix of sheer terror and abject boredom. For many long-term fans, there was an existential inevitability to our relegation after winning the League Cup.

However, now that we have joined the ranks of clubs whose finances are mired in offshore trusts and complex arrangements, comparisons are inevitably being made with those who have failed to adjust to life outside the top flight. The elation of the final whistle at Wembley will live long in the memory. Which, given the financial uncertainties that surround the club, may well be needed to get Blues fans through the coming months.

From WSC 293 July 2011