Business as usual

John Tandy examines Birmingham City, a club in the hands of the new breed of owner said to be revolutionising football

In many ways, the Karren Brady reign at Birmingham mirrors the changes in the game in general over the last few years. Commercially the figures speak for themselves: the club has run at an operating profit (before transfer fees) for the last two years. Indeed, in 1995 they made a profit even when the transfer fees were added in. This season for the first time we’ve got an attractive, if scantily-stocked, club shop, and there’s even a branch in the city centre where you can buy tickets without having to trek up to the office at the ground (a journey so tortuous not even Ranulph Fiennes has dared attempt it).

We’ve been floated on the Alternative Investments Market. Whether we carry on floating or not remains to be seen, but the timing itself appears to be excellent: flotation itself is flavour of the month, and potential developments make the club, at least on the surface, an attractive proposition. I didn’t buy any shares myself, of course. Couldn’t afford the minimum investment.

As regards developing the stadium, we lived for ninety odd years in a corrugated iron shed so hideous that even the Nazis tried to bomb it (26 times, actually). Now we’ve got half a bright new spanking stadium. And half a shed. Well it’s a start. It’s quite nice from time to time to go and sit in one of the old stands, like going back in time. Perhaps when they finish rebuilding they could donate it to the Black Country Museum.

I keep reading from other clubs that losing the terraces loses the atmosphere, but it doesn’t seem to be the case at St Andrews. The singing is as bizarre as ever (in fact the new roof directs the sound far better), and even though I’ve gone a whole season without agreeing with a single thing the bloke behind me has said, at least I can get to the gents and back at half time. In fact the only thing that kills the atmosphere these days is 0-0 draws against the likes of Grimsby.

Customer service at Birmingham is legendary. This season’s great fiasco was the aftermath of the Away Travel Club, whereby you could only buy tickets for away games by paying an additional ‘membership fee’.

One fan took this to Trading Standards and earned us a £30,000 fine. In a fit of pique the club compounded the PR disaster by withdrawing his season ticket and banning him from the ground. The Away Travel scheme had already been dropped, though Karren Brady announced in a recent radio sports forum that she was still, for some reason, keen to reintroduce it, albeit (presumably) in a different form.

On the customer service front, that’s been the only bad news. We’ve not even had the traditional ‘bizarre ticket allocation procedure’ for important games. (Come to think of it, we’ve not had any important games, so that could be the reason.) They’ve even started opening the ticket office for 15 minutes after games so that anyone with a half-decent middle-distance running time can buy their ticket for the next match. And there are definite signs the club is actually starting to listen to its supporters. Kick-off times for midweek games were chosen by poll (7:45 got the mandate).

They introduced £5 entry/quid a kid schemes for the quiet games. Typically, some season ticket holders moaned this meant they were missing out. As if you buy a season ticket to save money. Again the club held a poll to gauge people’s reactions. Personally as a season ticket holder I’d prefer the atmosphere you get from a 20,000 crowd every time, even if it means some people get hold of a bargain I don’t. Apparently 80% of supporters agreed with me.

Then Jeff Lynne recorded a new version of the club song ‘Keep Right On’. Imagine Daniel O’Donnell guesting on vocals for Level 42. It was worse, the sort of blaze of glory only Jan Molby could trot out of a tunnel to. The thing is, again, they listened to the supporters and pulled the song out.

In mid-March we played a rearranged fixture against Man City. People were fairly miffed at paying full price for the original programme complete with ‘Happy New Year For Trevor Francis’ and player profiles of several people who’d left. The next time it happened, the club at least provided a six-page-up-to-date insert.

Next season they’re bringing back the ‘penguin’ kit which dates (if you’ve done your GCSE History) from the last time we had a decent team, a trivial and superficial move perhaps, but which at least shows some awareness of football supporters’ sentimental streak.

Last year they made the big error of scrapping the Youth Scheme (Brady argued that baked bean companies don’t grow their own beans. She’s wrong – if they can, they do. It’s called ‘vertical integration’, you can look it up in the business text books). This season all that’s been reintroduced, and they’ve even got Bob Latchford in to run it.

On the management side, Barry Fry was dumped and Trevor Francis brought in, not, perhaps for his good management credentials (a players’ revolt at QPR and four years decline at Sheffield Wednesday from a team inherited from Ron Atkinson) as for his ability to attract big names (Steve Bruce, Gary Ablett, Howard Forinton . . .).

He sold Paul Peschisolido to West Brom, which was a pity, but you can see the point: making career decisions about your boss’s husband is perhaps not the ideal scenario for a manager. And they replaced him with Paul Furlong, that was OK. (Students of English might like to note this example of the use of irony.)

As the season draws to a close, we’ve either just avoided relegation or just missed the play-offs (according to where you stand on the ‘half full or empty’ debate). Whichever, we’ve now got £5 million from the flotation to spend, plus anything the owners would care to bung in (according to the Times’ Rich List, they’re worth more than John Hall and Jack Hayward put together, which is odd, cos they’re always moaning they’re skint) so summer developments should be interesting.

Karren Brady spent much of the recent home game with Tranmere talking to the fans, and the final matchday programme of the season had a very positive four-page spread by her outlining a plan for ‘putting the supporter first’. This includes a guarantee that there won’t be any reduced-price games next season (!), but also plans for a Customer Care Centre – I picture a dark room where you can go and lie down after you’ve stormed out of the ticket office.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month