Getting to know… Birmingham City

Next up, it’s one of the biggest clubs in a division packed full of them. A quarter of a century on from the classic 1994/95 campaign, we’ll face (the other) Blues in league action once more.

Quick facts

Founded: 1875 (as Small Heath Alliance)
Ground: St Andrew’s (since 1906, capacity 29,409)
Second tier seasons: 57 (+ 57 top flight)
Major honours: League Cup (1962/63, 2010/11)
Last season: 20th in Championship

2019/20 recap

Back in 2012, Birmingham almost bounced back to the top flight at the first time of asking, finishing 4th and losing out to Blackpool in the play-off semi-finals. Since then, though, they’ve stagnated. The last four years have been particularly unremarkable: 19th, 19th, 17th, 20th. Only once since the late 1980s – when they dropped into the third tier for the first time in their history – have Blues recorded fewer second tier wins than in 2019/20, and although it would have taken a highly unlikely series of results and the overturning of Wigan’s 12-point deduction to send them down, they still weren’t mathemtically safe going into the final round of fixtures.

It wasn’t quite the pants-soiling final day of 2013/14 – when Lee Clark’s side only stayed up on goal difference – but the St Andrew’s faithful won’t put up with another nine months of dicing with the drop. For the fifth season running, there’s a new name in the dugout – and it’s time for Birmingham to dig themselves out of this rut. Having just sold star of the future Jude Bellingham for £27 million, pressure will surely be on to assemble a squad capable of pushing up the table.

The gaffer: Aitor Karanka

Aitor Karanka

Age: 46
Appointed: July 2020
Previously managed: Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Spain U16
Played for: Colorado Rapids, Athletic Bilbao (2 spells), Real Madrid

Following a spell as José Mourinho’s number two at Real Madrid, Karanka got his first break in professional management in 2013. He won promotion with Middlesbrough as Championship runners up in his second full season but was unable to keep them in the Premier League. After leaving Boro in March 2017, he spent almost a year away from the touchline before taking over at Nottingham Forest – where, despite having them in play-off contention, he departed after only 12 months. A year-and-a-half later, he’s back and faces potentially his biggest challenged yet. It’s a piping hotseat at Birmingham – they’ve appointed nine managers in as many years – so he’ll need to hit the ground running.

Fan thoughts

Ryan Deeney gives us his views on Blues as they enter yet another new era.

After a third bottom six finish in four years, what are the main things that need to change if you’re to climb the table and have a more comfortable season this time around?  Almost everything has to change this summer.

We have been stuck in a rut for the best part of a decade, only seeing glimpses of light during Gary Rowett’s time at the club, which never felt likely to last given the financial disparity in the division. We were punching above our weight and knew it.

Last season ended in embarrassing fashion. Post-lockdown, we earned three points from a possible 27, our survival effectively secured thanks to an injury time equaliser from Lukas Jutkiewicz against Charlton. We ended with no manager, 14 senior pros and a whole host of problems.

This summer has so far been about removing deadwood and big wages. David Stockdale, Cheick Keita, Jonathan Grounds and Jacques Maghoma (released) and Craig Gardner (retired, now on the coaching staff) have gone. We’ve also lost Jake Clarke-Salter and Scott Hogan (end of loans), Lee Camp (end of contract), Connal Trueman (loan – AFC Wimbledon) and Bellingham.

Aitor Karanka has taken on the role of Head Coach and he has a big role trying to improve results, the quality of the squad and, most importantly, standards and expectation at the club.

For the fourth year running, you’ll begin the season with a different manager to the one who began the previous season. To Wycombe fans, that’s an alien concept (we’ve had four managers in 14 years!), but what kind of effect does it have on the club and the team? Pep Clotet may have left of his own accord, but it’s fair to say there’s been an awful lot of chopping and changing! Trillion Trophy Asia (TTA) took charge of the club in late 2016 and took a sledgehammer to the work that had been done to rebuild a club that was on its knees two-and-a-half-years prior.

The appointments of Gianfranco Zola, Harry Redknapp and Steve Cotterill and the transfer windows they oversaw were disasters. Garry Monk endured a transfer embargo and a nine-point deduction for previous FFP failings and Pep Clotet’s remit was about style, youth and, hopefully, results.

Our owners aren’t purposely causing problems for the club and there is ambition. What they lack is occupational competence. There’s something of a blank canvas to work with this summer and we can only hope our temperamental board get along with our temperamental new manager and get it right.

What do you make of the appointment of Aitor Karanka? He has a Championship promotion on his CV, of course, but is there much to suggest that he’ll be given time at St Andrew’s? If you asked me after Pep Clotet announced his departure, I’d have said no to Karanka. It felt like the club needed somebody to provide stability and give it its identity back – maybe not an appointment that would secure us promotion but somebody that would leave us in a far better position than they found us. The way Karanka’s time ended at Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest left me concerned we would end up back at square one, particularly with our tempestuous owners.  

The longer the season continued, the more it became clear that we were succumbing to the mediocrity that has followed us for the best part of a decade. We needed a manager to light a fire at the club, increase expectation and improve standards on and off the field. Karanka was the most likely – and attainable – name to provide that. The fans are certainly positive about the appointment, which is a start.

Does he get much time? I don’t know. He and our owners are combustible and it feels like a marriage that will end in tears soon enough. The hope is that they thrive together for long enough before it all comes crumbling down. 

What are your key needs in the transfer market and do you trust the owners to reinvest the Bellingham money wisely? At the time of writing, we have 17 first teamers [now up to 19]. Only 11 were available post-lockdown with five returning from loan spells and another recovering from long-term injuries. There is a lot of work to do.  

Firstly, you have to look at what style the manager wants to play and Karanka often played 4-2-3-1 during his time at Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest. To get it right, we would need to sign two goalkeepers (we currently don’t have one), a centre-back (preferably left-sided and who complements Harlee Dean and Marc Roberts as Clarke-Salter did excellently last season), a winger (somebody who can carry the ball up field), a 10 (important to Karanka’s set-up at Middlesbrough and we only have Dan Crowley right now) and two strikers (able to act as focal points). Other additions – a midfielder that can do the basics in possession and another winger – would not go amiss, but it could be a couple of signings too many to expect in this window.

In terms of departures, [right-back] Josh Cogley is unlikely to get game time and should move on for the sake of his career, while [left-back] Steve Seddon could leave on loan. David Davis or Maikel Kieftenbeld could move on with both behind Ivan Šunjić in the midfield queue. It will be interesting to see how Karanka views youngsters Charlie Lakin and Odin Bailey

In my opinion, we did some very good business last summer. Crowley, Šunjić and Clarke-Salter proved excellent additions. Even Fran Villalba and Álvaro Giménez were not awful additions; they just weren’t able to settle at an unsettled club. I anticipate some good signings this summer – but maybe I’m just optimistic.

Realistically, all things considered, what do you think Blues can achieve in 2020/21? What would constitute a satisfying season for most fans? With Karanka in charge, many fans will expect a push for the play-offs.

While it is not out of the realms of possibility, Karanka has an enormous job on his hands to turn around our fortunes. This isn’t as simple as adding good players; this is about improving quality and standards around the entire club. It will take time. A top-half finish should be the aim with promotion aspirations saved for the following campaign – if all goes well with Karanka and our board, of course.

When we last met

It’s been a while! Twelve years in all competitions – a 4-0 home defeat in the first round of the 2008/09 League Cup – and more than 25 in the league. While we lost 3-0 at Adams Park in our first season in the third tier, we had already beaten Barry Fry’s Blues at St Andrews, Cyrille Regis’ 67th minute strike enough to claim a memorable scalp (jump to 4:46 below).

Did you know…?

Birmingham were the first English club to reach a major European final, losing to Barcelona over two legs in the 1958-60 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. They were defeated by Roma at the same stage a year later.

Header photo: fitzyt via Wikimedia Commons

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