A comprehensive view of Birmingham City's current situation so you can be in the know.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
This weekend’s match is of equal importance for both Middlesbrough and Birmingham City. The former, having had a less than impressive start to the season, finds itself on the cusp of the playoffs. A win today will see them jump into the top 6 and it would help to establish the side as serious top 6 contenders this season. Meanwhile Birmingham City find themselves at the bottom end of the league. Their 18th place may sound more precarious than their situation actually entails as they are some 7 points above the drop with the relegation zone sides struggling to find the form needed to threaten their relative safety. However, adding another 3 points on the board will help to widen the gap between themselves and the dreaded drop.
Birmingham City is majority-owned by Trillion Trophy Asia. Paul Suen heads the company and so is considered the figurehead of the clubs ownership. Suen is an astute businessman who has a track record of turning around poorly performing companies leading to his reverent nickname “King of Penny Stocks”. Despite being the name associated with ownership of the club, Suen is a very shy man, preferring to let his work do the talking on the stock market. However, this poses a problem in football as the owner-fan relationship is very different from the owner-customer relationship as such his desire to remain out of the limelight has exacerbated issues between the ownership and the fans during his time in charge.
Some Birmimgham City fans treat Suen’s arrival at Birmingham with a large degree of scepticism as it echoed former ownership under Carson Yeung. The Hong Kong businessman’s first attempted takeover of the club in 2007 collapsed after he was unable to source the money needed to complete the exchange. This led to him being blamed for Steve Bruce not getting a contract extension. However, this was the smallest charge on Yeung’s charge sheet as while following his takeover and subsequent investment led to the club winning the Carling Cup in 2011, the side was subsequently relegated. Yeung, on the other hand, was arrested and charged with money laundering. Despite his best protests in court Yeung was found guilty of the charges and he was sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Comparatively, Suen’s reign has been uneventful but it has not been without its issues. The clubs hierarchy has been too trigger happy when it comes to hiring and firing managers much to the frustrations of Birmingham City fans who watched their side battle against relegation after one such change. However it is Suen’s decision to sell a 75% stake in St. Andrew’s that has concerned most fans as it creates the appearance of dismantling the club for his own financial gain. It is this move in particular, along with the soap drama that has occurred behind the scenes between CEO Ren and advisor Darren Dein, that has Birmingham City fans concerned that they are set to repeat recent history.
The club appears to have turned a corner following a turbulent managerial situation in hiring Lee Bowyer. The former Birmingham City player joined the club when it was on the precipice of relegation. Bowyer had just 10 games to secure Birmingham’s Championship future and so it would have been natural for him to focus on the short term. However, Lee Bowyer joined on a long contract and spoke about turning the club around and chasing its previous heights under his tenure. This will be a steady process of change though with Bowyer recognising the importance of taking incremental steps towards that ultimate goal.
Lee Bowyer subscribes to the idea of improving the side on an individual level, on the training ground, in order to improve the whole. This system of coaching can lead to particularly strong man management as players appreciate a coach who focuses on their development. Bowyer recognises the importance of man management too, speaking in an interview shortly after accepting his new role at St. Andrews, he discussed instilling confidence in the players ability once more.
Considered by some to be a conservative coach, Bowyer made a name for himself at Charlton Athletic for making a team that was hard to beat through a high press and a structured defence when opposition attacks reached the final third. This was largely successful against the bigger teams with Bowyer managing to steal a number of impressive points from a considerable plethora of oppositions during his time with Charlton.
However, perceiving Bowyer as a conservative manager would be overly simplifying a complex flexible style of management that allows him to adapt to the opposition. The depth of his tactical nous also shouldn’t be underestimated as Bowyer’s in-game tactical changes are up there with some of the best in the league (a particularly notable indication of an astute manager). Additionally, he has out-foxed some notable names in management, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, for example, fell to defeat from Bowyer’s Charlton Athletic due to an early high press, being clinical from set pieces and shutting up shop with a back three.
Despite his flexibility there are a few notable characteristics of a Lee Bowyer side that will be prevalent this weekend. 1) Lee Bowyer will prioritise defensive security over attacking threat; a key component in his sides being hard to beat. 2) He was taught to play a passing, possession based style of football that encourage pass and move and fashioning a chance through intricate play. This is often mirrored in his sides in possession play. 3) A reliance on a striker to bear the brunt of the sides goalscoring output. When at Charlton Athletic, Lee Bowyer was heavily reliant on Lyle Taylor going forward. The English striker was clinical during Bowyer’s reign and most of the sides attacks funnelled into the strikers direction making the most of his goalscoring talents. This can be an issue when the player picks up an injury as it can cause a serious drop in form. Alternatively, if his forward struggles to find the required goalscoring form then the teams goalscoring output suffers more greatly than the average Championship sides. This is the primary reason behind Birmingham City’s lack of goals to date. Despite some undoubted attacking talent in frequent goal-getter Lukas Jutkiewicz, former Watford captain Troy Deeney and consistent performer Scott Hogan, none of them have been able to take up the goalscoring mantle for Bowyer. This has caused the manager to frequently rotate the front two in an attempt to find the right combination that will bring one of those forwards into the goalscoring form needed to make his system more effective and efficient.
Lee Bowyer and the Birmingham City hierarchy were working on a tight budget this summer but they were able to strengthen with two very notable additions: Troy Deeney and Tahith Chong. The former was a beloved hard working and committed captain for Watford and adding his talent to the attack can only be seen as a positive even though he has yet to hit the heights that everyone knows he is capable of. Meanwhile, Tahith Chong has been a person of interest for many football fanatics for some time. The 21 year old has been viewed as a future superstar and he certainly has the talent to back up such claims. However, he only made 57 first team appearances to date across his parent club and loans with Club Brugge and Werder Bremen (and Birmingham) so he is arguably lacking experience in first team football considering his age. All the same, he looks like a good short term addition for Birmingham City.
Finally, this weekend’s fixture sees the return of a beloved fan-favourite. George Friend joined the club from Doncaster Rovers for just £100,000 and he quickly established himself as one of, if not the, best left back in the league. He would become an integral part of the promotion winning side. He would be essential in the clubs survival from the drop to League One. He would wear the captains arm band with a class and sophistication that mirrored the gentle personality that earned him the nickname (and song) gorgeous George. Friend spent a large part of his career at the club; he was involved in some of the clubs best and worst moments of recent history and he felt each moment as strongly as the fans. This weekend’s fixture provides the moment for George Friend’s Covid-delayed goodbye so let’s give him a sending off (hopefully not a literal one) that equals his time at the club.
To summarise, Lee Bowyer’s Birmingham City will be a larger test than their current standing may suggest. The former Charlton manager will want to build on the previous win over Swansea City with another win against Middlesbrough as this would build up momentum which is key for any Championship side regardless of their standing (look at Boro’s recent upturn in form) and, in Tahith Chong and Troy Deeney, Birmingham have the required attacking talent to be a danger to Middlesbrough.
However, I believe Middlesbrough will be keeping all three points at the Riverside this weekend.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 2-0 Birmingham City