Blues’ fortunes have been turned around since Gary Rowett took over
29 January ~ Most clubs are reluctant to reveal the exact cost of a new signing, but this week Birmingham City eagerly announced that £1.5 million had been spent on Diego Fabbrini from Middlesbrough. A small sum in the context of modern football, it represented a break from the stranglehold of undisclosed fees and a significant change of fortunes.
Although funded by the sale of Demarai Gray – another success story from an increasingly productive academy – it was the first substantial outlay on a player since relegation from the Premier League back in 2011. More than just the arrival of a talented footballer, who became something of a cult hero while on loan last year, it signalled that things are looking more promising, both on and off the pitch.
We face Bristol City tomorrow having taken 13 points from the last five games, and on the back of consecutive 3-0 wins over Derby and Ipswich. Despite there being an element of fortune about each, the results give real cause for optimism. Such is the team’s good form, Fabbrini may have to settle for a place on the bench at Ashton Gate.
Our success under Gary Rowett, who recently signed a new contract to ward off potential suitors, has been remarkable. When he arrived in October 2014 we’d just slumped into the bottom three having suffered our worst ever home defeat. In unfavourable circumstances he immediately brought organisation, stability and a sense of belief back to a club that had been listing for some time under the chaotic Lee Clark.
The new manager’s approach is far more measured and we’re reaping the benefits. Gone is the vast and unwieldy squad, the endless procession of loanees and journeymen signed on short-term contracts, the bizarre team selections and impulsive decision-making. Ownership issues may be unresolved but we’re at least planning for the future rather than lurching from one crisis to the next.
There’s well-founded hope that the Blues can make the play-offs. We have a core of capable, if unspectacular, players with a very clear sense of what’s expected of them. The emphasis has been on remaining solid at the back, often letting the opposition take the initiative, and breaking forward with purpose when the chance arises.
The style is especially well-suited to playing away from home, where we’ve lost just three times in the league all season – to promotion-chasing Brighton and Hull, as well as fellow play-off challengers Sheffield Wednesday. At 44 per cent we have the lowest average possession of any team in the Championship by some margin, but the results speak for themselves.
In September we beat tomorrow's opponents 4-2, the tireless Clayton Donaldson bagging a first-half hat-trick. It was the last of a seven game unbeaten run to start the season. A lull followed – particularly at St Andrew’s where we only scored two more goals until mid-December – but we’re now back to what we do best. Donaldson’s return from injury has helped, as has Maikel Kieftenbeld’s tenacity and Jon Toral’s touches of class.
In truth, however, it feels unfair to pick anyone out. The essence of our success so far this season has been collective effort, something Bristol City, whose summer was marked by a pursuit of expensive individuals, would do well to bear in mind. Sean Cole