Football: Fry feels the heat in Southend saga: Birmingham get the blues

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Southend United. . .3

Birmingham City. . .1

FROM heart-attacks to whores, every conceivable - and inconceivable - insult was flung at the Birmingham contingent on New Year's Day, traditionally a haven for constructive resolutions.

For the visit of City, whom Southend accuse of poaching Barry Fry and his inspirational management team last month, Roots Hall became, in the neat phrase of Port Vale's John Rudge, a 'temple of turmoil'. Here was an afternoon of 'Judas' baiting when the limits of a man's loyalty in modern football's monied world were debated at length, in private conversations and very public recitations.

Allegiance versus ambition is an age-old issue, but the increase in financial rewards and the presence of lawyers to facilitate escaping contracts has exacerbated a long-standing dilemma. In the Southend saga, the distance between disciples and luminaries has been thrown into the sharpest of relief.

The Roots Hall abuse was not directed only at Fry, who chose to desert Essex because of Birmingham's greater potential. Karren Brady, St Andrews' high-profile managing director, was also treated to some sick songs - enough to put any woman off attending a match.

However unacceptable the shape of the anger, its source was, to an extent, understandable. The inherent heated nature of Fry's return was aggravated by City's players during the kick-in, the whole team crossing the half-way line to warm up briefly in front of the incensed home fans - an unnecessary provocation.

But Fry's legacy should not be forgotten. After leaving Barnet where only a tout dared question his loyalty, Fry transformed Southend, staving off relegation and creating an elegant XI who look good enough to contest promotion. Fry, who has backed them at 66-1, said: 'In eight months I turned the club around.' His exit provoked fears that Southend would slip back into obscurity but the studious Peter Taylor should ensure against that.

Fry's assertion that he left because he wanted to awake a 'sleeping giant' was perceived as a further insult. Fry's decision was debated in depth in an official, unattributed programme comment. 'The concept of Birmingham City Football Club as a 'giant' of any kind, sleeping or awake, is an interesting one. Presumably Mr Fry was speaking figuratively when he applied that description - as opposed to implying that the team's players are extremely tall and drowsy. According to the shorter Oxford English Dictionary the figurative meaning of 'giant' is an agency of enormous power.' The programme then cheekily listed the giants' modest achievements - chiefly a League Cup success in 1963.

If Fry can see the potential on the terraces, there is little of obvious future promise on the field. Apart from the exceptional goalkeeper, Ian Bennett, who prevented a complete rout, and the lively Canadian attacker, Paul Peschisolido, Birmingham are simply ordinary. In the toughest of the four divisions, City will do well to secure mid-table status unless Fry brings in quality reinforcements quickly.

After deservedly losing Andy Saville for elbowing in the 20th minute, Birmingham struggled. Southend, stimulated by the elusive Ricky Otto, dominated, accumulating goals through Keith Jones' shot, Jason Lee's header and Jonathan Hunt's drive before sloppily conceding a late consolation to Peschisolido. A miserable start to the new year for Fry. 'Roll On, 1995,' he said. It may take that long.

Goals: K Jones (41) 1-0; Hunt (66) 2-0; Lee (75) 3-0; Peschisolido (88) 3-1.

Southend United (4-4-2): Sansome; Poole, Edwards, Bressington, Powell; Hunt, K Jones, Gridelet (Payne, h/t), Otto; G Jones (Tilson, 68), Lee. Substitute not used: Royce (gk).

Birmingham City (4-3-3): Bennett; Parris, Whyte, Barnett, Dryden; McMinn (Willis, h/t), Lowe, Cooper; Saville, Peschisolido, Wallace (Smith, 63). Substitute not used: Miller (gk).

Referee: P Danson (Leicester).