Last season was a strange one for Birmingham City supporters. After the manic uncertainty of the Lee Clark era, where financial constraints and flawed management left the club on the cusp of relegation to League One, we had built steadily under Gary Rowett. A sense of pride was restored. Then, in December 2016, just after Trillion Trophy Asia (TTA) had completed their takeover, Rowett was unexpectedly jettisoned to make way for Gianfranco Zola.
It was the start of a long descent with plenty of avoidable upheaval. While there had been some frustrations with Rowett’s safety-first approach, which had done so well at steering Blues to successive tenth place finishes on one of the Championship’s lowest budgets, nobody wanted to see him leave. A former player, he had a good connection with the club, spoke sensibly about planning for the future and ensured that we were always competitive.
There were grumbles about the occasionally passive style of football that saw Blues have less possession than their opponents in the vast majority of games. Rowett also seemed overly reliant on hardworking but limited players while more talented ones were unable to win his trust. But it was a case of wanting the club to evolve and take more initiative as we sought to break into the play-offs. Everyone still seemed to be pulling in the same direction.
Rowett’s sacking came the day after beating Ipswich Town, with Blues in seventh place and well set to push on. TTA had formally bought a controlling stake in the club two months previously, bringing an end to Carson Yeung’s seven years in charge, during which he was convicted of money laundering in Hong Kong, our best young players were sold and ambitions stripped back. Just as things seemed to be taking a turn for the better, the manager and his coaching team were summarily dismissed.
There had been no warning. In the absence of a clear explanation, rumours spread. It was suggested that Rowett, who was routinely linked with other clubs, had been using this interest to bolster his position at Blues. Unsure of his commitment, the new owners had simply called his bluff. Others felt that with the January transfer window soon to open, they were unwilling to risk a repeat of the previous season, when Will Buckley, James Vaughan and Kyle Lafferty were expensive but ineffective additions.
Although he had spent little compared to other managers in the division, the return on what money Rowett had invested, particularly on attacking players, was poor. The selection of Zola as his replacement, which was driven by director Panos Pavlakis, signalled a clear shift towards greater star power and a desire for a more attractive brand of football. While some supporters could see the logic in dispensing with Rowett, almost none were in favour of Zola’s appointment.
The former Italian international arrived with a reputation as a nice, well-meaning person but a poor manager, most recently sacked by Al-Arabi, and he did nothing to discourage this view. Blues won just two of his 24 games in charge, only twice scoring more than a single goal in a game. We fell from seventh to 20th in four months after spending around £6 million on players, the most in a single transfer window since we were relegated from the Premier League in 2011. The experience was an unmitigated disaster.
Despite promising that change would be incremental, looking to build on the team’s existing strengths, there was a dramatic departure from the primarily solid football we had been used to, with Blues taking the initiative and controlling possession. Zola persisted with playing three at the back despite a lack of options. It left us blunt in attack and ragged in defence. With TTA unwilling to lose face having staked so much on him being a success, the experiment was allowed to limp on.
Defeat at home to Burton Albion brought concerted chants of ‘Zola out’ from even the most patient supporters and he resigned in the aftermath, with the worst managerial record in the club’s history. “It is not that I like quitting, but Birmingham deserves better. If I feel I cannot help the players, why stay? If I cannot help the team, it is better I leave and let someone else do that,” he said in a brief but emotional press conference.
In another bizarre twist, Harry Redknapp came out of semi-retirement to rescue Blues from the threat of relegation. We went back to basics and secured two victories from the final three games to stay up by a single point. Redknapp never signed a contract, but received a £250,000 bonus for what amounted to three weeks’ work. In May, it was announced that he would remain on a one-year deal, assisted by new director of football Jeff Vetere. Pavlakis paid the price for backing Zola and was asked to leave.
So far the summer has been full of rumours, but little firm action. David Stockdale has arrived on a free transfer after turning down the chance to stay with newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion, while a diverse cast of players, including Henry Onyekuru, Loïs Diony, John Bostock and Ryan Kent, have been linked with moves. The core of a decent Championship side is still there, while several of the January signings should offer more in a different setting.
An arch-motivator who loves playing the transfer market, Redknapp has certainly boosted the club’s media profile. There was understandable excitement at a move for John Terry before he joined city rivals Aston Villa, but most supporters are happy to see the sensible addition of younger, less heralded defender Marc Roberts from Barnsley.
Although there’s a clear belief that Redknapp wouldn’t be content to while away another season in the Championship after the forthcoming campaign, and will be granted substantial funds to target promotion, it’s difficult to know what to expect anymore. While impressed by his record as a manager, some supporters have concerns about Redknapp’s commitment.
In the ultimate disavowal of long-term planning, Blues seem to be staking everything on this season. We had a young and promising manager in Gary Rowett, who was determined to build the club up slowly, but via the unhappy Zola interlude, have ended up with an ageing gambler who fancies one last roll of the dice. There’s excitement and a degree of trepidation. It should be interesting, if nothing else.