Road To Wembley Part 10: Birmingham's Decline From Twin Towers To Utter Mayhem

The past decade has been a miserable one for Blues supporters
13:42, 27 Jan 2023

The Sportsman’s Road To Wembley has taken us to the West Midlands after Birmingham City got past Forest Green Rovers to set up a Fourth Round tie with fellow Championship side Blackburn Rovers.

It’s only 12 years since Birmingham City last won a cup final at Wembley, but to those Blues fans travelling to the FA Cup Fourth Round clash with Blackburn Rovers on Saturday it feels more like a lifetime ago.

The past decade has brought nothing but misery to the Blue side of the ‘second city’ with two shady ownerships, a stint in administration, transfer embargos, a points deduction, a stadium losing its soul with two stand closures, and of course a merry-go-round of managerial changes and relegation scraps. 

The Blues overcame Arsenal in the 2011 Carling Cup final to secure their second major title thanks to Obafemi Martins’ 89th-minute winner, and there was so much to like about that team under Alex McLeish. It remains a mystery to this day how the team that finished ninth in the Premier League the season before spiralled to relegation just months after their Wembley triumph.


A matter of weeks after they had dropped down to the second tier, then-owner Carson Yeung was arrested for money laundering, which brought with it a rough few years for the club. They even came within a last-gasp equaliser from Paul Caddis against Bolton Wanderers from being relegated to League One in 2014. The club entered receivership in 2015 and fans feared that they were about to witness their beloved club vanish.

Supporters thought the sun was starting to rise over St Andrew’s in 2016 when a takeover by China-based Trillion Trophy Asia, who became the controlling shareholders in Birmingham Sports Holdings Limited (BSHL) or Birmingham International Holdings as it was before 2017, but the optimism was short-lived.

With the team thriving in seventh spot in the Championship under Gary Rowett in 2016-17, the new owners sacked the manager and replaced him with Gianfranco Zola. A predictable plummet down the table soon followed. After two wins in 24 games, the Italian resigned on the back of a home defeat against fellow strugglers Burton Albion, with Harry Redknapp swanning in for the final three games of the season and saving them from relegation.

The former Tottenham Hotspur boss stayed on at the club and went on a spending spree in the summer of 2017 which saw 14 players arrive, but many were reportedly not Redknapp’s priority targets and the huge sums involved landed the Blues in trouble thanks to restrictions put in place by the Football League’s Financial Fair Play regulations.

Redknapp sanctioned a club-record deal for Brentford winger Jota, who didn’t quite hit the heights expected of him, and he also reportedly gave loanee Sam Gallagher £45,000 per week, an eye-watering figure in the Championship. Redknapp was sacked in September of that year and the fans then had to endure the forgettable tenure of Steve Cotterill, probably the most disliked manager in the club’s history. The former Cheltenham Town and Bristol City manager lasted from October to March before Garry Monk came in and steadied the ship, despite having to put up with a transfer embargo and a points deduction due to the FFP trouble inherited from Redknapp’s spending spree

Birmingham fans protesting against their owners Birmingham Sports Holdings Limited
Birmingham fans protesting against their owners Birmingham Sports Holdings Limited

Monk was sacked after reports claimed he was trying to get the club’s younger players, including Jude Bellingham, to sign with his own agent. He was succeeded by his assistant, Pep Clotet, and while the breakthrough of Bellingham in 2019-20 was a sight to behold, the club once again nearly got pulled into the third tier. The cycle continued with Aitor Karanka and then Lee Bowyer, while a recent slump under current boss John Eustace threatens to precede another struggle to keep the Blues in the second tier. In the words of Bill Murray, it’s Groundhog Day… again.

For too much of their recent history since falling from the top flight, Birmingham have been constantly battling against the drop to League One. Perhaps a refresh in the third tier is what the club needs if it is to truly rebuild, but with question marks remaining over the club’s sustainability under BSHL, relegation could equally be catastrophic. Especially with the club reportedly having racked up debts of £120 million, something which local MP Shabana Mahmood has addressed in the House of Commons.

The fans have long been at the end of their tether with the owners, who have never made themselves available for comment publicly and normally hide behind the BSHL moniker. A clear plan or intentions has never been made clear to the supporters in the six years BSHL have been in control, and the Blues have crept from one disaster to another.

Like, for instance, the closure of the lower Tilton and Kop stands since the Covid-19 pandemic. Fans have not been able to sit there for almost three years, and major work to correct the structural problems only began during the World Cup break. It is claimed that the stands will be back in use for the beginning of the 2023-24 season but fans are understandably taking that with a pinch of salt.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was the case of former CEO Xuandong Ren, who got to play real-life Football Manager when he was photographed being involved in first-team training, trying to put some rationale to his claims that Birmingham would be in the Champions League by 2023 in a three-year plan which sounded deluded from the off.

When Ren was removed from his position by the powers that be in China, it emerged that he had been using the club’s bank card to pay for things including his Netflix subscription, shopping sprees in Barcelona and meals at fancy restaurants. To say the last few years in B9 has been a circus is an understatement.

The situation at Birmingham sits alongside the recent goings-on at Derby County, Oldham Athletic, Scunthorpe United, Coventry City, Cardiff City and others as proof of how much football needs an independent regulator, with the English Football League’s Fit and Proper Directors’ Test having become a laughing stock some time ago in the eyes of fans.

Blues supporters are looking to resume their protests against the owners in the coming weeks to try to get them to sell the club, and on Wednesday the club released a statement saying that BSHL were in negotiations with an investor over part-ownership of the club. This is believed to be a similar deal to the one which former Barcelona striker Maxi Lopez and local businessman Paul Richardson were trying to achieve earlier in the season before pulling out.

It is imperative for Birmingham’s future that any deal for ownership of the club is a complete sale, because for as long as BSHL have any input at St Andrew’s, the club will not be able to move forward from this never-ending nightmare.

While the FA Cup takes centre stage this weekend, the real battle being fought in Birmingham is for the very soul of a once-proud club.

Birmingham City face Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park on Saturday, kick-off is at 3pm. The Sportsman’s Road to Wembley series will continue with the winners of that tie. 

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