KARREN Brady’s column in the Sun was a little more measured this morning. But Birmingham manager Alex McLeish could still be forgiven for wondering if he needs all the hassle.
For the last seven days, McLeish has found himself fielding questions about Brady’s newspaper diary. Last weekend, Birmingham’s managing director suggested that the first-team squad was too big, and compared McLeish to Luiz Felipe Scolari – which would have been a huge compliment seven years ago, but not so much now. And Brady certainly didn’t intend it as praise.
“I think we have entered Phil Scolari territory,” she wrote. “Our team is much inferior to the sum of talent at our disposal.”
It’s very witty, Brady’s column, but it’s caustic too. I’ve never met her, but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
“But we continue to do our bit to help the jobless crisis by making Ulises de la Cruz the 36th player in our squad,” she added in last week’s column. “After the council, I think we must be Birmingham’s second biggest employer.”
McLeish and Brady had words in midweek, and sorted everything out amicably enough, as Brady revealed this morning.
“He’s a fine man and when we’re promoted we’ll have the last laugh,” she wrote. That’s when, Alex, not if. No pressure.
I’m reminded of Manchester City’s brief stay in what is now League One. They got promoted, in the end, via the play-offs, despite their best attempts to cock it up. A couple of weeks before Christmas that season, though, they were 12th, and looked about as likely to win promotion as David Brent. And Joe Royle couldn’t hide his frustration, muttering: “I hate this division.”
It would be no surprise if McLeish is just as sick of the Championship. Was this really what he gave up the Scotland job for – a stuttering promotion battle and public bollockings from his managing director?
When McLeish quit his international post in November 2007 – having come so close to leading Scotland to Euro 2008 – his stock could hardly have been higher. Sure, Birmingham were at the wrong end of the Premier League, but a 3-2 win at Tottenham in his first game took them up to 12th.
Quite how they managed to get relegated from there remains a mystery to me. They stumbled – rather than dropped – down to the Championship. And although they were promotion favourites, and enjoyed the best opening three months to a season in their history, it has been a slog since then.
Brum have been helped by the fact that neither of their automatic promotion rivals – Wolves or Reading – have been able to string any kind of form together. Brady noted as much after Tuesday night’s game at Barnsley. “We draw at Barnsley and our rivals draw too,” she wrote. “Is this synchronised dancing?”
The one team who have managed to string a run of Championship form together are Doncaster, Birmingham’s opponents this evening. The last time I visited the Keepmoat Stadium, back in November, Rovers had gone 12 games without a win, and were so far adrift of safety that relegation seemed a matter of when, not if. They beat Ipswich 1-0 that night, and the relief among fans, players and management was palpable.
But that wasn’t the game that turned their season around. That came at Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day, when Sean O’Driscoll’s goal-shy side suddenly remembered how to score, and won 4-2. Since Christmas, Doncaster have picked up 31 points, more than any other team in the Championship. Their captain Richie Wellens has even spoken of a late play-off charge.
That’s not going to happen now – goals from Cameron Jerome and Hameur Bouazza sealed a comfortable 2-0 for Birmingham. But given that Doncaster looked down and out at Christmas, they can be proud of the fact that they have climbed to mid-table.
As for McLeish, his 36-man squad is showing signs of returning to something like full strength. Not that it was ver a 36-man squad anyway – eight of those players are out on loan, while another six are injured.
That’s three fewer than were missing in midweek, though, thanks to the returns from injury of Lee Bowyer, Liam Ridgewell and – most significantly of all – striker Garry O’Connor, who came on as a substitute this evening, his first appearance after almost five months out with a groin injury.
Best of all for McLeish, Birmingham are now seven points clear of third place after Reading lost at home to Ipswich. So no, it’s not synchronised dancing after all. It looks as if Birmingham’s manager will have the last laugh over Brady.
“We’ve gone through spells this season when we’ve all expected a little bit better,” McLeish said afterwards. “You tear your hair out at times.
“There are times when we’ve failed to capitalise on other teams slipping up. It has the players frustrated, it has the staff frustrated and it has the fans frustrated.
“But we never lost our belief or our trust in the players. And the players haven’t lost their trust in us.
“People were saying it was all doom and gloom. But you can’t lose anybody in the dressing room when you’re in second place. The players deserve a lot of credit for the way they’ve pulled together.”
McLeish knows that the best way to answer Brady back is to win promotion. If and when he does, he will be entitled to kick back and enjoy a stiff drink.