Gab: Eustace offers hope at a tough time for Birmingham

Seven of Birmingham’s last nine Championship campaigns have involved dices with the drop, yet somehow they have survived each time to become the second-tier’s longest-serving club.

Following the glory of the League Cup victory in 2011, and the memorable Europa League adventure under Chris Hughton the following season, this era has not been a fun one for Bluenoses.

There has been flashes of hope under Gary Rowett and Garry Monk – even Lee Bowyer briefly threatened to rekindle that promise – but Blues have never had a really good manager and a competitive budget simultaneously.

The B9 club has always had either a top boss working with their hands tied, or overspent on the wrong operation.

More to the point, the task of managing the Second City club has not been an easy one because of the structural issues.

Nobody who has run Birmingham has communicated transparently with supporters, put together a sustainable plan for progression or recruited for a clear vision.

Local businessman Paul Richardson and retired ex-Barcelona forward Maxi Lopez, who now has links to the fashion industry, have exclusivity in their approach to takeover the club after placing a £1.5 million deposit in July.

There are concerns, though, over their plans for the club, if reports of the consideration of employing Matt Southall as CEO hold substance: Southall has had deeply questionable previous involvements with Charlton and Rochdale.

The process of buying the club will take two payments of a combined £36.5 million, but the takeover hit a snag early this month when it transpired that Richardson and Lopez could not provide the funds to complete the deal.

While this is bubbling on, the EFL is looking into the involvement of Cambodian diplomat Wang Yaohui, questioning compliance over the fit and proper test.

For all the concerns over the future of the club on a structural and financial basis, there is also some encouragement over on-field matters.

Birmingham’s solidity earnt them a point at Luton on the opening day, they thoroughly deserved to beat Huddersfield the following Friday and although the showing at Cardiff was disappointing in a 1-0 defeat, the West Midlanders competed gallantly to earn a point against Watford on Tuesday night.

Early days, of course, but much of the early promise is credit to John Eustace, a highly rated coach who has already made this team look well-drilled, hard to beat and, certainly in home games, not without the potential to create chances.

Eustace had a Kidderminster Harriers side known as “non-league Barcelona”, he assisted Stephen Kenny with Ireland off the back of his work with QPR, and had been linked with the Watford job in the summer.

Eustace’s ability to improve individuals means there are a lot of players who may have been operating at a baseline of a five or six out of 10 under Lee Bowyer last season, that can progress to a seven or an eight this term.

One of those is Juninho Bacuna, who brings flair, panache and quality to this Birmingham side as well as energy and an ability to run at opponents, hinting at the consistency that eluded him at Huddersfield.

Scott Hogan is another who looks improved from 2021-22: the striker has brought an exemplary, selfless work ethic on top of his poaching instincts, which saw him get off the mark against Huddersfield with a neat, stooping header.

In terms of recruits, Auston Trusty and Przemysław Płacheta have teamed up well at left centre-back and left wing-back respectively, working in tandem to combat quick right-siders with their own pace.

Meanwhile, John Ruddy has looked assured between the sticks since arriving from Wolves, from whom defender Dion Sanderson’s return is welcomed.

Business has been slow, though, so Eustace has had to nurture youngsters coming through the ranks and he’s already done that with Jordan James, who was introduced by Bowyer last season.

James is an extremely energetic, tenacious midfielder who has an infectious hunger to close down spaces quickly: sometimes that can lead to gaps opening up elsewhere, but it’s a great strength to have when he has the right make-up around him.

Birmingham City

Further back on the conveyor belt are right wing-back Josh Williams and midfielder George Hall, who were entrusted with starts against promotion favourites Watford.

Williams is tough in the tackle and not afraid to drive forward, while Hall’s deft first touch and astute reading of the game makes him a highly promising talent, especially after taking his goal against the Hornets so well.

With Manchester United prodigy Hannibal Mejbri linked with a loan move to bolster the midfield, and one or two other deals not out of the question, there is reason to believe in Eustace – and to think the B9 club will have enough to tick off 50 points.

Eustace can’t be the fundamental change Birmingham desperately need in and of himself, though: he can only lift spirits, improve the team, raise the value of the squad, get some results and hope the rest takes care of itself.

Alas, the latter is far from a given…


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Author: Paula Bryant