Slip Slidin’ Away

By Steve Beauchampé.

It is now distinctly likely that Birmingham City will be relegated from the Premier League next Sunday. Defeat at Spurs should do it, even a draw may not be sufficient; essentially, if either Wigan (away at Stoke) or Blackpool (at Manchester United) obtain a better result than Blues, the League Cup holders will most likely be down.

While that Wembley triumph may have been a factor in the team’s plight, there is perhaps a more fundamental reason for their situation. Put simply, instead of thinking: “There’s little to choose between half the teams in the division (as perhaps evidenced by Blues’ 9th place finish last term and West Bromwich Albion’s recent rise up the table since new manager Roy Hodgson brought some organisation to the side), so let’s aim for 50 points again and a top ten finish”, the mentality increasingly appears to have been: “What do we need to do to keep out of the bottom three this week?” So often Blues have started games with a lone striker, imagining that last season’s approach of strong defence leading to a clean sheet (and then maybe nicking a goal in the last 15 minutes) will see them through. Well, I can’t recall Blues scoring a late Premier League goal since that League Cup Final and clean sheets have been rare events all season.

The side averages less than a goal per game, create very few chances (against Fulham on Sunday the Cottagers’ goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer had as many shots on target as did Blues’ entire team) and spend much of the game defending deep, relying on the superhuman efforts of centre-back Roger Johnson and ‘keeper Ben Foster in particular to keep them in the game. It’s perhaps no surprise that they are awarded very few penalties and concede some harsh ones. It’s the almost inevitable consequence of their niggardly approach, whereby grinding out results in a backs-to-the-wall performance, even at home to the division’s poorer sides, is viewed as a badge of honour.

Following Sunday’s Fulham debacle, a season ticket holder friend of mine stated that he could not recall a single league game at St. Andrews this season where Blues had played good football (and precious few last term either). In contrast, most of the team’s eight home League and FA Cup ties had been enjoyable encounters, full of goals, shots, chances and exciting football (in 11 cup ties this season Blues have scored 27 goals). He put the difference down to the fact that cup games needed to be decided on the day (no replays in the League Cup with additional FA Cup ties seen as an unwanted burden) so boss Alex McLeish and his coaching staff were prepared for the team to attack more and generally play with a bit of derring-do.

McLeish is surely one of the most decent, likeable managers in English football. Hardworking and honest (much like the teams he produces), he rarely blames referees to any serious extent, accepts his own shortcomings and oversees a squad of diligent players prepared to give all for the cause. However, should Blues be relegated next weekend, it will be the second occasion in four years that McLeish has overseen such a fate, and though he only took charge mid-way through the 2007-8 season, a cautious approach was evident even then as Blues effectively slipped out of the Premier League following a dreadful performance against…Fulham.

Alec McLeish will forever be remembered as the man who guided Birmingham City to their first major trophy, but his instinctively cautious approach looks increasingly to be at the root of their problems. Unless he’s prepared to inject some of that cup spirit into Blues league performances then maybe it’s time to say a big thank you and move on.