Very few football fans, pundits or journalists could have foreseen Gary Rowett’s sacking as Birmingham City manager in December 2016.
After 21 games, the Midlands club sat 7th in the table, 3 points behind 3rd placed Reading. Rowett had already been linked with numerous other Championship jobs. The former Burton Albion boss had taken a club from 23rd to the cusp of the play-offs, but still this wasn’t enough for the Birmingham owners, who relieved Rowett of his duties due to ‘footballing reasons’.
Gary Rowett was dismissed as Birmingham City boss in December 2016 (© birminghammail.co.uk)
Since then, the owners have undoubtedly been made to regret this decision. Zola was appointed as Rowett’s successor with disastrous effect. The Italian managed to win only 2 of 22 games before his interesting decision to resign and walk away just three games before the end of the season, with the club staring relegation to the third tier in the face.
The board turned to maverick manager Harry Redknapp, an initiative no-one saw coming, who was able to galvanise both the fans and the squad with a dream team that included Steve Cotterill, saving the club from relegation in the final moments of the season at Ashton Gate amid scenes of wild abandon, including on the part of Mr Redknapp himself.
Early in the close season this flamboyant, larger-than-life character, clearly seduced by the aura of the Redknapp myth and his Messiah-like return to the public stage signed a one-year contract at the club for the upcoming season. However, like Zola, his tenure was short and he was sacked just over two weeks after deadline day following his manic foray into the final days of the transfer market with the clock ticking to zero, like a frantic contestant on Supermarket Sweep.
At the end of September, Cotterill’s return was announced. Whilst the former Bristol City man started poorly the club’s form has since improved significantly. The club now sit in 19th, four points above the relegation zone.
Under the guidance of Steve Cotterill, Birmingham currently sit in 19th, 4 points above the relegation zone (© safc.co.uk)
This should not, however, detract from the fundamental failings that Birmingham City fans have been forced to put up with over the past two seasons. But the real question is, who should ultimately be held responsible for the club’s decline?
The most obvious place to start is the decision makers – the owners, and the board of directors. Gary Rowett’s sacking is the clearest place to begin. Undoubtedly, this is the worst decision the club have ever made. Put simply, Rowett had what on paper looked like an average Championship squad punching above its weight. As inexperienced owners, the board seemed to wholly underestimate just how effective Rowett and his team were in achieving results. The success he is subsequently enjoying at Derby County proves both his managerial credentials and that the Birmingham City board deserve all the criticism that they continue to receive to this day for his ill-thought sacking.
Clearly, the owners got that one horribly wrong. However, it has not marked the end of poor decision-making within the club hierarchy. The hiring of Gianfranco Zola, as previously mentioned, ultimately proved disastrous. In a quest to play ‘better’ football the club almost got themselves relegated, and for this the owners must once again be held to account.
However, to understand the troubles Birmingham City have faced this season, much attention must also be paid to Harry Redknapp. Redknapp arrived at the club with a reputation as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ and a history of having a significant detrimental effect on the long-term stability of a select number of clubs he has managed. There was clear precedent for Redknapp spending carelessly, and his time at the club simply supports many of the criticisms that he has previously received.
Harry Redknapp guided the club to safety on the final day of the 2016/2017 season (© standard.co.uk)
Many Birmingham fans will remember Redknapp fondly. In his defence, his ability to boost morale both in the dressing room and in the stands for the final three games of last season significantly contributed to the club’s survival. This he deserves credit for, but for his leadership in the following period he does not.
First and foremost, the club’s recruitment policy over the summer was farcical. 14 players arrived, and most of these came in the final few weeks and days of the window. Throughout the window the club publicly pursued a number of deals that ultimately fell flat. This meant that in the final few weeks of the window any sort of recruitment policy was thrown out the window and a huge number of players were recruited in panic as Redknapp publicly announced that his squad wasn’t good enough following a 2-1 defeat away at Burton Albion.
The Redknapp spending spree was unprecedented in Birmingham City’s recent cash-starved history. The club spent £17.65 million on transfer fees, and that doesn’t include all the loan fees and the hugely increased wages that players such as David Stockdale and Cheikh N’Doye were offered as an incentive to join the club.
This created two clear problems. First, such a large influx of players in such a short space of time significantly upset the balance of the squad. Assimilating new players into the group can be very difficult. The club were put in this position by Redknapp, alongside Jeff Vetere and Darren Dein, who, in spending far too long chasing lost causes earlier in the window, were ultimately forced to put together their squad piecemeal after the season had started and very much against the clock. It was as if Redknapp was intent on outdoing the crazy days of Barry Fry’s tenure at the club in the 1990s (is that the right time?) when players came flying through the revolving door at breathtaking speed.
Furthermore, the increased spending brought with it a complete disregard to the club’s wage structure. This created significant wage inequality within the squad, and it has been reported that a lack of harmony amongst the players, particularly between the lower and some of the new higher earners at the club, has been a partial cause of the team’s match-day issues. The reality today is that Steve Cotterill, whatever his shortcomings, is dealing with a dressing room of multiple factions.
Disparity in wages between the summer arrivals and the existing members of the squad reportedly led to unrest amongst the players in the early stages of the season (© independent.co.uk)
Some people will defend Redknapp here, based on the fact that the owners are responsible for signing off all transfers and agreeing contracts with potential arrivals and that many of the players signed weren’t Redknapp’s targets at all. Whilst there may be some truth in this, it is highly likely that once the board informed Redknapp of their ambitions for the season, he would have been asked to respond with a list of players he needed in order to match the board’s goals. Based on his reputation, it is highly possible that Redknapp sold the owners a dream, asserting that if the board could get him the players he wanted, he would take the club back to the Premier League.
This is a claim he frequently made in the media, and on more than one occasion he was heard stating that the club would be up there at the end of the season. I am certainly not suggesting that in this regard, the Birmingham City board should be absolved of responsibility, as there is little doubt they were naïve and foolish to sign off some of the big deals that they did.
That being said, Redknapp must take a portion of the blame too. He did it at Portsmouth and QPR and now he has done it again, this time at St Andrew’s. Regardless of the influence of Dein and Vetere, Redknapp was more than happy to oversee the pursuit of these targets and such reckless spending, without having any thought as to what this could do to the long term stability of the club should they not achieve promotion and this is very difficult to defend or justify.
Over the past two years, incompetence at board room level has been rife. For the sacking of Rowett, the appointment of Zola and for the blind financial support they gave to Harry Redknapp, Trillion Trophy Asia must be heavily criticised. However, Redknapp is not innocent in all of this. He may deserve significant credit for his role at the backend of last season. However, his reckless advice to the inexperienced owners over the level of spending in the summer could yet have a detrimental impact on the club for seasons to come, particularly in terms of Financial Fair Play should Steve Cotterill’s side fail to steer clear of relegation to League One.
By George Roberts