There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on currently about the prospect of Birmingham City being relegated from the Skybet Championship, being as they are 2 points above the Bottom 3 as I type this with just 2 games left of a truly astonishing season – astonishing for all the wrong reasons.
But I’m not here to be yet another blogger picking the bones of the disastrous Rowett//TTA/Zola/Redknapp story. Others have written very eloquently on the struggles of the past few months and there’s no need for me to augment them.
My issue is with the claim that it’s ‘all over’ for Blues if Blackburn and/or Wigan manage to overhaul us in the final 180 minutes of football and we do indeed drop into the 3rd tier. This view may well be the viewpoint of a generation of younger Blues fans raised on Premier League stays, short spells back in the Championship and a League Cup triumph – we do seem to have squeezed an awful lot of drama into this millennium already.
Fans of my vintage however are all to aware that the club we love have dallied with what is now League One twice since we went decimal and got colour telly, most recently in the 1994/95 season under Barry Fry, and I have to say that THAT particular season remains one of my most cherished as a Blues fan.
Barry had breezed into St Andrew’s some months earlier as the first managerial appointment of the Sullivan/Gold/Brady era. Terry Cooper was the man at the helm when the new owners took over, but it seemed to me he lacked the charisma that the board was almost deliberately looking for.
Charisma was something not lacking in Barry Fry. Nor bravado for that matter. He arrived from Southend United in December 1993 like a whirlwind, proclaiming that he’d ‘take Blues out of this division’.
(Bear in mind that, after relegation from the old top flight in the mid-80’s, Blues had not returned and had suffered the indignity of a further relegation under the stewardship of Garry Pendrey at the end of the decade – Lou Macari restored some pride to the club and won a trophy with a dramatic 3-2 win over Tranmere at Wembley in the old Leyland Daf Cup - more of that competition in a bit). And before long Blues were back in the old 2nd Div hoping for better days.
Barry’s proclamation rang horribly true when, despite a run of 6 wins in the last 8 games, including victory over the aforementioned Tranmere on the final day, West Brom won at Portsmouth with a screamer from ‘Peggy’ Ashcroft (I remember watching the quality of that strike at Fratton Park on ITV with utter disbelief) to send us down on goal difference.
We’d also lost to non-league Kidderminster Harriers in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup at home that season, and so Fry, despite his ebullient nature and bubbly personality, was under huge pressure going into the 94/95 campaign, especially as the board had been heavily fined for ‘poaching’ him from Roots Hall in the first place.
The club was changing cosmetically beyond recognition too, as construction on the new Tilton Rd/Kop Stands got underway that close season. I was living on St Andrew’s Road at the time, with the Railway End just visible from the window in my room. The new houses that had been built on that estate were symptomatic of an attempt to brighten up a drab area of the city. The Eastern side of Brum has gone under a massive transformation during my lifetime, with Millennium Point, Matthew Boulton College’s new campus, and newly-built student accommodation. St Andrew’s would eventually have a more pleasing look from distance (like from Camp Hill island for example) once the Railway End was rebuilt, but that would have to wait a few years.
As for squad rebuilding, it was a constant theme of Barry Fry’s time at Blues. Players came and went at an alarming rate it seemed. All were given a heavy dose of hype on arrival by Barry. He was particularly fond of collecting strikers; Dave Regis, Miguel de Souza, Ken Charlery, Gary Bull, Siggy Rushfeldt, Steve McGavin…whether it was a loan or permanent, Fry was always searching for that striker partnership that would properly ‘click’. I recall that Rushfeldt’s arrival on loan in October 1995 saw him pitched straight in to a game at Port Vale alongside Steve Claridge having only met his team mates on the bus that morning as they travelled to Vale Park!
These kinds of stories not only made a splash in the local media, but also crucially on a national level. After years of total ambivalence towards Birmingham City, the UK media became increasingly interested in a club run by the men who brought us the Sunday Sport and Ann Summers, a female chief executive (the first of her kind in English football) who subsequently began dating one of the players, and a manager with a voice like a foghorn and a gift for making outlandish and, frankly, barking statements about the club and its players.
He signed Kenny Lowe and proclaimed him ‘the non-league Glenn Hoddle’ (there’s a reason he was the ‘non-league’ version) announced that creative midfielder Jonathan Hunt was worth “20 million quid” after a hat trick against Crewe in November ’94 (that doesn’t sound expensive in today’s terms, but it was in 1994!!) and lambasted Mr Sullivan’s criticism of the team’s stuttering early form that season by saying of his boss “He wouldn’t know a goal line from a clothes line!”
After years of losing more than winning at 2nd tier level, Blues had a win ratio that did entice more lapsed supporters back, intrigued by what this club was morphing into. I remember the whole Danter clan (including my Mum, who I’d never been to a game with before or since!) going to sit in the new Tilton Road end on Boxing Day 1994 to watch the team play Cambridge United - a game to be remembered as the debut of one Ricky Otto, freshly signed for £800,000 from Barry’s old club Southend Utd. Otto proceeded to put in the sort of performance that typified his entire time at the club; scuffing home a scrappy opener to score on debut at the Tilton Road end, before inexplicably heading in an own goal from a corner at the same end in the second half as the game finished 1-1.
Otto wasn’t the only £800k signing that season. Kevin Francis also arrived for that fee in early 1995 from Stockport County. A 6-ft 7-inch Brummie who’d played for local side Mile Oak Rovers in his early days, he was taken to home fans hearts with his ‘run through a brick wall’ approach and the sheer havoc that his height caused in opposition penalty areas. He wasn’t a ‘goal a game’ merchant by any means, but his mere presence helped others fill their boots.
I couldn’t get to many Saturday games in that time due to my work at the Musical Exchanges guitar shop in the city centre. And so, the best way to follow the action via an earpiece as I served customers was with Xtra-AM radio on 1152AM with Ian Crocker and Tom Ross providing passionate, partisan and utterly gripping commentary throughout the campaign.
As 1994 became 1995, the club really started racking up the games, with progress in the Auto Windscreen Shield, getting to the 3rd round of the FA Cup, and hitting top spot for the first time that season on New Years Eve with a 7-1 demolition of Blackpool that must’ve been amazing to attend. Messrs Crocker and Ross did make you feel like you were there watching Blues that season, particularly on the away trips to places like Stockport in Nov ’94, where Jonathan Hunt scored a beauty for a 1-0 win, or Bristol Rovers in Mar ’95, when Crock screamed ‘Claridge to the rescue’ as our scruffy striker bagged an equaliser beyond stoppage time to keep us in touch towards the top of the table.
I got to go to some pretty significant matches that season all the same. After a 0-0 draw with the mighty Liverpool in the FA Cup 3rd round tie at home, me and my mates Gray & Dave got tickets to the replay at Anfield as part of the 8000-strong following we took up there. One of the best away atmospheres I can ever remember; berating the on pitch Liverpudlian comic during half-time for quipping that, at 1-0 down, it “won’t get much better for you Blue boys” – he got a swift rebuke of “One Jasper Carrott, there’s only one Jasper Carrott…” from the massed ranks of the Anfield Road end; the unbridled joy that accompanied Ricky Otto’s thumping equaliser right in front of us; and the exuberant “Calm down, calm down!” we teased the Kop with as a late Liverpool goal was ruled out for offside. We cocked up the penalty shootout, mind – not one spot kick scored, and we were out. We even had a player called Gary Cooper who couldn’t shoot that night. (Think about it)
By the beginning of April 1995, things were getting very interesting indeed. We were 3rd in the table, but due to our exploits in reaching the Auto Windscreens Final, we had games in hand but barely any time to fit the games into the rest of the campaign. Come the day of the Wembley final against Carlisle on the 23rd we were in the midst of playing every 3 or 4 days to fit in the 9 games we had to fulfil that month. 50,000 of us filled over half of the national stadium on that Sunday to see a fairly drab game settled by the first ever ‘golden goal’ scored by Paul Tait in extra time for a 1-0 win a first trophy for the club since that day with John Gayle's overhead kick a few years before (there's always the Atari Soccer Six win in the early 80’s too) and the first ever fine that I can remember being imposed on a footballer for taking off his shirt when scoring – not that said rule was specifically in place in 1995…it’s more to do with what was written on said t-shirt. Say no more.
There was barely any time to celebrate the Wembley win, however, as 3 days later we were to host our chief title rivals Brentford at St Andrew’s. As joyous as the atmosphere was at Wembley when we lifted the Cup, I have to say the night game against the Bees rivalled it for intensity and a sense of occasion. The stadium was properly sold out for the first time since the completion of the 2 new stands and after a goalless 1st half, the 2nd period saw us kicking towards the Tilton and before long, Jonathan Hunt’s corner dropped for Kevin Francis with his back to goal, and he swivelled and fired Blues in front, badly injuring his suspect knee in so doing.
I hadn’t heard a roar like that from a home crowd since the early 80’s days of Frank Worthington and Archie Gemmill. Captain Liam Daish powered home a header for number 2 from another Hunt corner to yet more ear-splitting ecstasy, and even a serious injury to Daish’s centre-half partner Dave Barnett late on couldn’t dampen the spirits – the title was surely ours to claim.
Only it wasn’t – quite. We then drew a 3-3 thriller down at Brighton before another 25k crowd came to Blues to see a frustrating 0-0 draw with Bradford. Steve Claridge looked to have been scythed down right at the end for a certain penalty which wasn’t given, and the P.A. announcer had to put his copy of ‘We Are the Champions’ back in his bag. We had to win at Huddersfield on the last day to keep Brentford at bay to win the title.
I probably wasn’t the most attentive of guitar staff at Exchanges on that final day – the lads got the job done by winning 2-1 in South Yorkshire, and we were back in the 2nd tier at the first attempt. I can remember nearly dropping an expensive guitar that I was handing to a customer when Ian Crocker screamed in my earpiece that Claridge had fired us in front.
The whole 94/95 campaign was a hoot – top scorers, a league and cup double and a huge swell of pride returning to fans who’d become so used to misery or, worse still, mediocrity. Unfortunately for Bazza, the mediocre season that followed with a 15th placed finish in 95/96 was his last in charge, as the owners decided to change things up a notch by hiring Trevor Francis instead. But Blues fans were re-energised, happy and proud for the first time in many many years.
Blues fans still love Barry 20 years on – I last spoke to him at a wedding a year or so ago and his love of the Blues was still richly evident, not to mention his friendship with David Gold, the man who sacked him. Players he managed told me how he’d come out to training back in the day wearing his ill-fitting training top & shorts replete with a flat cap, cup of tea and a Sporting Life tucked under one arm and proceed to shout at his squad with specific coaching ideals and techniques a tad lacking. “F***ing run!!” was the usual phrase, I was told. I guess he left the finer details to Ed Stein and David Howell, but you could never accuse a Barry Fry-led Blues side of not putting in 100% effort.
So if Blues DO indeed go down this season, then all is not necessarily lost. League One can be fun if you let it. That said, we’ll never see Barry Fry’s like again down our way. No other manager would have installed crucifixes on floodlights, had an exorcist visit the ground and (on advice from an ‘expert’) relieved himself in all 4 corners of the ground to rid us of the famed ‘Gypsy’s Curse’!! Imagine any other current manager doing that?
I can’t ☺