THERE have been 24 winners of the top division in English football, ranging from the real heavyweights to faded Edwardian giants and one-off shock champions. Most of the country’s biggest clubs have lifted the title, but there are a few sizeable exceptions. Birmingham City are, arguably, one of the largest football clubs never to have won the league. Given that the Blues represent, along with Aston Villa, the nation’s second city, they have been one of the game’s great underachievers.
Birmingham City’s honours list doesn’t take long to read, two Football League Cups and five runners-up slots across the FA Cup, League Cup and the non-UEFA endorsed Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup. Throughout their history, they have been overshadowed by their neighbours Aston Villa, so the chant, “shit on the Villa” has long become part of the soundtrack of every Birmingham game. The Blues’ history has been more or less divided between the top two divisions, creating a far less celebrated heritage than “the Villa”.
Since the Premier was created, Birmingham have only spent seven seasons in the top flight, the last being in 2011, the year that they won their second League Cup, beating Arsenal in the final.
Birmingham, as a metropolis, has changed considerably in recent years, not least the principal railway station, New Street, which has been rebuilt to become a more welcoming and accessible place. It has got the retail bug and includes a John Lewis store, a sushi restaurant and a champagne bar that plays host to legions of young women desperately trying to stop their false eyelashes from dipping into their glasses of Bollinger or Prosecco. There’s not a blue and white scarf in sight. The vibe is more contemporary and the old dark, subterranean atmosphere has gone from New Street.
By contrast, Moor Street, the junction that takes you to St. Andrews, is a delightfully archaic station that epitomises classic early-20th century railway construction and sits in the shadow of the cylindrical Bull Ring. The journey is quick, passing the Custard Factory, a relic from a different age that is now an arts centre. There’s plenty of architecture to remind us that Birmingham was one of the engines of the country, a city that built, smelted, hammered and welded its way into the history books.
St. Andrews sits on a hill in Small Heath, the original name of Birmingham City. It’s an imposing sight with iron railings circling the stadium, it presence and importance.
Birmingham’s recent history is far from glorious and the past three seasons have seen them finish 19th twice and 17th in 2018-19. Financially, the club has been paying-out far more than it can afford, the wage-to-income ratio in 2018-19 was 139%, although this was far better than in 2017-18. In 2018-19, revenues totalled £ 23 million but expenses ran to £ 45.4 million, resulting in a loss of £ 8.2 million that was only reduced to that level by the sale of the freehold of the ground. In short, Birmingham are not in great financial shape.
In the Championship league table, Birmingham and Sheffield Wednesday both had 44 points from 33 games on the morning of February 22. The play-offs were probably out of reach now for both teams. The only fireworks expected in the area seemed to be coming from the site opposite Bordesley station, the nearest station to the ground, probably celebratory pyrotechnics at an Indian wedding. The smell of gunpowder filled the air and the explosions resembled gunfire, which alerted the many hi-vis wearing policeman in the area. Sheffield Wednesday expected a big travelling contingent to accompany them and the local constabulary were out in force, perching their wagons on roundabouts, side streets and hard shoulders. It felt like the spirit of 1975?
The game itself was a cracker, a pleasant and unexpected surprise. Birmingham took the lead in the sixth minute when a corner sailed into the area and Wednesday’s Jacob Murphy scored in his own net. Wednesday equalised in the 20th minute through the impressive Barry Bannan, a ginger-haired midfielder who once played for Aston Villa, hence he received some catcalls from the City crowd. A neat player, he sent a left-foot shot past Lee Camp from soft distance.
Birmingham took the lead again on 29 minutes, Lukas Jutkiewicz ending a determined run with a low shot past Cameron Dawson from the edge of the area. The goal prompted the home crowd to taunt Wednesday manager Garry Monk, who spent 15 months at St. Andrews. But the visiting fans were soon chanting, “hi-ho Sheffield Wednesday” as Fernando Forestieri scored from the penalty spot to make it two-all at the interval.
Wednesday went ahead for the first time in the 65th minute when Forestieri passed wide to Murphy and he shot home from the right hand side. Murphy almost put the game beyond Birmingham when he raced clear of the City defence but shot straight at Camp, who then pulled off an acrobatic save from a Connor Whickham volley.
Birmingham finally equalised in added time, a long ball was headed down by Jutkiewicz and Scott Hogan instinctively volleyed into the net. It was deserved and the 3-3 draw was just about right. Birmingham manager Pep Clotet felt Wednesday arrived at St. Andrews just to defend, which was a little unfair. Ultimately, both managers appeared to be happy with their team’s performance. The 22,000 crowd was kept on its toes, even my blue and white-scarved neighbour who munched his way through not one, but two chicken balti pies during the 90 minutes.
Both teams are still in the FA Cup and have intriguing fifth round games coming up. Birmingham travel to Leicester City and Wednesday host the holders Manchester City on March 4. If either the Blues or Owls get through, it will represent a major surprise. You get the feeling that Birmingham’s fans need something to cheer about other than possible relegation from the Premier League for the team in claret and blue from Aston.