As pleasing as Birmingham’s victory over Portsmouth in the league was, fans and the club will know Portsmouth are the real winners in this mini-series of games. A trip to Wembley would have been a fantastic achievement for Birmingham and although Portsmouth’s desperate situation constitutes they probably need the boost more, City would have been better equipped to take advantage of the semi-final opportunity and to build upon potential success.
For now, the disappointment of getting knocked out of the FA Cup will be raw in the hearts of fans but there is still plenty of optimism surrounding the Midlands club. However, the words of boss Alex McLeish, although realistic, may not instil massive amounts of optimism and confidence in the fans: “I don’t think seventh place is realistic.” Seventh place is theoretically a possible Europa League place this season, providing FA Cup results pan out in a certain way. Some fans will have harboured hopes of gaining European football after such a fluid run of results but McLeish’s recognition that those around Birmingham will not slip up is an indictment of the perhaps false hope held by a minority of supporters.
As we have seen so often, building a football club capable of challenging for bigger and better things should be a natural process and not one that is forced too quickly. So far, Birmingham have done things correctly – they have been frugal in the inflated transfer market and the boss has done his best to temper rising expectations. Barring a poor management error from owner Carson Yeung with his declaration of available funds, Birmingham have become a steady ship that, forgive the metaphor, are sailing towards a brighter future.
After the promise the unbeaten run earlier on in the current campaign brought, Saturday sees them face Everton, the club that are closest to them in the table. The result of this game will serve as a good indication of how much Birmingham have progressed this season. After beating the Toffees in the FA Cup, both sides have seen their fortunes vary – Everton have found form whilst Birmingham have began to lose games with frequency. Whilst Birmingham are in danger of slipping in to late season tedium, a game like this could be the perfect antidote for a club looking to justify their league position. McLeish’s admission that Birmingham are not going to reach seventh reveals that he does not yet have European ambitions for Blues and merely wants to give the club a level of stability for the years to come.
But, this is not the real agenda of McLeish. He knows that a coy exterior will perpetuate realism throughout the club – in clubs that are experiencing success, fans generally agree with the message the manager gets across and by saying that Europe is not within grasp this season – but that the summer will see a hive of transfer activity – fans will rightly concur with Alex. He recognises that strikers are of paramount importance: “In forward areas we need to add to the quality – and these areas are not cheap. You don’t get cheap players coming in there.” These comments will resonate with fans that have acknowledged the lack of quality up front this season. Cameron Jerome’s two goals against Portsmouth should not disguise a distinct lack of comparable quality with other European hopefuls.
With Everton and Birmingham, there are several similarities. Both have good defences, astute Scottish managers, a strong fan base and both harbour European ambitions for next season. However, the real difference between the two is clear – Birmingham lack the same class and do not exude as much confidence when going forward. With players like Mikel Arteta, Louis Saha and Tim Cahill, Everton are never going to be short of options going forward. Birmingham on the other hand, struggle to maintain fluidity in attack and could so easily have kept their European run up had they had one of the aforementioned three players at their disposal.
That is what this game, and this summer is all about for Birmingham. Fixtures such as this will give McLeish an indication as to the necessary improvements he has to make to his team in order for them to compete against the likes of Everton. Should he make the right decisions and choices, McLeish’s men may well be competing with the Toffees next season for domestic and European joy.
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