I first met Birmingham City fan Peter Humphreys in 2006 when we both set out to tick Ben Nevis off our respective bucket lists. He can take the credit for getting me to the summit by repeatedly lying to me that we were ‘almost at the top’ when every muscle in my body was screaming ‘stop!!’
We have stayed friends ever since and regularly put the world to rights about the pleasures and miseries of being a football fan. This week he offered me his thoughts on his football club, my football club and tomorrow’s fixture:
K: What do you make of the goings on at Birmingham last season? To an outsider like myself it seemed madness as Gary Rowett is considered a good manager and seemed to be doing a reasonable job. I watched astonished at the unfolding events. What was it like as a Birmingham fan?
P: Last season was totally bizarre and painful. The overwhelming majority of Bluenoses were gutted at Gary Rowett’s departure. His tenure at the club was nothing less than remarkable. The Chinese ownership crisis, lack of funds and financial instability were the backdrop to what could have been successive drops down the divisions or worse – complete oblivion for our beloved club.
However, Rowett galvanised a bunch of journeyman with a few incoming bargains and freebies into a solid unit that knew their strengths and played to a system. The counter attacking away from home was particularly effective.
Despite being in the early stages of his managerial career Rowett had a track record of success at Burton Albion; he was intelligent, assured and confident. In 2015-16, after being in and around the play-off positions for most of the season a poor run in secured an astonishing 10th place. Blues fans were more than grateful… he brought back pride – players grafting for the shirt, our club.
Rowett and his team also brought on youngsters and we could potentially see a future again. I guess we all thought if he can do this without money, when and if the financial context improved we could go places. Removing Rowett ripped the heart from the fan base. What more could he have possibly done and on a personal level what a way to treat him.
The football world all looked on aghast and along with most supporters I personally felt angered and ashamed at the way he was treated. I’m pretty sure the players will have felt the same way. St Andrews will always hold respect and affection for Gary Rowett.
The incoming Gianfranco Zola was a bit of a surprise to say the least! A footballing legend and really nice guy who had to step into the shoes of someone the fans held in high regard.
Like all supporters, Bluenoses realised we had to move on however, embittered we were by the Rowett dismissal. Things weren’t going to change. We had to give Zola a chance – it wasn’t his fault.
Despite this, everything on the pitch seemed to fall apart. Zola’s changes just didn’t work out and results saw us tumble. Performances just got worse and each match, each defeat was more embarrassing. Four months, two wins and we dropped to 20th place. Zola didn’t look comfortable with the press or players and we didn’t know where the next point would come from.
With little hope in sight the inevitable happened, Zola resigned before he was pushed. Enter Harry Houdini… and well, we’re still in the same division (at the moment!) and Harry is more than happy to sing along with the club anthem ‘Keep Right on to the End of the Road’.
K: When Harry first came in I believe it was regarded as a quick fix rather than a long term appointment. This worked of course and he kept you up. He has spent a lot of money in the transfer window. Do you expect him to be there at the end of the season?
P: Harry Redknapp’s arrival was a last ditch rescue strategy, which fortunately worked out. It was never going to be a quiet ride… Harry is always going to be the news himself. I think he enjoyed the buzz again and couldn’t resist the opportunity to take up the reins fully when the post was offered to him.
So the summer has been an endless stream of wheeling and dealing… much of course imagined, fabricated and totally wide of the mark. The reality is the club still finds it difficult to attract real quality. However, Harry’s contacts and reputation have been enough to secure a range of players, some purchased, and some on loan. There’s clearly potential in the new faces but at the moment – we haven’t got an established well-oiled and drilled unit.
Rebuilding a team is rarely a short-term fix so it’s unlikely we’ll see Blues at their best for some time yet. Whether Harry will have the stamina to see this through is one question and the other is whether the owners and supporters will be patient enough…. who knows.
If the team languishes around the bottom of the league and delivers uninspiring, lacklustre performances then I’m sure, despite Harry’s theatrics, he will move on or be pushed. This is the problem with Harry – love him or hate him he’s undoubtedly a charismatic figure but can he build for the long term?
Time will tell, but instinctively I would have preferred continuing with Rowett. I suspect we’ll end the season in the upper half of the table and we might get another year from Redknapp but doubt it would be any longer. Although, I might not be his biggest fan – I wish him all the best and hope he can be the springboard to get this great club firing again.
K: Moving a little nearer home I’d like your opinion on the set up at Norwich. Delia Smith is very wealthy compared to the likes of you and me, but not in the same league as some of the billionaire owners of other clubs.
I don’t know much about the Trillion Trophy Asia consortium at St Andrews, but I suspect they have considerably more money than she does. Although having rich benefactors can work, as for example at Southampton and Leicester, it can also go horribly wrong as we have seen at Cardiff, Blackburn and Hull to name but a few.
Birmingham might well go down this road too in the future – you would have a better idea of the likelihood of this than me. But would you rather have somebody like Delia who is a true fan but doesn’t have very much money in football terms as an owner, or take the risk of bringing in vast resources from outsiders you know very little about which may or may not work, and in a worst case scenario could destroy your club?
As you can imagine this is a constant and emotive subject for debate among Norwich City fans.
P: Club ownership is a real difficult question. The heart likes having a relationship with owners who are passionate about the club and have a deep connection with the area and a relationship with players and fans. I guess Delia comes into that category and I do envy that.
However, as Norwich fans only know too well it doesn’t guarantee success and, in the context of a game where money talks it has limitations. Having extravagantly wealthy foreign owners can work out as we’ve seen in recent years but there is no guarantee and things can go horribly pear shaped.
Owners who are solely focussed on the brand, the investment and publicity are likely to be fickle and pull out when the going gets tough. Birmingham’s brief flirtation with the corrupt Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung turned out toxic and we nearly lost our club. Trillion Trophy looks a more stable, if modest, financial underpinning but I don’t feel there is any connection with the club. It all feels too distant and impersonal. That said, would I be saying that if we were running away with the league?
There is something to be said for long term sustainability and sensible money (the UK leagues clearly don’t fall into this category). I’m not an expert but I’ve always been impressed by the German clubs and the way the real fans get a good deal… quality football, great national team, realistic prices into matches, cheap match day transport.
I’d like to see more involvement of fans and clubs at least part owned by the supporters. I like the idea of full sporting clubs of which the football team is just one (if major) part. This is all about identification with place, local people and developing local talent and passionate support.
Whilst the Premier League is such a global brand and awash with money I see little chance of this happening. Beyond the Premiership, clubs like ours will be torn. Do we risk getting into bed with big money for the potential gains or do we settle for the grounded club, passionate owners, players and fans accepting the joys and sorrows and the roller coaster of football.
I’m sure we’d of all loved to have gone on the Leicester City journey but practically it was a once in a lifetime occurrence. To be honest I’d rather watch a team, playing for the shirt, delivering decent football and winning more than we lose in the Championship than to be struggling in Premier League.
However, that’s my opinion and I recognise that’s probably unrealistic in current contexts. Norwich, like Blues, have always been a ‘proper’ football club and whoever/ however our clubs are owned and run they need to be focussed more on the supporters. There is nothing in the world better than a football club where the support is so connected to the club that the stadium rocks on match days.
I don’t know how much more energy and money Delia can offer Norwich but to her credit she has successfully carried the torch for years through thick and thin and is synonymous with the club. That in itself is a rarity in club ownership these days.
K. It’s interesting that you mention the German model as that is the route Norwich have been striving to go down over the last three months. We’ve ditched the ‘football manager’ ethic in favour of the more European head coach/director of football approach.
But we’ve taken it much further than that in appointing a German manager and by bringing in four players from the second tier of the Bundesliga. We’ve also looked closely at the way such a good atmosphere is generated at German games and tried to introduce new initiatives at Carrow Rd to achieve this.
There was a wave of optimism among fans during the summer that this was a great move by the club and we couldn’t wait to get started. T shirts were printed in German and football songs adapted accordingly.
But football has a habit of bringing you back to earth with a thump and that’s exactly what’s happened, with just one win and three defeats in the first five games. There has been lots of pretty football but some extraordinarily naive team selections and defending. Supporters are starting to get nervy and seeing Ipswich Town at the top of the table hasn’t helped either.
With that in mind, how do you see Saturday’s game going? Birmingham haven’t exactly set the league alight either this season and it’s a standing joke in these parts that when you’re on a bad run you need to play Norwich City.
If your team haven’t won away all season or are searching for your first victory, bring on Norwich. This is the club that managed to lose at Aston Villa during their last relegation season. There is even a website called ‘Along Come Norwich’ in deference to this trait.
So with all this in mind what is your prediction for the game?
P: I’m really encouraged that Norwich have been brave with a more German approach. This is forward looking. At the end of the day the Germans have consistently built good footballing sides and great football infrastructure without the financial circus of the English game.
Norwich may be struggling a bit at the moment but you’ve got to be realistic. The game is different here and the Championship on its day is a terrifically competitive league. European players, coaches and managers often need time to settle in before we see their best. They also need to build that empathy for the club and passion for the shirt – the absolute minimum expectation for any supporter.
Having the local bragging rights is always an issue when rivals are in the same league… Ipswich out in front is as painful as the Villa out there for Bluenoses. However, at this stage it’s no time to panic. Norwich and Blues are both in a rebuilding phase. Both teams should be looking medium to long term and should sit tight and hold their nerve.
For the time being at least both teams need the total and unreserved support from fans. Confidence is an elusive quality in football but so crucial. New staff and players on both sides will quickly sniff the edginess in support and media and this will unsettle them further.
Blues fans have a sneaking regard for Norwich. Many of us remember with fondness the great singing and good humour from both sets of fans at the 2002 Play-Off Final at the Millennium Stadium.
I don’t expect that on paper anyone will be a clear favourite on Saturday. On the day it will be the team who wants it most… some good old grit and a slice of good fortune could swing it but, equally, we may both have to settle for honours even.