soccer

2010 English Premier League Preview: Birmingham City

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It was bound to happen.

In the process of writing these team-by-team Premier League essays eventually I was going to hit a team and not really have an angle. When it came to Birmingham City, part of me simply hoped a topic would hit me in the head like a Tommy Iommi power chord. Alas, the well has run dry. Since I'm not about to take the Stephen King approach when he wrote "Kujo," and by that I mean locking myself in an attic with a typewriter, a pile of chop and a couple six-packs. (*)

(*) Trying to grind this out listening to the new Arcade Fire album (#) isn't helping much either. Guess French Canadian Art Rock + Mid level Premier League soccer club don't necessarily = blogging gold.

(#) Name drop alert!

Instead let's throw out some unformed, loosely connected thoughts on the Brum and hope a few cohesive points.

First and foremost, Birmingham isn't so much stuck where it is, maybe it doesn't know what direction it wants to take going forward.

New President Caron Yueng -- aka Dr. Zaius -- allegedly says he wants to spend money and give Alex McLeish a decent transfer kitty. So far that's produced 6-foot-7 Serb Nikola Zigic, who pre-World Cup seemed like a savvy transfer for a club of Birmingham's means. Then I remembered he was already 29 and was basically a bit player at Valencia, who did, in fairness have a guy named David Villa ahead of him in the pecking order. You remember Villa, right? "The Spark vs. The Blaze."? He was one of them.

At least Birmingham only spent around £6 million on the big Serb, who for all we know will turn out to be the next Stefan Mairhofer.

Wednesday morning, as I put the finishing touches on this piece, the club is allegedly trying to chase down the signature of Juventus' Mauro Camorenesi. So there.

Birmingham actually finds himself in a tricky spot. The team is okay as it is, but could use a little more quality, yet Birmingham isn't a No. 1 destination for aspiring players. There's also the risk that breaking up the current core with a few high-priced names would mess up an already pretty okay thing.

Remember, current squad assembled by McLeish was strong enough to win promotion back the Premier League, and once there place a very impressive ninth. It was a solid if not spectacular squad.

There isn't one player on the roster where you say to yourself, "wow, I gotta see this guy play," but there aren't any out-and-out embarrassments either. The Blues were still strong enough to go 12-straight League games without a defeat, ranging from the end of September to early January.

Cameron Jerome has his moments, but like any man with two first names, is maddening inconsistent. Swede midfielder Seb Larsson brings an Arsenal pedigree, but seemed to have fallen out of favor late last season for McLeish.

Yet despite whatever intentions Yueng -- and his lavish fur coats have -- this team hasn't improved very much.

Gone is combative, albeit 36-year-old mifielder Lee Carsley. Did he have a lot left in the tank? Probably not, but his fighting spirit seemed to typify Birmingham. Now that's left for captain Stephen Carr, who is 33, but like countryman Robbie Keane looks about 15 years older.

Also leaving St. Andrews is No. 1 keeper Joe Hart, returning to Manchester City after a loan spell. McLeish made a heads-up move, grabbing one-time, stress one-time promising Manchester United keeper Ben Foster who'll compete for time with the ageless Maik Taylor who's still plugging away at 38.

You'd also have to wonder if my so-called "no name" central defensive partnership of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson either backslide in their second full seconds in the top flight, or trend upward. There's no way to know.

Will McLeish be able to coax another solid season from 32-year-old Barry Ferguson in the middle of the park, too? Or Lee Bowyer, who was excellent last year, but is now 33? What about Kevin Phillips? Is there anything left in the tank at 37?

The biggest concern for McLeish is that last year Birmingham were involved in 21 one-goal games. Even more statically surprising, all 13 of the club's Premier League wins in 2010-11 came by one-goal, including six 1-0 wins. By the simple nature of statistics, this kind of play tends to level out.

For all of Birmingham's stellar work last season to finish ninth, they still placed 11 points in the table behind eighth-place Everton. By comparison, 20th place Portsmouth ended 11 points behind 19th Hull City and that was counting a points deduction.

Bottom line -- Birmingham did just about as well as possible for a club in its position last season. The problem this year is that an aging team, without a lot of new blood, is going to have to play almost as perfect as it did last season not to backslide. With the league arguably much tougher, without any clear weak sisters aside from Blackpool, Birmingham can't allow itself to get complacent. Barring a surprise late August transfer or a young player coming up from within, this team could be in a relegation fight. On the plus side, this team is built for those kind of games, however you have to wonder if those one-goal games Birmingham excelled at last season twist around they could be in trouble.

In case you missed it:

* Sunderland
* West Ham United
* Stoke City
* Bolton
* Blackpool
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wolves
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom

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