Imagine young Blues fans quizzing their Dads down the years:
“Dad – is it true that there was a fire once at our shirt sponsors shop and our owners used the insurance money to buy players and stuff?”
“Dad – is it true that our new owners sell scrap metal for a living and that they sold our training ground for 1 pound to a man who flies planes about?”
“Dad – is it true that our new owners sell newspapers with nudie ladies in it and run shops that sell chocolate body paint and stuff?”
“Dad – is it true that our new owners have lots of money but don’t really because somebody else has it we've never seen and that we actually don’t know who our owners really are because they’re all like Chinese spies and stuff and keep everything a secret and not tell anyone anything about stuff?...Dad?...Dad???”
Only Birmingham City, eh? With the possible exception of clubs like Portsmouth & West Ham United, the Blues are a club beset in the modern era by rumour and counter-rumour about the activities, interests and motives of its directors and owners. Was there ever a time when you had no interest in who owned your club and they had no interest in gratuitously publicising themselves at every turn?
The first Blues owner I remember was Keith Coombs, who inherited the club from his father in the mid 70’s and was roundly criticised for selling Trevor Francis to Nottingham Forest for £1m at the end of the decade. His stewardship was typical of Blues as I have come to know them-relegation and promotion in close proximity. But did he court publicity as owners do today? Possibly wanted to, but there wasn’t sufficient interest in his business dealings to warrant front page news in the Evening Mail as it was then.
Then came the dark, ghastly years of Ken Wheldon and more so the Kumar brothers. Wheldon was unfairly painted as a demonic figure who sold the clubs assets for peanuts when it could be argued that he saved the club from going out of business. The ground was a tip and got more and more run down as the team bore less and less resemblance to the Latchford/Francis/Hatton side that had enraptured me as a boy. Samesh Kumar and his board did little in my eyes to lift the gloom and indeed produced a succession of empty promises & kits that will rank as the worst ever seen at the club, including the “Have you been sick down your top?” effort at the turn of the 90’s. Kumar’s smug attitude to the money problems at the club during TV interviews I remember watching irritated me greatly too – nothing worse than a chairman who carries the air of someone who doesn’t care what happens to the club that’s in your blood.
And how the attendances dropped off too in those ramshackle times as managers came and went. Garry Pendrey couldn’t bring back the spirit of Freddie Goodwin having played under him a decade before and Dave Mackay’s management mojo was all but extinguished by the time he had his hand on the tiller. Lou Macari pitched up and won us the Leyland Daf in 91 only to disappear almost as soon as the victory parade bus had switched off its engine.
The point I’m getting to (finally!) is that we really weren’t perceived as an important club to the greater footballing world during that era…and rightly so really. And then, when the Sullivan/Gold/Brady circus rolled into town a couple of years on from John Gayle’s amazing winner at Wembley, there was a sudden perceptible shift in profile. Barry Fry was hired to proclaim that players he had were worth £20m (Jonathan Hunt anyone?) and could sign approximately 50 players for that very sum (Miguel De Souza, Dave Regis, Steve McGavin, I could go on), Karren Brady became the first female chief exec in football and wasted little time in snaring one of the playing staff to be her intended husband and with Sullivan & Gold’s ying-yang partnership, Blues were tabloid fodder once again – the papers had a great story almost every day, guaranteed. And not just the locals. National interest started turning our way more and more despite being nowhere near the Premier League’s riches
At first, such exposure was exciting for us Bluenoses – everyone loves to hear their club being discussed and talked about rather than summarily ignored. But long before the era of David Sullivan’s regular rants on Sky Sports News about this that or the other (swiftly followed within 24 hours by an on-air apology for said outburst by Mr Gold) the novelty wore off for me. The sideshow of firing off at managers & players was becoming more important than the football. We’d gone too far the other way...but then just look how far it’s going now! The darker side of our club’s profile shows no signs of regressing with the latest unfortunate headlines surrounding Carson Yeung’s arrest in the Far East and subsequent charges of money laundering.
Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but when Gold & Brady were charged and cleared of offences relating to transfers a couple of years ago, it still gave those with an axe to grind against Birmingham City plenty to sneer and snoot at. The potential for our owner and major shareholder to go to prison in August whilst we’re trying to kick off our domestic and European campaigns will send the sneer-ometer into overdrive, just at a time where our quality new manager Chris Hughton needs to instil some focus into the playing staff as to the challenges ahead of us this season coming.
I dread the next development in this sorry mess – and I say that as a fan who can honestly say he’s pretty much seen it all from past boardrooms. Just as we’ll never know the truth about Alex McLeish’s departure, Blues fans will probably always be left wondering who was truly in charge in the Yeung era however long it lasts. No amount of calming words from acting chairman Peter Pannu will allay supporters fears that our club is on the brink of something truly catastrophic.
And yet…And yet. I have to try and be positive. Cast off the shadow of debt, deviance and debacle and continue to show my unconditional love for this club who had me hooked one cold February afternoon 37 years ago, when Bovril with extra salt was king and multi-million pound transfers and teams filled with international talent would never have been contemplated. I have to hope that as Chris Hughton welcomes his squad back for pre-season training, he can exert his calm demeanour over a playing staff who must be as disorientated as we are looking from the outside in. It is, as Andy Townsend would say, a tough ask.
“Fit and proper person”? What a phrase that is, Mr Scudamore! That phrase always applies to a supporter who buys his season ticket each and every year and whose support can sometimes be rightly critical but totally unwavering. Does it really apply to a football club's owner these days? Relegation did not taint our first major trophy to my mind-not even our manager’s sudden dramatic defection across the city. But all this current you-couldn’t-make-it-up-financial-investigation-flannel? You can only shake your head and tell yourself it somehow all falls under the dictionary definition of Birmingham City and we’re just going to have to sit there and bloody well stomach it.
Actually, I’m starting to get all teary-eyed and nostalgic for those days of Sullivan rants pitchside at St Andrews 2 hours before a vital league match live on SSN, calling Steve Bruce that, Emile Heskey this and the loyal supporters goodness knows what...What the hell is wrong with me??? I’ll probably be telling the grandkids about them with great pride one day and not want to ever hear a bad word said about the era of Ann Summers, Sunday Sport and private helicopters on a private golf course strategically placed in vision during TV interviews.
Things are that little bit more depressing than usual right now.
Only Birmingham City eh? :o)