Birmingham City: A decade in decline

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  • The Wembley afterparty let-down
  • McLeish’s Villa exit: “I thought only Rangers and Celtic had that rivalry”
  • The Blues fan that flew to Hong Kong to investigate Carson Yeung
  • The ex-director on a boardroom “dog war”
  • Allegations of “unprofessionalism” at the club
  • Uncertain academy: “No one knows where the future lies with these kids”

We cannot be another Bury FC’. The open letter which greeted players and staff outside the entrance to Birmingham City’s training ground last week was urgent and desperate.

A decade since tens of thousands marched on Wembley to witness the club’s finest moment – the League Cup triumph over Arsenal – disillusioned fans are shut out of St Andrew’s by the coronavirus pandemic, trapped in passivity as the Blues are drifting towards League One behind closed doors.

Their absence is telling. Birmingham have won only two home games in the last year. After improbable escapes in four of the last seven seasons, the club are two points above the relegation zone and it will take another miraculous turnaround  to get out of trouble.

Aitor Karanka, the sixth permanent manager in four years, is under pressure and the watchful eye of Zhao Wenqing – the Birmingham director and chairman of the club’s parent company.

But behind the scenes there are even bigger concerns. Mistrusting fans fear relegation will lead to financial ruin after Birmingham’s current regime broke the EFL’s Profit and Sustainability rules two years ago – leading to a points deduction and a transfer embargo.

Long-serving senior employees have left, recruitment has been outsourced, while the academy – which produced £30m Borussia Dortmund player Jude Bellingham, Nathan Redmond and Demarai Gray – had appeared under threat of closure before a U-turn.

So how did we get here? Ahead of Saturday’s 10-year anniversary of Birmingham’s greatest day, Sky Sports News speaks to former managers, players, coaches and staff – and the fans – to find out how it all went wrong.

February, 2011 – Wembley

Alex McLeish pauses for a moment. Would the manager that led Birmingham to their first major silverware since 1963 have swapped it for survival in the Premier League the same season?

“I probably would have, yeah,” he says. “But long-term, would I have still been able to build the team the way I wanted to for the next 10 years?”

For Obafemi Martins, it was the easiest goal he ever scored, but for Birmingham City it changed everything.

“Ben Foster can launch a ball,” says McLeish. The plan was the same in the 89th minute as it had been from kick-off. Pass it short? “That’s like five pieces of a jigsaw. We just had one piece.”

Nikola Zigic, the 6ft 7in monolith who had put Birmingham ahead in the first half, barely needed to head it.

Arsenal’s class had shown after their equaliser. But here, in a moment, insecurity born out of the weight of expectation of six years without a trophy was laid bare on the Wembley pitch.

Wojciech Szczesny came out, Laurent Koscielny swung a boot, neither followed through.

Martins only played five games for Birmingham, but the sight of his trademark acrobatics after rolling the ball into an empty net will never be forgotten.

“When he scored everyone was just running around in circles,” says Lee Bowyer. “It was in disbelief really because we’d worked so hard and it was so late on in the game that we were running out of steam.”

Bowyer was 34, he had played in UEFA Cup and Champions League semi-finals with Leeds.

“I wouldn’t have thought the only trophy I’d ever win as a player would be with Birmingham,” he says. “It makes it even sweeter it happened that day because it shows anything is possible if you put the right group together.”

McLeish adds: “We were underdogs by a mile. The only ones who really believed in it was us.”

Even the club did not believe it, apparently.

“It’s a shame really, if there was anything that we would say that we could have done better, it would have been the afterparty,” says Bowyer.

“Even if we’d lost, the group deserved to have some sort of afterparty, bringing their family and friends. That would have been the right thing to do and I’m guessing that’s what all other clubs would do.

“Nothing was arranged, it was sad. We went as groups into London but because of how exhausted we were and the adrenaline running through the body, we had a few drinks and it was just so tired, it just wasn’t good you know. I try to forget that moment, the afterparty, because it wasn’t a plus from the day.”

For McLeish, the dampened celebrations were a missed opportunity. There was no open-top bus parade because the Birmingham City Council raised security concerns.

“Those kind of things empower you,” says McLeish. “It was just like ‘we won the cup, get back to normal – we’re back playing West Brom next week’.”

A 3-1 home defeat by their West Midlands rivals brought Birmingham straight back to the reality of a relegation battle, with a third of the season still to play. The effects of such a long cup run began to be realised.

Martins and Zigic would only make two more Premier League appearances due to injury, while Bowyer believes the rest of the squad had nothing left in the tank.

“It wasn’t through lack of trying, I just don’t think we could cope,” he says. “We had to be at it every single game, every single player, to be able to compete in that division. If you don’t you get found out and you lose games, quickly.”

Birmingham won just two league games after the cup final heroics. They became the first Premier League club to win a major trophy and suffer relegation in the same season.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t have stayed up if we’d invested more in the strikers,” says McLeish, who had urged the board to sign Bobby Zamora the previous summer.

Birmingham’s owner, Carson Yeung (more on him later), had celebrated his birthday at Wembley. The club still had a Europa League campaign to look forward to and the board wanted McLeish to stay.

But McLeish felt recruitment was being taken out of his hands. “I didn’t want to work under these circumstances, whereby the manager wasn’t getting the final say,” he says.

The Birmingham fans could have accepted his departure, but they would not accept what happened next.

“Where was my career going to go? Aston Villa’s a big club, it wasn’t like I was a Villa supporter, or Birmingham as a kid,” says McLeish.

“I only ever thought there was that rivalry at Rangers and Celtic.”

McLeish admits he never felt “the enthusiasm, the confidence” at Villa that he had at Birmingham. “I’ll always have a phenomenal feeling for the Blues,” he says.

“Why can’t we have a strong Birmingham team in the Premier League? That would be my wish for the future.”

March, 2014 – Hong Kong District Court

When Birmingham’s owner Carson Yeung was jailed for six years for money laundering by a Hong Kong court, Daniel Ivery felt only “ambivalence”.

It followed three years of relentless investigation in which Ivery – who had been a part-time youth worker – became the go-to source of information for Blues fans 6,000 miles away and eager to know what the effects would be on their club.

Ivery had started a general Birmingham City blog – Often Partisan – months before the League Cup final, but when Yeung was arrested that same year it shifted focus.

“It was obvious there was something not quite right, there were issues with raising money,” says Ivery, who along with Hong Kong solicitor Will Giles wrote Haircuts & League Cups: The Rise and Fall of Carson Yeung. “I thought at the time ‘I don’t think he’s as rich as he’s making out’.”

Yeung, a former hair stylist, claimed he had accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars through stock trading, business ventures in mainland China, a hair salon and gambling.

Ivery simply began decoding information from the Hong Kong press through Google Translate and studying accounts.

“The biggest hurdles were language and culture. I can speak a little bit of Mandarin now,” he says. “Without going out there I would have never understood the way things were written.”

As his blog posts became more popular, more doors started opening.

“People got in touch – as they do,” he says. “A disgruntled director at the club got in touch with me and put me onto certain things.”

When Yeung went on trial in Hong Kong, Ivery got a call.

Do you think it would be easier if you went out there?

Ivery knew he had the contacts but said he did not have the money to finance a trip half way across the world.

That wasn’t the question, came the reply. Do you think it would help?

The Birmingham resistance were determined to have a presence at the trial.

“A  lot of people didn’t understand why he’d been arrested and what he was on trial for,” says Ivery. “Being out there and talking to people in the legal sector, in accountancy, in the Hong Kong media – that allowed me to explain it to people.”

Ivery, supported by his anonymous backer, eventually came face to face with Yeung outside a Hong Kong courtroom.

“He was affable, he was friendly,” says Ivery.

Yeung remained majority shareholder after his conviction. The money had stopped coming into Birmingham and manager Lee Clark was tasked with maintaining a Championship squad on a shoestring budget.

Former banker Panos Pavlakis was appointed as a Birmingham director and took over day-to-day running of the club.

“It was quite messy,” he says. “One thing I did from day one was to try to isolate what was going on in Hong Kong and what was happening in the UK.

“We had a budget for £5,000 per week per player. We had to stick with that. We got Clayton (Donaldson), but he was a striker, so he was more than £5,000 so we gave him £7,000, that meant we had to find another player at the time to give £3,000. It was very practical but that was the way we had to do it.”

By the end of the 2013-14 season, Birmingham went into the final day needing a draw away at Bolton to avoid relegation to League One. Trailing 2-0 with 12 minutes remaining, Zigic pulled one back before Paul Caddis’ 93rd-minute equaliser.

For Pavlakis, the relief was intensified because of a “dog war” in the boardroom, the kind you see “in the Hollywood movies”.

“I was so worried about the football, and at the same time I knew what was going on behind the scenes,” says Pavlakis. “Because of the special situation and the dynamics we had in the boardroom, I think it [relegation] would have been very devastating.”

With Birmingham’s Championship status secure, Pavlakis helped steer Birmingham through two years of voluntary receivership and the eventual sale to Trillion Trophy Asia in 2016.

But problems did not stop there. Ivery, whose website now goes under the name, is already working on his second book.

December, 2016 – Wast Hills, Birmingham

“We’d just beaten Ipswich on the Tuesday night at home,” says former Birmingham captain Paul Robinson.

The players were in for a cooldown after the victory that took them seventh in the table and kept up the play-off push. Gary Rowett, “the gaffer”, was on a day off.

“Training finished and we got a message from the club secretary Julia Shelton, to say we had to stay behind,” says Robinson. “We’ve all walked upstairs, sat in the meeting room and then the gaffer has come in.”

I’ve just been sacked lads. I didn’t want anyone else telling you, I wanted to tell you.

The Birmingham players were left “devastated”, says Robinson.

The new owners wanted a bigger name and Gianfranco Zola took over, armed with four new January signings, and tasked with introducing a more attractive style of play.

But Birmingham plummeted down the table. So rapid was the freefall, Zola left with three games left of the season – Blues in 20th.

Harry Redknapp was drafted in by new chief executive Xuandong Ren after what he says was a “15-minute meeting” and kept Blues up on the final day.

The club decided the next step was an all-out promotion charge. A summer shopping spree saw 14 players arrive, but just eight games into the following season Blues were second-bottom with four points. Redknapp was out.

Steve Cotterill, Redknapp’s assistant, took over with Ren promising “stability”. But by March 2018 the club were two points adrift of safety. It was becoming a continuous cycle.

“Board members should be able to come to the dressing room and have a chat with players and ask for their opinion, says Robinson. “They don’t have to make the decision, it’s just talking to the players and getting them to understand what it’s like to play for the manager.”

This time it was Garry Monk’s turn to keep the club up on the final day of the season. ‘Monkmania’ galvanised the supporter base and Birmingham began to see stability.

But in March 2019 Monk’s side paid the price for the expensive trolley dashes under Zola and Redknapp.

The EFL hit Blues with a nine-point deduction for incurring losses of almost £48.8m between 2015 and 2018 – just less than £10m over the permitted £39m over a three-year period.

The independent panel heard that the club had spent more than £31m on players in the two windows under Zola and Redknapp.

Monk kept the club up, but Birmingham are still counting the cost of their decisions.

Just this month, Ren told the BBC the club were at “the very last stage of recovery from the serious mistake we made three years ago” – in reference to their overspending in 2017.

Becoming “self-sustainable” is Ren’s top priority as chief executive, and he is adamant the club have the necessary finances to survive should the club be relegated to League One at the end of this season.

Cost-cutting measures have been felt across the club but Ren backed Karanka in the transfer market ahead of the pair embarking on a three-year plan together.

Ren insists the club’s academy is still striving for Category One status after confusing information in December. First a statement talked of ‘increasingly difficult’ costs associated with running ten age groups and the presence of local rival academies, before a second statement 24 hours later said age groups 8-16 would “operate as normal” while the club explored options with the older years.

The same month, Birmingham’s academy manager Kristjaan Speakman left after 14 years to join Sunderland. Just this week, Stuart English – who had been working as the head of academy football operations and coaching – has followed Speakman to Sunderland.

Robinson became a Birmingham coach after he retired from playing and oversaw the U18s until he left the club last summer.

“No one knows where the future lies with these kids unfortunately,” says Robinson.

“I only know a few staff members that are there now because the rest have all gone, moved on to better things. I only speak to a couple of people at the club now and they don’t know. They’re in the dark as well. They literally don’t know if they’re going to have a job in the summer or if the club is going to carry on the way it is.”

Robinson says he found his own pathways blocked as a coach at the club as he looked to make the step up to the first team.

He believes there are issues around “unprofessionalism” at the club.

“I was very professional in what I needed to do and if I saw things that I found very unprofessional I would write it down,” he says. “I’d keep a note of it and then eventually when I am working at a football club you go back to those notes and you understand what professionalism is all about and why you don’t want people around you to be working that way.

“It’s just basic standards. Being respectful to everyone, saying hello, having communication with every staff member, for me that’s important. You have to have a connection with the people at the club, the people at the stadium, you have to have a relationship with them because they work for Birmingham City Football Club.”

Birmingham declined to comment on this allegation when approached by Sky Sports News.

Ren’s conduct came under scrutiny when he was fined £7,500 by the Football Association for using abusive language towards an official when Blues lost 3-2 at Cardiff in December.

He has been pictured in full tracksuit on the club’s training ground. It is understood he keeps the Carling Cup trophy on display in his office there.

“No matter how much power you have been given, this power is not going to be useable or justifiable as long as you don’t earn the respect of your team-mates, your colleagues,” says Pavlakis.

Birmingham declined to comment when asked by Sky Sports News about allegations the chief executive is not taken seriously at the club.

For Matthew Elliott, of the 1875 group and the We Are Birmingham podcast, there is “a severe lack of understanding around what the fans want, the connection has disappeared”.

“We just want the club to be on a level footing financially, to stop getting rid of good people, and to ultimately perform well on the pitch,” he says.

It will be ‘Obafemi Martins Day’ this Saturday when Birmingham play Queens Park Rangers. But with the club just two points above the relegation zone, fans will save any celebrations at home for the final whistle.

“We berate our neighbours across the city for being historians, for living on past memories and I don’t want Birmingham City to be in the same mindset,” says Ivery.

They want to put a decade of Blues behind them.

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