Birmingham City were one of the more surprising stories of last year’s Premier League season.
Since a 12th place finish is 2004-05 Birmingham had been on a bit of a yo-yo path, with relegation in 2006 followed by promotion in 2007 followed once again by relegation in 2008.
City managed to break the cycle in 2009-10, ending up in 9th. It was their first top-half finish since 2004, their highest ever Premier League place, their highest in the top flight since 1959 and the second highest in club history. The season included a 12 match unbeaten streak, their longest ever in the top flight. A solid run in the FA Cup was ended in the sixth round proper by eventual runners-up Portsmouth. It was the club’s best season in the Premier League by some ways and one of the better in their modern history, erasing to some extent the sour feelings of the down-and-up-and-down-again cycle of the preceding few years.
Based on his actions over the summer Alex McLeish was not content to rest on his laurels. Birmingham were as busy as anyone where the transfer window was concerned, and they looked to have done quite well for themselves.
Club record signing Nikola Žigić was brought in to pair with Cameron Jerome up top, forcing teams to deal with two very different and very dangerous threats at goal. Jean Beausejour looked to be an excellent change of pace out wide for the Blues, bringing with him some of the speed, creativity and crossing ability the club was lacking. Martin Jiránek was supposed to take Birmingham’s back line to the next level, an anchor in the middle that would turn a solid defense into the great strength of the club. And of course there was Alexander Hleb, the shock signing of the year; while not viewed in the same light he once was Hleb was still regarded as a top-notch playmaker, capable of taking over a game in the attacking end and giving the opposition all manner of headaches.
Players in their prime years that had been purchased by Barcelona for hefty sums of money only two years prior don’t often end up at Birmingham City. McLeish brought in several quality players that fit his system perfectly with less than a lavish budget, and just one season removed from playing in the Championship Birmingham City looked to be legitimate competitors for a spot in Europe.
Fast forward to the present. Birmingham City sit 17th after twelve games played, four points from bottom and just a point away from the relegation zone. Hleb injured his ankle before appearing for the club and did not make his debut until mid-September. Since returning to action Hleb has been mostly ineffective and looks out of place much of the time. His comments about the quality of his teammates (though not particularly egregious) managed to upset more than a few supporters, just for good measure. Žigić entered the season at less than full fitness and has struggled to make any sort of an impact at all; as the frustration mounts he appears to be pressing more and more, perhaps no better illustrated than his missing several sitters against Aston Villa after making comments about how important his scoring in th Second city Derby would be.
Jean Beausejour suffered a knee injury early on and did not make his starting debut until Wednesday against Stoke; he was withdrawn at the half after a poor showing. Martin Jiranek has yet to make his Premier League debut for the club due to a nagging hamstring injury.
Pretty much every thing that could have gone wrong with Birmingham’s new signings has done so. When coupled with the fact that injuries have plagued many of the Blues best returning players (most notably James McFadden being struck by a knee injury that will see him out of action for at least two months) it’s not difficult to see why City are in the position that they are. It really has been one thing after another for Birmingham and it’s tempting to look at their position in the table and the club’s recent history and toss all of the positive feelings that had been built up from last season and th transfer dealings and throw them out the window. Tempting, but not especially wise. Because despite their less than enviable standing in the league and the difficulties of their newest additions to make much of an impact, things aren’t nearly as bad as they might seem.
The relative parity in the Premier League to this point isn’t much of a new story, and despite the club’s place just above the relegation zone it’s important to remember that their twelve points are only three behind 12th place and five out of fifth. Four clubs ahead of them have a poorer goal differential. Birmingham have gone much of the season to this point without numerous key players and many of their newly transferred players have had less than ample time to become integrated into the squad. When you consider how many key injuries the club have had to contend with the fact that they’ve been able to keep pace as well as they have looks almost impressive. Perhaps most importantly, the Blues run of bad luck hasn’t been limited to injury; on several occasions they’ve played well enough to take all three points and have instead been forced to settle for less. Bolton were beyond lucky to manage a draw while down to ten men in the third game of the season. Liverpool had to grind every inch of the way to manage a point the following week. City played their great rivals Aston Villa off the pitch at Villa Park and perhaps nothing better summarizes the frustration of their season than their inability to find a winner in that game.
There are still 26 games left in this Premier League season and despite the negative impression one gets when they see a club at 17th in the table they’re far from buried. Birmingham’s best XI have yet to see the pitch together all at the same time so it stands to reason that they have a bit of playing together to do before they’re comfortable enough to be called full-strength. While they’re currently on a run of rather poor form, City started the season quite strong and until these past few weeks looked every bit as likely to finish in the top half for a second year running as they did coming into the season. It really can’t be overstated how close things are in the Premier League are at the moment and Birmingham are still right there in the mix. A run at Europe might be more difficult now than Blues supporters had hoped would be the case at this point in the season, but it’s still well within the realm of possibility. Things could certainly continue to head south and Birmingham could very well find themselves in a battle for their standing in the top division; it’s still far to early to tell. But by that same token, writing off the investments made by McLeish over the summer as a waste would be far too premature.