League of surprises

I’VE a theory that the Championship springs up so many surprises, it should be sponsored by Cilla Black.

This theory falls down, of course, because the surprises on Surprise, Surprise were never really much of a surprise once you had seen the show about three times.

Whenever a timid middle-aged shop assistant was dragged from the audience to talk to glamorous Cilla about a relative they hadn’t seen for 30 years, you could guarantee that said relative would appear from backstage at some point during the four minutes that followed.

The Championship, though, is genuinely full of surprises. Anyone can beat anyone. And that’s why Birmingham chairman David Gold spoke so positively about the division this week.

Except that, it seems, he was misquoted – and when his interview was published, it was made to look as if he would rather Birmingham were a Championship club than bobbing along in that curious section of the Premier League between UEFA Cup qualification and relegation battles; a section that could have been invented as a tribute to the Del Amitri song ‘Nothing Ever Happens’.

If you offered any club chairman the choice between an exciting Championship promotion battle, and the chance to emulate West Ham’s performance last season, when they did not budge from 10th place in the Premier League after New Year’s Day, he would always go for the latter.

“My words were irritatingly translated as suggesting that I’d rather Blues were in the Championship than be a mid-table Premier League team,” Gold wrote in his programme notes ahead of today’s game against Blackpool.

“That’s not true. I’d love nothing more than to still be in the top flight – and that’s why I and everyone at the club are working so hard to get us back there.

“I was simply saying that we now find ourselves in the Championship and have to see it as an exciting challenge. We simply have no nother choice.”

Gold might have added that the Championship presents as wide-ranging an examination of a team’s abilities as you will get anywhere in football.

You want clubs with Premier League-sized ambition and support? You’ve got them at Wolves, Reading, Sheffield United and Charlton, among others.

You want plucky minnows punching above their weight, looking to embarrass you if you take your foot off the gas? You’ve got them at Doncaster and Blackpool.

You want fallen giants striving in the shadow of former glories? You’ve got them at Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest.

And you want ambitious teams on the rise after years in the doldrums? Step forward Cardiff, Swansea and Bristol City.

Throw in a 46-game league campaign as well, and it’s a wonder anyone managed to get promoted from the Championship at all last season.

For a while, it looked as though no one wanted to, until West Brom – the best team in the division by a mile last term – finally got their act together, with Stoke and Hull somehow stumbling up with them.

Birmingham and Wolves were the division’s pacesetters ahead of today’s games. Wolves have now opened up a lead thanks to their win at Preston, coupled with Birmingham’s diabolical performance at home to Blackpool.

Birmingham against Blackpool should have been a home banker. Alex McLeish has such a strong squad that he can afford to have Kevin Phillips on the bench. Blackpool, on the other hand, have so little money to spend that the club’s transfer record has stood since 1996 (it was £275,000 to Millwall for Chris Malkin, since you ask).

As if that wasn’t enough, Birmingham had a chance to equal their best start to a season since 1908, while Blackpool had come off the back of a defeat at Burnley so depressing that the local newspaper reporter’s account of the game concentrated largely on a mildly diverting piece of trivia about Turf Moor rather than the action on the pitch.

The Championship is no respecter of form, though. And besides, Birmingham were atrocious; barely able to string three passes together. Had Cilla’s one-time Saturday night TV rival, Mr Blobby, donned a Blues shirt, charged on the St Andrew’s pitch and started booting the ball about in his unendearingly clownish way, he surely couldn’t have been any less successful in his endeavours than Birmingham’s midfield this afternoon.

Blackpool themselves spent the 25 minutes or so of hoofing long punts up to Ben Burgess, then realised that they had nothing to be afraid of, and starting passing the ball around a bit. They looked a much better side for it.

David Vaughan, surely the only man ever to have played for both Crewe and Real Sociedad, had a great chance to give Blackpool the lead seven minutes before half-time when Steve Kabba played him in, but Maik Taylor made a brilliant flying save to his left.

Birmingham didn’t heed the warning, and it would appear that they didn’t heed whatever words McLeish used at half-time to try to inspire them. Burgess should have scored within 30 seconds of the restart. A minute after that, the home defence dozed as Gary Taylor-Fletcher – a man who cost less than Cristiano Ronaldo’s car number plate – swept in the winner. Birmingham 0 Blackpool 1. Surprise, surprise.

“I can’t tell you what I said to the players,” McLeish said afterwards. “It’s classified. If I told you, I’d have to kill you!”

Whatever he said, it wasn’t pleasant. “We never turned the crowd on,” he added. “We ran out of ideas. We had no craft, no guile, no quality.”

Blackpool manager Simon Grayson couldn’t resist comparing his club’s resources with Birmingham’s.

Grayson said: “It would be nice to have the luxury of bringing on all the strikers they did. But I can’t go out and spend a lot of money.

“Gary Taylor-Fletcher cost me £90,000 from Huddersfield. We have to go out and look for players who can improve the team but have something to prove; people avaliable on free transfers, or who have been discarded by other clubs.

“Nobody expected us to stay in the division last year. And I think it’s far harder this year. But I’d rather come to St Andrew’s than a ground in League One or League Two.

“I’m sure Birmingham are fully aware of what the Championship is about. You can’t take any team lightly.”

If McLeish and Birmingham didn’t know that already, they certainly do now.


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