‘Staring at the abyss’: Birmingham City’s tale of endless turmoil | Birmingham City

“Normally we do this every 12 months, or less,” said the Birmingham City chief executive, Xuandong Ren, at Aitor Karanka’s unveiling last August. It was a haunting soundbite that had those present at St Andrew’s, renamed three years ago to incorporate the name of the Hong Kong-based holding company that owns the club, Trillion Trophy Asia, squirming. Ren’s opening gambit was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek but there is more than a grain of truth behind the sentiment.

It was an ominous start to life under Karanka and sure enough the Spaniard has gone less than eight months into a three-year contract, with Lee Bowyer named the club’s eighth manager in less than five years. Bowyer was part of the side that lifted the League Cup at Wembley 10 years ago but following relegation that season Birmingham have left behind Europa League trips to Brugge and Braga and face the prospect of returning to the third tier for the first time since 1995.

Before hosting Reading on Wednesday they are three points above the relegation zone. “It has been a sad decline,” says the former Birmingham defender Michael Johnson. “Lifelong fans are worried about the club’s future.”

The threat of relegation is nothing new – Birmingham have not finished above 17th since turning to Gianfranco Zola when sacking Gary Rowett in December 2016 with the club seventh, a decision that looks more baffling by the day. Harry Redknapp, Steve Cotterill, Garry Monk and Pep Clotet have played the role of firefighter since and, after avoiding dropping into League One by two points last season, now it is over to Bowyer to channel Red Adair. Going further back, it is seven years since Birmingham rallied from 2-0 down to stay up on the final day courtesy of a 93rd-minute equaliser at Bolton. “You breathe a sigh of relief and hope lessons will be learned,” says Johnson. “But the club has not moved on and here we are again staring at the abyss. It is a club that seems to be weekly, monthly, yearly in turmoil.”

Lee Bowyer in action during Birmingham’s League Cup final win over Arsenal in 2011. He returns as manager with the club in danger of dropping into League One.
Lee Bowyer in action during Birmingham’s League Cup final win over Arsenal in 2011. He returns as manager with the club in danger of dropping into League One. Photograph: Akira Suemori/AP

Recruitment staff have been furloughed since last year and scouting outsourced to companies in France and Spain. Ren regularly attended training under Clotet last season in a club tracksuit but perhaps the most bizarre story came to light over the weekend, when Karanka’s last supper played out at the club’s Wast Hills base. As first reported in the Daily Mirror, on Sunday staff and players, in for their recovery session after a 3-0 loss to Bristol City the day before, reported for a celebratory lunch to belatedly mark Ren’s 39th birthday. Karanka had just been sacked but sat through the pleasantries anyway.

Ren was adamant Karanka was the man to return Birmingham to the Premier League but the chairman, Wenqing Zhao, is understood to have made the decision. “It doesn’t matter who you put in charge, if the culture is not quite right, there are always going to be things that surface to the top,” says Johnson. “Unless someone can go in and have a good sweep out of the garage, you are just creating more trouble and issues.”

Aitor Karanka, seen here during Birmingham’s game at Middlesbrough in January, is the latest manager sacked by the club.
Aitor Karanka, seen here during Birmingham’s game at Middlesbrough in January, is the latest manager sacked by the club. Photograph: Alex Dodd/CameraSport/Getty Images

Karanka publicly chastising players hardly endeared him to a dressing room low on confidence after a run of three wins since Christmas. Several longstanding staff members have departed, with Julia Shelton, the club secretary for two decades, among a quartet of senior administrative figures to leave in January 2019. Last week, her replacement, Ciara Gallagher, handed in her notice. The former academy coach Richard Beale, instrumental in the development of Nathan Redmond and Demarai Gray, left after 15 years in June 2019. He recently said he was “pushed out for the same reason as five or six of the other people”, because he was “not willing just to sit back and let what was happening happen”.

The owners have invested and wasted millions. Scattergun recruitment led to exorbitant spending during Redknapp’s reign in 2017, with top earners on about £30,000 a week and a wage bill totalling £38m for 2017-18. The club has twice been found guilty of financial misconduct under English Football League regulations and received a nine-point deduction in 2019 after breaking profit and sustainability rules. Ren has defended his regime and told the BBC last month: “My top priority is to make this football club self-sustainable. The more self-sustainable you become, the less you have to rely on the owner or the parent company. The club is getting very close to becoming self-sustainable. We have a healthy squad.”

Birmingham’s chief executive, Xuandong Ren, pictured last September.
Birmingham’s chief executive, Xuandong Ren, pictured last September. Photograph: Paul Greenwood/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Last year Birmingham’s plans to shelve an academy structure that produced Jude Bellingham, sold to Borussia Dortmund last summer for a fee rising to more than £30m, in favour of a B-team model caught senior academy staff by surprise. The announcement caused consternation within the club and, 24 hours later, they U-turned and confirmed their intention to attain Category One status. They are undergoing the auditing process.

In December the former academy manager Kristjaan Speakman left for a sporting director role at Sunderland after 14 years. “It is sad to see some people who have had some real longevity move on to pastures new,” says Johnson, formerly a club ambassador and now England Under-21s assistant manager. “When you lose those people in any environment, you lose a lot of the emotional connection and DNA. Those people are the kind that are supposed to finish at 5pm but come 7pm you’ll still see them there working.”

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To cap it all, the stadium, sold for £22.8m last year to a company controlled by the owner Paul Suen Cho Hung, is no longer fit for purpose. A routine inspection by Birmingham city council in December found two stands – the Tilton and the Kop – failed to satisfy safety guidelines and there are major doubts as to whether they will be fixed in time for the expected return of fans next season. “A huge amount of repair work has to be done,” Ren said.

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