By: Mike Newell
With the start of the new Barclay’s Premier League season, Birmingham City FC supporters are cautiously optimistic about the chances in the league this year. After a higher than expected 9th place finish last season, the best in 51 years. The club is looking to new opportunities both on and off the pitch to grow the success of the West Midlands club. The club turned heads last season with a 12 match unbeaten run after Christmas which went a long way in sealing their place in the top flight for another season.
Heads we also turned just before the run started as the long protracted takeover of the club from David Sullivan and David Gold to Chinese billionaire Carlson Yeung was completed. At an estimated cost of 81 million GBP, Yeung assumed control of a club that had just been promoted back to the Premier League after winning the Championship League title that spring. At the onset of his take over Yeung promised over 40 million GBP in new signings to the club, and although the full amount of that spending had not happened as of yet the club is confident it can attract top talent to the squad. As with other Premier League clubs this season City have to be concentrated on the new home grown player rule that regulates squad sizes and composition. The rule states that 8 out of a possible 25 man roster must be “home grown”. These home grown players must have been in the English academy system from over 3 years by the time they are/were 21. This does not mean the player has be to English born, think Cesc Fabregas.
So where does this leave the Blues in regards to player recruitment? Are they are buying club? Or is there going to be a push of youth from the academy?
Chris Kershaw, a press officer at BCFC explained “The club’s stance would be that it is a combination of all those things” (Transfer market buys, loan moves and academy call ups) “Some people might say, now where’s your policy, but the manager (Alex McLeish) is experienced enough to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, that’s key to all that”. For example a player like Craig Gardner who came from Aston Villa, who was bought for a fee, not an extortionate fee, but who was a lifelong BCFC fan and is in the 2-3 million pound range” (Estimated 3.5 million by reports).[picappgallerysingle id=”9396574″]
He went on to mention that the club have also bought in the higher end of the market with the captures of keeper Ben Foster from Manchester United and Nikola Zigic from Valencia (Estimated at 6 and 9 million respectively). The club also announced this week that Matt Derbyshire had been signed on a season’s long loan from Greek club Olympicos.
Mr. Kershaw also stated that in regards to the youth set up ” There is room for the first team lads (at the academy) Midfielder Jordon Mutch just went on loan for a month at Watford to get some first team action, but when he returns Alex McLeish has put him in the first team room with the likes of Velez, Foster, Zigic, Bowyer and Barry Ferguson and said go on, go prove yourself”.
When asked about the home grown rule he pointed out that the club are okay in that regard as McLeish has signed a large number of British players during his tenure. When one looks at the team roster the issue is not if The Blues can make the quota, it is can they fill the 25 man roster as the manager stated as his press conference Thursday afternoon.
With the relative success both on and off the field in the 09-10 season, the club will be looking to build on that success and establish it self as a permanent fixture in the Premier League schedule for years to come. Supporters of many Premier League clubs have set the bar of success with the amount of trophy’s their club, wins. Some of the bigger or higher end table clubs take a look at qualifying for European competition as the benchmark. So where does this leave City? What are the ambitions of the ownership group, coaches and players?
Mr. Kershaw points out that when Carlson Yeung’s group took control of the club they “came in with a dream, they’re massive football fans, massive fans for the Premier League and of Birmingham City, and just like any fan they dream of success, winning trophy’s and possibly getting into Europe” However he stressed that with the economics of modern football and the red tape that are involved on the business end, sometimes it makes things a bit difficult. One would assume that comment would be in reference to current Fulham striker Moussa Dembele who seemed to be heading to St. Andrews, only to be swept up by Fulham at the last minute.
It is clear from both Kershaw right down the supporters forums online, the club’s expectation is to establish itself as a Premier League side, in a similar fashion that Stoke, Fulham and Bolton have done before them. This would be a massive achievement as it is extremely difficult to make it up and then stay there as West Brom have found out in recent years.
Though, the club would like to put up a bit of a disclaimer to that by saying ” When Alex (Mcleish) is talking to the media, when I’m talking to you or the board are in high level meetings, saying we just want to stay in the league this year could seen as negative. Make no mistake we would love to finish 9th or higher, but right now we’re just tempering expectations because possibly we overachieved last season”.
In the new economics of world football it sometimes is not enough to just play attractive football. Most clubs today are looking for new investment from major sponsors and to do this clubs have to brand themselves outside of their territorial market.
With the growing popularity here in North America of the game, in particular the EPL, mid table clubs more than ever are seeking supporters in new markets. City is no different, with the ownership group fixing a keen eye on China as an emerging football market. Bigger clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United have already staked a claim to the lucrative Chinese market and now Carlson Yeung wants to do the same with the Blues.
This summer City traveled to China and Hong Hong for their summer tour of friendly matches including a match inside the Bird’s nest stadium in Beijing. In between the matches the first team squad did several mall visits, and officially launched their new kits in China. The kit deal itself is a landmark for the club, A 7.5 million pound shirt manufacturing deal with Xtep a Chinese kit maker which will increase the exposure of the club to over 6000 outlets around China. In a statement released in January of this year club vice chairman Peter Pannu stated that “Xtep are big players in the sportswear market in China and this partnership will expand the Birmingham City FC brand in the Far East.” However it must also be noted that many supporters though online fourms would have preferred that the club stay with Umbro as the kit makers this year, especially with the “Tailored by” shirt campaign with Manchester City, Blackburn and Athletic Bilbao in Spain.
Although is no definite plan for the club to seek the same type of touring opportunities in North America, it looks as if Birmingham City are on the verge of making the next step towards this side of the pond within the next few years. Teams the likes of Aston Villa, Chelsea, Bolton and West Ham have made the journey to play MLS clubs in the past 5 seasons and have seen moderate to excellent brand exposure in North American markets.
As the club prepares for their match this weekend against Blackburn Rovers at St Andrews, it is clear to see that the club is looking forward to a tough but potentially rewarding season both on and away from the pitch.