Six-goals and a Balti – an afternoon at Birmingham City

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.

Hi-vis

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.

All-square

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.
@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

Commentary Box: The new hooliganism

HOPEFULLY, we are a long way from making drastic and knee-jerk decisions around the fear of pitch invasions becoming a new trend in British football. Anyone who remembers the days of fences, threats of electrification, the feeling of being penned-in like cattle and the “us and them” environment where policemen stared into the eyes of the underclass will be hoping the current spate of incursions can be nipped in the bud.

We don’t want to return to the days when football grounds were hostile places, we have moved on when it comes to crowd behaviour and although there are occasional outbreaks, most people want to go to matches to watch a game – lord knows, they’ve paid enough to do so.

The attack on Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, because “he is a knob”, was especially nasty and very personal. The authorities acted quickly, imposing a 14-week custodial sentence on the assailant, but what was worrying was that it was so easy for the assault to take place.

These are worrying times in Britain, with a growing sense of lawlessness in some segments of the community. Knife crimes are on the increase – one recent TV interview, on Merseyside, included a mother endorsing the carrying of a weapon by her son because it made him “safer” – and the taking of a life seems to be accepted as something that just happens.

Austerity, which has been cutting and trimming for a decade, has eroded social services, security and basic law enforcement. This environment has created a gap for feral behaviour to grow, for the animal instincts to flourish and for crime to go unpunished. Britain’s security services can close-in on terrorism and, by all accounts, they have been quite successful, but stop a group of teenagers from killing each other seems to be impossible – even though our streets are covered with wall-to-wall CCTV.

On top of this, Brexit has damaged the very fabric of Britain and created a spirit of defiance that manifests itself in the form of bullying, licensed hooliganism, racism, antisemitism and myopic nationalism. When the UK voted to leave the European Union, it appeared to unleash all the bigotry and political incorrectness that had long been considered to be unfashionable and out of step with modern and progressive society. Furthermore, the very idea of political persuasion, which has largely been respected in Britain down the years, suddenly created rifts that have split families, friendships and the country’s ability to reach consensus. From the outside, Britain looks a mess.

Against this backdrop, toxicity like football hooliganism has come to the fore once more. In 2018-19, just a couple of years after Chelsea fans were accused of outright racism in Paris, Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling was subject to abuse from the Stamford Bridge crowd. Last season, Liverpool fans created the most intimidating atmosphere seen outside a stadium in years, attacking the Manchester City coach before a UEFA Champions League tie. And now we have the Grealish incident.

There was no way that the attacker was going to win this one. Everything is recorded these days and in a football stadium, there’s no hiding place. All Jack Grealish had done “wrong” was to play for Birmingham City’s rivals, Aston Villa. It’s hooliganism, but not as we once knew it.

Where there are large crowds, there are always a few disaffected individuals who will try to make their name by running on a pitch. There are not substantial barriers between the crowd and players and that has created a better climate for the game in the UK. However, equally concerning is that if a man can enter the field and assault a player, what’s stopping someone with a weapon  – or even dirty bomb – from doing likewise? We’ve seen how terrorists can infiltrate public events with their tools of evil evading detection. Just consider how many fans take flares into grounds when they have already been searched (Euro 2016 was a case in point) – somehow, they get them past security.

The recent spate of incursions is a reminder that there are some unhappy people out there who will sacrifice the luxury of watching football to make their point. It should also set an alarm bell ringing that the UK’s football stadiums are relatively easy to breach.

Doubtless security will be ramped up around the country in the aftermath of the Grealish incident. But equally important is the need to find out what can be done about the amount of anger in Britain today. The country needs to rediscover its historic reputation of being reasonable and moderate – and then perhaps it can sit comfortably with itself once more – at home, at work and at football matches.

Photo: PA