There was that habitual annual buzz in the Sky Sports studio. The 2009/10 Premier League was set to kick off and the topic of discussion on Soccer Saturday, the UK's flagship football programme, was the relegation battle.
“Birmingham City will go down,” respected presenter Jeff Stelling opined. Protest was non-forthcoming. Former Scotland striker Alan McInally nodded in concurrence; ex-England international Matt Le Tissier likewise.
Birmingham were newcomers to the unforgiving seas of the English top flight. They had spent modestly. An imminent takeover of the club had provoked unrest. They had suffered an appalling pre-season, which included defeats by Burton Albion, Nottingham Forest, Crewe Alexandra and Tamworth. The Blues were, consensually, bound for an immediate return to the Championship.
This certainly seemed the case two months into the campaign. September involved a home defeat to arch-rivals Aston Villa, elimination from the Carling Cup at the hands of Sunderland and, after scant, brief, reprieve in the shape of a 1-0 win at Hull City, a 2-1 loss to Bolton Wanderers at St Andrew’s. October began with zero points from a possible six, which left them above the drop zone only on goal difference and with ailing confidence.
But Alex McLeish was a tough, never-say-die centre-back, and his managerial characteristics are evidently akin, for the former Scotland coach has evidently made good on his vow turn the tide. Thereafter, Birmingham have gone 12 games unbeaten – a club record in the top flight – a run that has included tests against Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and, most recently, Manchester United, whom they held to a 1-1 draw.
“People are waiting for the run to end but it doesn’t have to end if you keep putting in the effort in every game, which I know the lads will,” said captain and right-back Stephen Carr. “It’s a long time since we were last beaten and we’re enjoying it. There’s no reason why we can’t stay unbeaten.”
Carr is one of multiple players to have excelled recently under the masterful tutelage McLeish, the Premier League manager of the month for December. Centre-backs Roger Johnson and Scott Dann have made a sterling contribution to Birmingham conceding just eight times in their last 12 league outings, 30-something midfielders Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer have showcased form that many felt they had long outgrown, and industrious forward Cameron Jerome has belied his moderate footballing background
However, nobody has shone brighter, perhaps, than 22-year-old Joe Hart, whom McLeish believes can be Fabio Capello’s first-choice England goalkeeper at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "He's got to be a candidate," said former Scotland coach McLeish. "Joe can probably look around at other England keepers and think he's got as good a chance as anybody.
“When Capello looks at all of his prospective players he'll make sure they've got all the ingredients, and Joe shows all those ingredients at the moment. He's come on in leaps and bounds and has improved his game. He's ironed out some rough edges which have made him even better."
Hart, on loan from Manchester City, also earned the praise of Johnson after another estimable display helped the Blues beat Nottingham Forest in their FA Cup third round replay on Tuesday – a result that enhanced their unbeaten run to 14 matches in all competitions. “He is keeping us in a few games,” admitted the no-nonsense defender, who has likewise been tipped for an England call-up. “That is what he gets paid for and he has made some good saves in recent weeks.”
Those saves have helped Birmingham climb to eighth in the Premier League, six points clear of ninth-placed Fulham. The foremost topic at St Andrew’s is no longer relegation. Talk now is of qualification for Europe. McLeish, nevertheless, is doing his utmost to keep his charges grounded.
“I have got to manage expectations, without a doubt,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with ambition. I’d love to win the league. But let’s keep our feet on the ground and set out what we started to do at the beginning of the season: stay in the Premier League. Any rung higher than 17th would be a fantastic achievement.
“We have punched above our weight. There are a lot of teams above us who we have not a chance of catching in the terms of a long season. And there’s a few behind us who will probably feel they’ve under-achieved who will be coming on the rails in this next part of the season. I think a lot of the fans are pretty mature. I think most of them will think ‘let’s keep our ambitions realistic’.
That may be wishful thinking on the part of ‘Big Eck’. What is now foreseen as an expected victory at basement side Portsmouth could lift Birmingham up to sixth. Can you see that diluting optimism among the Blues?