It’s been all change at Birmingham City in the last few days. Speculation over Aitor Karanka’s future took off over the weekend and, in time for Reading’s trip to the West Midlands, the Blues have appointed Lee Bowyer in his place. There had even been brief speculation that former Royals boss Mark Bowen would be the man moving into the St Andrews’ dugout.
Perhaps it’s best he didn’t. Birmingham City are in a perilous situation: 21st in the Championship after three wins, four draws and 12 losses in the last 19 matches since they beat us in December, and just three points ahead of 22nd-placed Rotherham United. The Millers however have three games in hand.
How have things got so bad and will they get any better? We posed those questions - and a few more - to Gabriel Sutton: a Birmingham City fan and one of the most knowledgeable people on the entire English Football League you’ll find. So, naturally, we wanted his take on the Royals too, as you’ll see below.
Since we last spoke, Birmingham City have won just three times and dropped from midtable to 21st. What’s gone wrong?
Goodness, who’d be bad enough to lose to us?!
Joking aside, it’s been a toxic mix of problems. Aitor Karanka performed poorly in his role as I’ll come onto, Xuandong Ren on the board have taken a lot of criticism as well and the players haven’t done themselves justice either.
At time of writing Aitor Karanka is set to lose his job as manager. Why didn’t it work out for him?
When Karanka was appointed, I was quite excited because of his track record of organising teams – his 2015-16 Boro side conceded fewer goals than any side at this level since West Brom in 2001-02.
Given the rate at which we’d been conceding goals after the restart in 2019-20, I would have settled for us being a solid, efficient team this year that doesn’t make mistakes and finishes in midtable.
The style of football is part of my gripe with Karanka: we’ve played the fourth-most long balls in the division, yet it’s 5’11” Scott Hogan who he’s chosen to lead the line rather than target man Lukas Jutkiewicz.
Again, I could forgive some of that if we were hard to beat and keeping lots of clean sheets, but we’re not – in fact, just two sides have recorded fewer shut-outs – so it’s been a poor showing all-round.
Lee Bowyer is the man to replace him. What do you make of that appointment?
Bowyer took over at Charlton for the back-end of their 2017/18 campaign and, at a time when lots of their fans were feeling quite apathetic about the club due to ownership issues, he revitalised the place. He had a natural affinity with the Addicks due to his roots but he was part of our 2010/11 League Cup winning side which, though not everything, is not nothing either: he’s someone our fans will get behind.
Bowyer is something of an unlikely manager: he was set for a life of fishing in France before getting the call from Karl Robinson to work at the Valley, then ultimately replacing him, but he’s shown some potential in getting the Londoners promoted in 2018/19.
Even last season, I thought Charlton tended to be good without the ball: they pressed well in the first half of their games, then put bodies on the line in the second halves. Had Conor Gallagher stayed for a full season, or had Lyle Taylor not refused to play in the run-in, Bowyer’s side might just have had enough pieces of quality with the ball to beat the drop.
Blues, I think, have a touch more individual quality than that Charlton squad, so maybe he can keep us up.
Who are the main danger men Reading should look out for in this Birmingham side?
Maxime Colin I think has the ability to be a top six Championship right-back. He’s a very intelligent player who can make some good overlapping runs, like he did for Hogan’s winner at Middlesbrough a few weeks ago.
I’d be inclined to look out for Colin’s right-sided partnership with Ivan Sanchez, who is left-footed and is more than capable of cutting inside to do damage. Sanchez has got technical quality and is not afraid to be a bit nasty now and again.
In short: our right-side is a potential strength, so I’m glad you’ve not got a left-back who is improving season on season and now set for a move to one of Europe’s elite clubs.
How do you see our season going?
I’m expecting the current top six to stay as it is and would be surprised if Bournemouth, Cardiff or Middlesbrough broke in at your expense. Equally, I think one of Watford or Brentford will join Norwich in the top two and I’m not quite sure you’ve got enough to challenge for automatic promotion, but this has been an excellent season nonetheless.
I’d argue you’ve got your best team for nearly a decade, because I think this side would beat Jaap Stam’s class of 2016-17 – feel free to argue with me on that. That is some statement, because a lot of eyebrows were raised when you appointed Veljko Paunovic but credit where it’s due, he’s done a smashing job.
You seem to have a mix of organisational nous, physicality, running power, youthful exuberance, skill and quality which stands you in great stead for the future.
How will the rest of Blues’ campaign play out?
I think there’s a bit of apathy at the club to be honest, because this regime keeps making mistakes. Whenever we do badly, we change the manager, give the new boss the licence to bring in his own players, then they go, then the new boss is left with players he doesn’t necessarily want, then he brings in his own players and so on…
After five years of that since Gary Rowett was dismissed in 2016, we’ve been looking over our shoulders and though we’ve done enough to stave off the drop each time, it’s not really exciting us or giving us hope for the future.
Of course, I hope we stay up, but us doing so because we have a budget that dwarfs that of Wycombe and Rotherham and because Sheffield Wednesday are a basket-case wouldn’t fill me with pride.
We could stay up, but that won’t change the fundamental issues at this club.
How will the game go on Wednesday, and what will the score be?
For this specific game, Bowyer will probably get a reaction out of his players. We might force your lot back a bit in the first half, the tenacious Ivan Sunjic will do a job on Olise initially and we’ll go ahead through Hogan. You lot will probably bring on Meite to offer an alternative physical presence, we’ll drop back, Olise may get a bit more space in the second half and I reckon Joao will equalise. An optimistic 1-1.