x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Alex McLeish: The worst moment of my career

From an afternoon of complex calculations and knotted nerves, Birmingham City were consigned to precisely the place they did not want to be. And Harry Redknapp was sent on the European journey Tottenham's manager would rather have avoided.

Tottenham 2 // Birmingham 1

LONDON // From an afternoon of complex calculations and knotted nerves, Birmingham City were consigned to precisely the place they did not want to be. And Harry Redknapp was sent on the European journey Tottenham's manager would rather have avoided.

Undone by a final-minute goal here, so despairingly marginal was Birmingham's descent that it was not fully determined until the final kick of the Premier League season some 160 miles north.

Ultimately, a campaign gilded with their first major silverware in 48 years ended tarnished by relegation from the top tier. The financial realities of the modern game dictate that to be an unacceptable trade-off.

"If you're saying you stay in the league but you've got to sacrifice the Carling Cup, of course you'd swap it," the manager Alex McLeish said.

"It's such a fine line. One goal put us out of the Premier League. If that had gone the other way it would have been the greatest season in Birmingham's history. The way it's happened to us is absolutely devastating."

The precise cost of relegation is a slippery figure that can only be accurately calculated in retrospect. Yet Birmingham face a cull of at least £24 million (Dh144m) of Premier League television revenue, with millions more in lost commercial and match-day income.

That their fate came down to the season's final minute was partially a product of their Carling Cup success. Pivotal to that triumph over Arsenal, Nikola Zigic has not started a match since. The steady defending of Scott Dann has been absent since the semi-final.

"There's no doubt we've suffered since," said McLeish.

Safe by just a solitary goal at kick off, Birmingham's security increased with Blackburn's trio of goals at Wolverhampton then diminished with Charlie Adam's equaliser at Old Trafford. Starting the second half, a goal for either Tottenham or Wigan would sink them to the drop zone.

The former came four minutes later. Danny Rose's perseverance on the left saw him round Sebastian Larsson and pass to Pavyluchenko, the substitute striker who looped the ball into the far corner. White Hart Lane cheered louder at news of Blackpool's second at Manchester United than for their own man's goal.

With limited options on his bench, McLeish held to his strategy and waited and his old boss's team levelled in Manchester to bring Blackpool back into range.

With United netting again, Birmingham were now within a goal of potential survival. With 12 minutes remaining a corner unsettled Tottenham. Barry Ferguson's shot rebounded off Rose to Craig Gardner. A Birmingham fan since childhood, the midfielder's left foot did not betray him.

Though Hugo Rodallega's goal at Stoke City quickly pushed Wigan back above them, McLeish's calculated conservatism had his team a single goal above Wolves.

Then their local rivals reduced the deficit at Blackburn and Birmingham were headed downwards - not on goal difference, but on goals scored.

A corner won by Roger Johnson ended with the centre-back sat disconsolate on turf as his header leaked wide of the post. Tottenham counter-attacked and, running at a half-empty defence, Pavyluchenko fired a shot off the underside of the crossbar and in.

"It's probably the worst moment of my career," McLeish said of Birmingham's second relegation in four seasons. "They're my lads, I built the squad and it's a low for me in my career. But it's not fatal and I'll bounce back."

sports@thenational.ae