Blue hell

RE-READING Birmingham City’s programme for last Saturday’s match against Preston, I can feel myself wince. There are so many statements of cautious optimism inside, it hurts.

Alex McLeish, Birmingham’s manager: “Everybody knows that we have a tremendous opportunity today to secure a return to the Premier League but we have to earn that right by beating Preston.”

David Gold, the club’s chairman: “If everything goes to plan this evening, there will be no prouder person inside St Andrew’s than me. To win promotion on our own patch would be special indeed.”

Blues striker Cameron Jerome: “We know what we’ve got to do and it’s in our hands now.”

Midfielder Keith Fahey: “It would be absolutely brilliant for me to be part of a team that wins promotion. I have only been here a few months and to be involved in all this is great.”

Tom Ross, head of sport at Birmingham-based radio station BRMB: “Without doubt, it’s much more satisfying winning promotion in front of your own fans at your own ground. What a Bluenose Premier League promotion party we can have.”

Franck Queudrue, Birmingham’s newly-crowned player of the year: “It would be great to help Birmingham get back to the Premier League at the first attempt, having been part of the relegation side last season. It would be a high moment of my career.”

Steve Hamilton, Birmingham fan: “Due to the four-point cushion and there being only two remaining games, this could be it; because of the circumstances, I think it will be it. There, I have nailed my colours to the mast and laid my cards on the table – I think we’ll do it today.”

Fellow Blues fan Darren Porter: “Perhaps for once we have a manager who can win points at crucial times. As the others have allowed points to slip through their grasp, Big Eck has quietly gone about his business and admits himself it has not always been pretty and entertaining but he has (almost!) done what he promised at the start. Almost. One more hurdle to clear.”

I was at St Andrew’s last Saturday evening. It was, by some distance, the most surreal football match I have seen all season.

Or at least, the second half (and its aftermath) was. Almost nothing of note happened in the first 45 minutes, which made what followed even more extraordinary.

I saw three red cards and two one-man pitch invasions. I saw Birmingham take a lead that would have won them promotion had they held on to it. I saw Cameron Jerome miss a sitter from eight yards. I saw two wonderful Preston goals to snatch a 2-1 victory. And because it was, in theory, their final home match of the season, I saw Birmingham’s players forced to endure a farcical post-match lap of honour, during which they were jeered by sections of their own support.

It’s a plot which makes The Damned United look ponderous and predictable. Someone, someday will write a novelisation of Birmingham’s 2008/2009 season. It will, I predict, be a bestseller. Are you paying attention, David Peace? This is a job for you.

You want boardroom tension? You’ve got it. McLeish has not only had the job of steering Birmingham to promotion, he has also had to deal with his board sending out panic signals on an almost weekly basis.

Who can forget managing director Karren Brady’s remarkable column in the Sun last month, when she suggested that McLeish was doing about as good a job at Birmingham as Luiz Felipe Scolari had at Chelsea? And then, in the same column, had a pop at the Blues’ 36-man first-team squad, suggesting that the club were the second-largest employers in the city, after the council?

Then there was co-owner David Sullivan’s recent suggestion that “criticism can be a good motivator”, as he congratulated Franck Queudrue on winning the club’s player of the year award earlier this month. Sullivan had dismissed Queudrue as “rubbish” last summer.

Birmingham, then, have not made life easy for themselves this season. And as a result of Saturday’s home defeat against Preston, they must now win at Reading on Sunday to be certain of promotion.

Reading could steal the second automatic promotion spot themselves by beating Brum. However, the likeliest beneficiaries would be Sheffield United, who go into their final game one point behind Birmingham, and with a much better goal difference.

And here’s the final twist. Sheffield United’s final game is at Crystal Palace, who are managed by. . . Neil Warnock.

Warnock’s professionalism will ensure that his Palace side make life as difficult as possible for his former club on Sunday. He proved that when the two sides met at Bramall Lane in December, and Nick Carle’s stoppage-time equaliser nicked a 2-2 draw for Palace. And he proved it when he took Palace to Bramall Lane last season, and came away with a 1-0 win.

Nonetheless, Warnock’s Sheffield United history – he was the club’s manager for eight years, and a fan long before that – adds a fascinating sub-plot to the Championship promotion race. Could he end up denying his first love a place in the Premier League, a place they lost in such controversial circumstances (Tevezgate, blah, blah, blah) when he was manager? He will if he has to.

And that will mean denying one of his best mates in football. Sheffield United’s manager these days is Kevin Blackwell, who was once Warnock’s assistant at Bramall Lane. The two men first worked together in the 1980s at Scarborough, where Warnock was boss and Blackwell was the goalkeeper.

In fact, they get on so well that when Blackwell was appointed manager in February last year, Warnock offered to rent out his house in Sheffield to him.

Against that background, the final chapter of the Championship promotion race will be written. I suspect Birmingham’s programme editor will be delighted if he doesn’t have to produce another issue for the home leg of a play-off semi-final.

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