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Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Beautiful New Day

After Alex McLeish leaves relegated Birmingham and crosses the second city to Aston Villa, Nobes suggests that his old club could be better off without him.

Alex McLeish brought success but no style during his time at St. Andrew's

Life is never dull supporting Birmingham City. True, the Blues have been shorn of silverware in their 136 year history and are seemingly destined to play second fiddle in the second city to rivals Aston Villa.

However, over the past decade the St. Andrew's faithful have seen their side promoted to the Premier League on three occasions and relegated from it the same number of times.

Add in last season's League Cup triumph over Arsenal at Wembley - the club's first major trophy since 1963 - and City fans have had plenty to keep them occupied.

While supporting them over the past ten years has been exciting though, could the same be said for watching them? It's an important distinction, as well as a major one.

I have no shame in admitting I was pleased to see the Blues drop down from the Premier League on a frantic final day's play. That wasn't because I have anything personal against them as a football club, I don't.

Rather, it was because I didn't enjoy watching them - or their brand of football being showcased on England's highest stage. The Premier League, as far as I'm concerned, is a more attractive place without Alex McLeish's Birmingham.

Only they're not Alex McLeish's Birmingham anymore, with the Scot's controversial decision to quit the Blues and move to bitter neighbours Aston Villa causing consternation in the boardroom at St. Andrew's.

Should it though? McLeish had overseen two relegations from the top flight during his spell at St. Andrew's - usually one is enough to see a manager given the boot.

While there may have been mitigating circumstances in both cases - taking over midway through their 2007/8 relegation year and injuries blighting his squad last term - he must still accept his share of the blame.

The board had made it patently clear, too, that the Scot was expected to lead them back up to the Premier League at the first time of asking - a feat to be achieved while possibly losing some of his top players.

Fans of the former Rangers manager would point to how he did just that in 2009, as Birmingham returned to the Premier League after just a season away.

That promotion two years ago though was achieved largely via a gruesome grinding out of results. McLeish's men managed just 54 goals in their 46 matches, despite possessing an arsenal of attacking options the envy of the division.

Instead, they relied on defensive solidity and a doggedness to ensure their exodus from the big time was a short one. Ultimately, the end justified the means, but success had been achieved with no style.

Their approach to life in the top flight was a similar story. Strength at the back helping them to a comfortable 9th placed finish on their return before last season's slump to the drop.

It was no surprise that, when the defence began to wobble, Birmingham's reliance on eking out narrow victories fell apart. It was the strategy designed by the manager.

While members of the press - who the affable McLeish enjoys a healthy relationship with - continued to laud him, it disguised the reality that Birmingham were a desperate side to watch.

Too often their approach to games was negative and spoiling. They relied far too heavily on goals from set pieces and were badly lacking in any kind of creativity and flair.

Birmingham were shock victors over Arsenal in February's League Cup final

Senior journalists gushing over McLeish's engineering of a turnaround in their League Cup semi final win over West Ham was embarrassing in the extreme.

The Scot was hailed as some kind of tactical genius for his decision to bring on giant Serbian striker Nikola Zigic so his side could pump the ball long to him. It was football from the dark ages.

Their victory at Wembley over a lackadaisical Arsenal was, for all of their endeavour, highly fortuitous. A win for the neutral, perhaps, but not for football. McLeish, as so often in his tenure north of the border at Rangers, got lucky.

There could be no guarantee, therefore, that he would have taken Birmingham straight back up again in the coming season.

Indeed, it may well transpire that the Blues board, currently chasing the £5.4 million in compensation they feel they're due, could be receiving money they would have had to hand out for firing the Scot at some point in the future.

It is no longer acceptable either for those critics who would argue that the 52-year-old's approach was dictated by the resources he had available to him.

Note the contrast to the refreshing and positive way Blackpool succumbed to the drop last May to the tale of Birmingham's grim slide toward their own day of reckoning.

The choice to play dull, to be negative, was just that - a choice. The manager's choice. Pundits bemoaned Blackpool's demise. Nobody shed a tear for the Blues.

While they will never match City for their history or fan base, it is only positive for English football that Roberto Martinez's Wigan survived to keep entertaining fans with their stylish approach to the beautiful game.

However, McLeish's defection to Villa Park now provides City with an opportunity to try something different and embrace the direction football in this country is now going in.

The success of last season's promoted trio from the Championship, three sides in QPR, Norwich, and Swansea who played good football - should serve to inspire them.

The appointment of the next manager at St. Andrew's must signal the start of a culture change from the stale football played under both McLeish and his predecessor, Steve Bruce.

It's the reason names like Portsmouth's Steve Cotterill would be a terrible retaining of the status quo in the second city. Now is the time for a courageous and bold decision made for the long term.

After all, a side can grind and bore their way to the top flight - just as McLeish's crop of 2009 did - but where's the fun in that? Is it really a price worth paying just to be part of the Premier League elite?

In the coming season, Blues will come face-to-face with clubs who have taken such an approach and given progressive, young talent an opportunity to shine.

From Keith Hill at Barnsley, being given the chance to impress at a higher level after rejuvenating Rochdale, to Gus Poyet's upwardly mobile and easy-on-the-eye Brighton.

The precocious Eddie Howe is settling into life at Burnley and Southampton are once again on the rise with Nigel Adkins at the helm. The talent is out there. The chance to change their ways has presented itself.

McLeish's departure could actually be a blessing in disguise. It's up to Birmingham to make it so.

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