Dour Fry deflated by loss of youth

Phil Shaw finds the Birmingham manager wondering if his club are big fish or small fry in the wake of a drawn FA Cup tie
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Before Christmas, amid the euphoria of a Coca-Cola Cup triumph over Middlesbrough, one of Barry Fry's aides talked of Birmingham becoming "the Newcastle of the Midlands". After a full-blooded 1-1 derby at St Andrews, Fry reflected that they were perhaps not as big a club as they imagined.

There were no losers on the pitch, yet the Birmingham manager had the look of one afterwards. It was not the prospect of a replay at Molineux that was eating Fry; rather the latest downturn in his mercurial relationship with the club's co-owner, David Sullivan, and his right-hand woman, Karren Brady. In his eyes, they were guilty of failing to play fair by the fans and of false economy.

Broaching the subject by expressing disappointment with the size of the crowd - barely 21,000 - Fry noted that the sides' postponed First Division fixture on New Year's Day had been a 26,000 sell-out. Not all supporters could attend the rescheduled game, he argued, particularly exiles who stayed with relatives over the holiday.

"They're telling me they've bought 10 tickets and want refunds on six, but can't get them," Fry explained. "Well we've shot ourselves in the foot on that one - sometimes you have to accept that the fans are right. Decisions like that have cost us on the gate. Maybe we're not as big as we thought."

But the demon dug-out dancer's sombre mood had a more serious cause: namely the scrapping of Birmingham's youth development scheme in the wake of the Jean-Marc Bosman verdict. "When I said clubs would panic and abandon their youth schemes after that case," Fry said with ill-disguised sarcasm, "I meant the little clubs."

The directors' fear, according to Fry, is that they may invest a substantial sum in producing a player who was then picked off, without cost, by a rival club. "They reckon it'll save us pounds 250,000 a year and say I can spend that on young lads from Kidderminster and Bromsgrove. I understand what they're saying, but I haven't read the Bosman case that way."

Six centres of excellence, where boys aged nine to 15 work with up to 60 coaches, are to close. Unable to foster what Fry called "good habits" in the next generation, Birmingham would remain "also-rans". Though denying he was doubting his board's ambitions, he added: "They've made a business decision. We made pounds 1.3m profit last year, and it's obvious they want to make a larger profit this time."

Ambition - his own and that of Wolves' owners - were cited by Mark McGhee as major factors in his defection from Leicester last month. Judging by Saturday, when Steve Bull's brilliant opportunist header was just reward for their early composure, the new regime is starting to have a positive impact on style and morale.

McGhee regarded the injury which robbed Wolves of their defensive linchpin, Neil Emblen, as "the turning point". Birmingham's subsequent pressure produced a driven equaliser by Gary Poole, but that merely meant another free midweek lost for Britain's busiest team and could not restore Fry's customary ebullience.

Goals: S Bull (24) 0-1; Poole (72) 1-1.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Poole, Edwards, Daish, Frain; Donowa, Forsyth, Richardson, Hunt (G Bull, 70); Francis (Bowen, 70), Claridge. Substitute not used: Cooper.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (3-4-1-2): Stowell; Richards, Young, Emblen (Rankine, h-t; Foley, 64); Thompson, Osborn, Atkins, Pearce (Ferguson, 62); Williams; S Bull, Goodman.

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

Bookings: Birmingham: Daish, Poole, Donowa. Wolves: Thompson.

Man of the match: Emblen.

Attendance: 21,349.