Oh Birmingham City, we’ve seen this before. After a 16-season stint in the lower divisions, the Blues were promoted in 2002… and then finished three seasons mid-table, before enduring four more yo-yo years into the Championship and back. Yet last season was supposed to be different. Under the guidance of Carson Yeung and Alex McLeish, Brum finished a respectable ninth in 2010 with a stingy defence and a young keeper on-loan. Who cared if they couldn’t score? It was a new era.
Ugh. Fast forward 12 months. Despite their first trophy in almost 50 years, and an appearance in the FA Cup semi-final, Brum rode a train of mediocrity into relegation. Before their historic victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final, City were 6-12-9. The 30 points weren’t great… but it left them only a handful of wins away from the magic safety zone of 40. But after that, Birmingham only won twice in their last 12 matches… including three straight losses at the end to send them down, allowing Wigan (ugh) and Wolves to remain.
Now McLeish’s defection to hated Aston Villa has fans on both sides of Birmingham screaming Blue murder. But unlike other serious rivalries, the teams’ exposure to each other has been spotty over the years… while the Second City derby features a couple of key players that have swapped shades of blue, with a lot of claret thrown in.
One such player is the sensational Liam Ridgewell, who joined Birmingham from Aston Villa in 2007. The left back scored as many goals as the club’s strikers this season, which is probably a statement on both Ridgewell’s talent and the dire situation in Birmingham’s attack. Ridgewell signed a new contract last summer… but West Brom have come calling, offering £3 million. City thinks he’s worth more, and so does this writer. The big clubs could do worse than pick up him up.
After 200 matches, Sebastian Larsson is set to leave the Blues, having declined a new contract with the relegated side. His father says the right winger has signed at Sunderland for Steve Bruce… the man who brought the Swede to St. Andrews in the first place.
England back-up keeper Ben Foster is no youngster… but has always seemed a star-in-waiting. Foster performed admirably this season, replacing his contemporary Joe Hart in net with one of the league’s highest save percentages, while facing the second-most shots. Foster is a Premier League keeper, plain and simple. I will make a call and say this West Midlander will follow McLeish to Villa.
Roger Johnson and Scott Dann would have received England call-ups, had it not said “Birmingham City” on their badges. Roger Johnson started almost every match for the Brummies, while Scott Dann had his season cut short by injuries. Both will likely get a sniff from the big clubs, including Dann, a Scouser whose name is creating rumbles at Anfield. Meanwhile, Johnson is tough and good in the air. Both made it onto the score sheet… and neither are afraid of a booking now and then.
Birmingham’s skipper — Stephen Carr — is 34… kind of up there in football years. But the right back was the lynch pin for the club’s excellent defence: the Irishman started almost as many games as Johnson. It’s likely he will stay because a) he has extended his contract by a year, and b) his former coach at Spurs and Ireland — Chris Hughton — is the front runner to take McLeish’s place. Still… Carr’s performance this year merits another kick at the Premiership can.
Do you know which Villa player led the club in fouls and yellow cards? Ashley Young (stop snickering!). Now that the team’s “hard man” (uncontrollable guffawing) looks bound for Manchester United, and Nigel Reo-Coker (a man who actually would give us nightmares, were we would good enough to play Premier League football) has been released, the club needs some steel in the middle. Cue Barry Ferguson…
Finally, we have Craig Gardner — Birmingham’s answer to Steven Gerrard, circa Istanbul. Gardner led his team in both goals and infractions this past seaon. In a Robbie Keane-like obfuscation, Gardner has claimed to be a lifelong Villa or City fan — depending where he’s playing. Yet he could still return to Villa Park. After the vitriol that’s greeted Big Eck, the move would likely have Lions fans foaming at the mouth. However, he has been linked with a move to the Northeast, either Newcastle or Sunderland.