Birmingham City Season Preview: back to basics?

Most will remember Birmingham City’s 16/17 season by the infamous decision to dismiss Gary Rowett in December with the team seventh in the table. Was successor Gianfranco Zola solely to blame for the subsequent decline, or did it also expose limitations in the squad? The Football Lab speaks to supporter Ryan Deeney ahead of the new season.

To say Zola is ‘solely’ to blame is a little harsh but he has to take a lot of flak for the way our season completely collapsed. There were limitations and he most definitely exposed them.

Blues under Rowett were an efficient, effective outfit set up in a 4-4-2 that was uninspiring but got results. Zola’s philosophy and vision is completely oppositional to Rowett’s and for him to succeed he would have had to abolish his own principles until he added the required quality to his ranks.

Zola impressed early on from an aesthetic point of view. It was a case of “we’ll get a victory and things will turn for the better”. We beat Fulham in Zola’s 13th attempt and followed it up with three woeful performances. The Italian moved to a back three to make us stronger defensively but it left us devoid of attacking intent, pace and control in matches.

His style was to get players to think more for themselves on the pitch but confidence had vanished, the fans’ anger had spread from computer screens to the ground where groans became “Zola Out” chants. Key players had all but given up and the vitriol in the stands was as bad as most supporters have seen. Zola resigned after the worst display of his reign, Burton Albion at home, and thankfully we just about survived.

Paul Groves and Kevin Bond are likely to do a lot of the coaching, Lee Carsley is with the development squad while new director of football Jeff Vetere will handle much of recruitment. Do you think Harry Redknapp will be primarily a figurehead?

In short, yes. He will select the team, he will have the final say on transfers and will give the fans a buzz whenever he talks about the club. It was always likely he would have minimal impact on the day-to-day work, so it’s good knowing he has staff around him that are highly-thought of in the football community, not to mention Richard Beale who has been at the club for a long time now. If we succeed, few will complain about the coaching structure.

Craig Gardner has made his loan move from West Brom permanent. For a 30-year-old who hasn’t exactly taken the Championship by storm, is a three-year contract risky?

Head vs heart. Naively, I still hold faith that Craig Gardner can come good at Birmingham City, even in spite of some admittedly painful performances in the second half of last season.

It’s naïve, I admit. Gardner was supposed to be the hero, the lynchpin of a brave new era and instead he flopped badly. That he took over from Cotterill at set-pieces and proceeded to be even more inconsistent than the Welshmen made matters worse.

Still, many of the fans continued to chant “Craigy Gardner is a blue” and you suspect Redknapp will simplify his role so that he can do what comes more naturally to him. He’s not a playmaker, not a number 10. He’s a ball winner, an aggressive midfielder who has a mean long range strike on him.

Three years is a risk but Gardner was always a signing of intent and despite what he says in the press, he had to be given a deal that would have been worth his while to re-join. Whether you rate him or not, his addition certainly got the majority of fans onside in January.

New signing David Stockdale conceded just 40 goals in 45 Championship games at Brighton last season while Tomasz Kuszczak did reasonably well last year. Will you have two of the best goalkeepers in the Championship?

It’s a misleading question to a point because the Championship is devoid of top quality goalkeepers. At this point in time I would name Daniel Bentley, Scott Carson, David Button, Robert Green, Alex Smithies and Keiren Westwood as the outstanding keepers in the division outside of Birmingham City. Almost by default, Stockdale and Kuszczak are amongst the top 10.

I’ve always found Stockdale to be a solid Championship goalkeeper but the plaudits that come his way have often made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Having read plenty about him since joining, it would appear that his personality is key to such praise with everybody appearing to be a huge fan of the man himself, as well as his goalkeeping ability. The key to this season is the winning mentality he brings with him.

Kuszczak has his moments but he has provided two years of solid service for the club and was part of the reason we were so difficult to beat under Rowett. We have a habit of making goalkeepers look really good and the Pole has been a beneficiary.

Ryan Shotton and Michael Morrison proved competent when the setup suited them last season. Do you see new boy Marc Roberts displacing either of them?

It’s difficult to say at this point in time. I’m a fan of Marc Roberts having watched him on a few occasions for Barnsley and he is a defender in the mould of what we have built in recent years – solid, no-nonsense and a genuine leader too. Morrison had trouble with injury last term while Ryan Shotton does have the odd mistake in him. At the moment I wouldn’t displace either of them but if Roberts gets a run of games it’s hard to imagine him losing his place.

Right-back Emilio Nsue had his moments going forward last year while on the other side, Jonathan Grounds is better defensively. Is it fair to say you’ve got full-backs who are masters of contrasting trades, rather than jacks of both?

Unquestionably. I think Nsue has the ability to turn himself into a solid defender having shown as much under Aitor Karanka at Middlesbrough and also in the final three games of the season under Redknapp. He just needs a kick up the backside which ‘Arry and his coaching team should provide.

Grounds is never going to be an attack minded full-back and his relative inconsistency will continually provide a source of discontent amongst fans who get frustrated by his irregular poor games, even if he is solid more often than not. With Redknapp looking to progress the team, we could do with a more mobile left-back although having seen rumours linking us with Ashley Cole, it seems unlikely we will get it.

Senegalese international Cheick N’Doye signs from Angers. If he plays alongside David Davis and Maikel Kieftenbeld, you should have plenty of power in midfield?

We would have plenty of power, plenty of energy but a sincere lack of creativity and craft. I’m no avid watcher of French football so my knowledge on N’Doye is built predominantly on having looked mostly through Twitter and his general statistics thus far.

He has been billed as a powerful sitting midfielder though his goal record suggests he has a bit more in his locker, scoring 5 times last season for newly-promoted Angers while hitting double figures in four of his last seven campaigns in the France’s lower divisions.

I would suspect that N’Doye, David and Kieftenbeld will be fighting with Gardner for two spots in central midfield with another more attack minded option ahead of them.

Equally, what does N’Doye’s arrival mean for the likes of Stephen Gleeson and Robert Tesche?

Similar to Diego Fabbrini, Robert Tesche thrived during a loan spell in Gary Rowett’s first season in charge that had us begging for him to re-sign when the opportunity became available. However Tesche has only once started more than 20 matches in a season which leaves the decision for Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City to sign him even more bizarre. To make matters worse, he was not particularly impressive when he played last term either. There is talk of him leaving and few would be overly concerned by his departure.

Stephen Gleeson generally did a decent job under Rowett. He was never the most mobile but alongside either Davis or Kieftenbeld he provided the cooler head, the player that would take one or two touches and give the ball to either his centre-half or full-back to play a cleaner ball into Clayton Donaldson. We needed an improvement on him last term and Tesche failed to provide it. Redknapp will want his ball-playing midfielder to look forward and be more aggressive in playing the ball meaning Gleeson is unlikely to be regular fixture. Like Tesche, his departure would hardly be of concern, albeit I would quite fancy him to step in and do a solid job should injuries occur.

Only one Championship striker scored more headed goals than Lukasz Jutkiewicz did last season (6), but he only scored five with his feet. Will he get the service he needs?

At this moment in time it’s impossible to say. Grounds and Nsue are hardly superb crossers while Kerim Frei and Jacques Maghoma tend to drift inside rather than stand balls up to the burly striker. The loss of David Cotterill had a detrimental effect in the second half of the season so rumours of Stewart Downing will have Jutkiewicz smiling.

Redknapp still needs to add two quality strikers, a quality attacking midfielder and two quality wingers if Blues are to have any chance of battling for promotion this season so it could be that come the end of August, Jutkiewicz will get his service. Otherwise he might struggle to match the double figures he got last term.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

Looking at the promotion race there are five clubs that immediately spring to mind – Aston Villa (The Steve Bruce factor (sorry!)), Derby County, Fulham, Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday. The unknown quantities are Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leeds United and Norwich City who all have the ability to implode or excite.

As far dark horses go, we will be well-publicised but if we get the recruitment right later in the window we could have a shout. Brentford appear to have added a couple of strong signings and Reading will hope to challenge again under Jaap Stam. The league is certainly weaker on paper this year than last year.

Relegation-wise I never like making bold predictions, particularly at this stage. The three promoted clubs are going to do well to finish without concerns of relegation while Burton Albion will be down there once again. Barnsley have added more bright young talent but have lost key players through the spine of their team. Bristol City could go either way.

Hull City intrigue me too with a manager who knows little about the Championship, an owner who wants to sell, fans who are dissatisfied and a new DoF who so far has only helped bring in a rookie wing-back. Wolves 12/13 mark II, perhaps?

Any chance of a final prediction from you at this stage?

At the moment in time we would do well to finish in the top half. If you ask me again at the end of August I may be able to give you a better answer – we all know Harry loves late business.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

A modernizing Championship will catch out tactically limited sides, of which Birmingham may be one. While Stockdale is a good signing, this summer hasn’t delivered the overhaul needed with no senior players leaving permanently. It remains to be seen whether key figures can provide the shake-up required. 20th

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