Football: Brady builds bridge across credibility gap: Birmingham City's controversial new owner has installed a young woman to run the club. Phil Shaw met her

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The Independent Online
WOMEN, Ron Atkinson once decreed memorably, should be in the kitchen, the boutique and the discotheque, but not in football. Karren Brady, the new managing director of Birmingham City, agrees with him.

That did not prevent her feeling patronised by Atkinson's chairman at Aston Villa, Doug Ellis, whom she encountered recently at a sportsmen's dinner. Brady was waiting to be seated at the top table when the man they call Deadly approached with what she took to be a neighbourly smile.

Although her picture has been plastered all over the Midlands media since last month's take-over of bankrupt Birmingham by the soft-porn publishing tycoon, David Sullivan, Ellis apparently did not recognise her. 'He kissed my hand and said, 'Hello, my darling, how are you?' ' she recalled. 'Then he asked me who I worked for.'

When Brady answered 'Birmingham City', Ellis responded with 'Oh, the council?' 'He didn't even know what I looked like,' she said, less angry than amused, 'and yet a few days earlier he was condescending to me for an hour and a half on Sky.'

For Ellis's benefit, a brief resume. Brady is 25, a former convent schoolgirl who gained four A levels before working for Saatchi & Saatchi, LBC and Sullivan's Sport Newspapers, where she rose to a directorship. She also drives a blue Porsche and supports - supported - Arsenal.

Her interest in football survived that, and when Sullivan paid pounds 1.1m for control at Birmingham, an unusually macho club with a history of crowd violence, he installed Brady ('a very bright, mature businesswoman') to head the operation. Many Brummies would have more readily believed that Hitler was a woman, to quote a Daily Sport exclusive, than in the successful rebirth of the Blues.

In little more than four weeks, however, the pounds 736,000 owed to the previous owners has been repaid and pounds 900,000 invested in six new players. Terry Cooper's remodelled team have prised 13 points out of a possible 21 to climb off the foot of the First Division, Sunday's 2-2 draw at leaders Newcastle showing the extent of their improvement. And there are plans to turn St Andrews, a grim monument to neglect, into a 'super stadium'.

'Our fans have been promised so many things without getting them,' Brady said, 'whereas we've come along and done everything we said we'd do.' She is looking for a training ground, instead of the park pitches Birmingham use now, while a despised membership scheme and garish 'dolly-mixture' strip have been scrapped. To the surprise of many, the honeymoon is still in full swing.

'David's controversial because of how he made his money, and when he buys something people tend to adopt a snobby attitude. But when he comes here they come up and thank him. We've also had hundreds of letters. He feels very appreciated, which is probably a new experience for him.'

Sullivan appears on match days, getting assaulted for his trouble when celebrating a goal at Newcastle. Brady, fuelled by copious quantities of Ribena, spends 12 hours a day at the ground, sorting out 'the awful mess' she inherited ('You pick up a contract and go 'Oh no . . . ' ') and generating unprecedented positive publicity for Birmingham.

While she has inevitably been compared to The Manageress of Channel 4 fame, the hands-on approach does not extend to footballing matters. 'That's the one area I don't get involved in, especially buying players. Terry says to me, 'I need pounds 400,000 to buy John Smith from Accrington Stanley', and I say, 'Who's he?' I just make sure he's not spending too much money.'

'I think Ron Atkinson is right - you probably need to be an ex-player to deal with a squad of 18 young men. A woman couldn't do it, though there's absolutely no reason why we shouldn't be involved in the admin side of football.'

But Brady is no mere glorified secretary, unable to make major decisions without a call to Sullivan. 'David has said he trusts me completely,' she said, 'and told me just to get on with it.' She has already shown her ruthless streak by sacking the chief scout and the reserve team coach as economy measures.

As the most highly-placed woman in British football she is very much a symbol; perhaps even a sex-symbol. And sex, in Sullivan's publications, means smut (last week's main headline in Sunday Sport was 'Docs lopped off my 73in whoppers'). Blues and Brady have felt the knock-on effect.

'I've heard all the jokes,' she smiled. 'We're supposed to be having Page 3 Girls in the programme, 0898 numbers on the shirts . . . But seriously, if people think I'm going to use Birmingham City as a vehicle for Sport Newspapers, they're very much mistaken.'

On a personal level she considered that 'the tabloids' - she used the term perjoratively and without irony - have made her out to be 'some bimbo'. More surprisingly, she was also 'embarrassed' to be described in one article as 'a stunner'.

'I don't blame them because they're just looking for an angle, though it's got nothing to do with Birmingham City. Then again, what has Linford Christie's lunchbox got to do with his running ability?'

Journalists have also been inquisitive about her private life. Even the female interviewer who berated her for not being a feminist saw fit to report that she had no current boyfriend.

'It's something you have to live with,' she said, adding with a dash of humour worthy of Big Ron: 'I'm a young, single woman and what I do with my spare time is pretty irrelevant as long as I don't bring the game into disrepute.'

In fact, her aspirations are as reputable as they are unexpected. 'My main ambition is to have a couple of kids within the next five years, though I have to find someone to have them with first. Hopefully I'll be able to bring them to St Andrews to watch Birmingham in the Premier League.'

Sullivan wants to get there as soon as possible and Brady does not expect to fail him. 'David's got the money, and with money you can do anything,' she said.

Along the corridor, behind closed doors, Cooper was talking terms with a prospective recruit to this brave blue world. Your reporter, fishing playfully, asked if it might be Paul McGrath. 'Who's he?' Brady replied, the name of Villa's colossus obviously unfamiliar to her. Touche, Deadly.

(Photograph omitted)

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