x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The unfashionable hopefuls from Birmingham

Birmingham have had little to celebrate in the past, but today could be their big day.

Birmingham City players celebrate their semi-final second leg win over West Ham United. Scott Heavey / Getty Images
Birmingham City players celebrate their semi-final second leg win over West Ham United. Scott Heavey / Getty Images

It may be an apocryphal tale, but owner Roman Abramovich is alleged to have considered renaming Chelsea to London FC to capitalise on the capital's global fame and to indicate that, in a city overstaffed by football clubs, this was the club.

Juventus, Benfica, Feyenoord, Galatasaray, Boca Juniors and Santos may constitute proof that such branding is not necessary. It is also to be presumed that Abramovich did not consider the example from England's second city. Birmingham may lack London's glamour, but its existence is no secret.

Yet the resident aristocracy in the West Midlands are called Aston Villa, a regional power whose support extends out to the more genteel shires and whose trophy cabinet is rather bigger than those of their immediate rivals.

Instead Birmingham City's name emphasises that this is a defiantly local club. Even with Chinese owners, Birmingham are not a cosmopolitan club like their adversaries today, Arsenal. Theirs is a fan base well acquainted with the Bull Ring, Spaghetti Junction and the other concrete landmarks that surround St Andrew's.

These are people who delight in highlighting illusions of importance, in not respecting reputations. When an opponent is brought on, they tend to be greeted with a chant of "Who are you?" that grows louder and more mocking when the arrival is one of the game's supposed superstars.

When Jose Mourinho first patrolled the touchline at St Andrew's in a designer overcoat that was attracting almost as much attention as the Portuguese himself, he was serenaded with a chorus of "your coat's from Matalan" in reference to the low-cost clothing store.

A delicate touch may be prized at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, but other qualities are valued more highly in Birmingham.

"Because I worked hard and always gave my utmost, these passionate, working-class people recognised a kindred spirit," said Steve Claridge, the dishevelled cult hero of a striker who, in 1994/95, was the last Birmingham player to get 20 goals in a season. "A player does know if he gives 100 per cent, fans will sense it and give him the benefit of the doubt."

Barry Fry, his eccentric manager at the time, put it differently: "Birmingham is a massive place with some dodgy areas and some even dodgier characters but the Blue- noses all have this one thing in common. Their football club."

Indeed, the Bluenoses - a faintly ridiculous but somehow endearing nickname - help produce a blue-collar team. It is one that reflects the support.

Alex McLeish belongs to the brand of manager who demands commitment, and in a city once known for its heavy industry, it is fitting. McLeish's players put a shift in. An infrequent scorer but an inveterate runner, Cameron Jerome leads the line with muscular determination. Lee Bowyer and Craig Gardner are workaholic midfielders, bursting from box to box while Barry Ferguson is the understated craftsman who tidies up behind them and in front of the defence.

Like men clocking in at the factory, the back four barely changed for 15 months before a hamstring injury curtailed Scott Dann's season. Stephen Carr, Roger Johnson and Liam Ridgewell's names are not so much written as etched onto the team sheet.

McLeish's popularity dates back to the club-record run of 12 unbeaten Premier League games last season. An instinctively cautious manager, his careful planning can frustrate more talented teams. That appeals to the mentality of the fans who delight in tweaking the nose of anyone with airs and graces.

It is not that flair players are unknown at Birmingham - Trevor Francis and Christophe Dugarry, to name two, were very popular - but they remain rarities. Alexander Hleb, the former Gunner and a quintessentially Arsenal player, is a doubt to face his former club but it is no surprise that his impact has been limited.

This, then, is a culture clash. And while Arsenal's wait for silverware lasts six years, Birmingham's dates back rather further. Beaten by Liverpool in the 2001 Carling Cup final - Andrew Johnson missed the decisive spot-kick in a shoot-out - their only major honour came in this competition in its third year, 1963, when many of the major powers did not deign to enter.

But Birmingham have rarely had such delusions of grandeur. Their name, rather than honours in abundance, has stood for a down-to-earth work ethic, a cheeky sense of humour and a steadfast refusal to be beaten.

 

sports@thenational.ae