Football: Fry formula can complete Birmingham transformation: Second Division

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THE mess of corrugated iron, weeds and graffiti which has for years masqueraded as the home of Birmingham City will shortly be unrecognisable. Just like the team, Barry Fry's critics might well argue.

Barely a week went by last season without the former Barnet manager wheeler-dealing in a bid to prevent the new, all-seated St Andrews from becoming the best appointed ground in the Second Division. Four teams' worth of players could not stave off relegation, and Fry's Arthur Daley act continues.

Mark Ward, from Everton, and Dave Regis, from Stoke, have arrived, with the soon- to-be Mr Karren Brady, Paul Peschisolido, departing. In one day last week Fry concluded six deals, the upshot of which is that Birmingham probably possess the greatest squad depth in the section.

Fry should certainly be more at home in the lower echelons. If he can hit upon a settled side, built around Ward and upholding his reputation for attacking, Birmingham should enjoy a change of fortune to go with their swish surroundings.

The serious competition is likely to come from Plymouth Argyle, who blew up in the play-offs last time, and Bradford City, now under the management of Lennie Lawrence.

Peter Shilton made a vital signing when he persuaded Peter Swan, Port Vale's rugged centre-back, to come to Devon in a pounds 310,000 deal. Resisting the temptation to swap him for top scorer Steve Castle may prove equally important.

Lawrence, who led both Middlesbrough and Charlton up, knows an improvement of one place will put Bradford in the frame. An outlay of pounds 500,000 on Bristol Rovers' beanpole striker John Taylor, and full-back Richard Liburd, from Boro, shows the board will back his judgement, just as the sacking of Frank Stapleton demonstrates the haste with which they will expect to see it vindicated.

The elevation of Reading and Port Vale, two of the purer footballing outfits, suggests Crewe will not necessarily need to compromise their progressive ideals. Huddersfield, where Neil Warnock is sure to adopt a more pragmatic approach, and Blackpool, reinforced by the prolific Tony Ellis from Preston, will be prepared to sacrifice style for success.

After another play-off calamity, Stockport's chances may hinge on whether Danny Bergara can rekindle the intensity with which they tend to overwhelm opponents. The sale of Andy Preece to Crystal Palace will make the task more difficult.

Wycombe Wanderers, Vauxhall Conference part- timers 18 months ago, favour a more measured approach, though Martin O'Neill must also plan without last year's best player, Steve Guppy having joined Newcastle.

Brighton's spring revival illustrated how much Liam Brady learned during a painful introduction to management at Celtic. They should remain upwardly mobile, but it is harder to be optimistic in the case of Chester, where survival will represent success for Mike Pejic and Kevin Ratcliffe, or about the fate of Hull, Swansea, Rotherham, Cardiff and Shrewsbury.