Football: Good sport on a learning curve: Simon O'Hagan hears how Karren Brady, Birmingham City's managing director, is fighting the flak

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The Independent Online
PUT A woman in a man's world, or more to the point, put her in charge in a man's world and before long there will be a few ruffled feathers. It happened to Karren Brady, managing director of Birmingham City, last week when Notts County, the oldest football club in the world, took an appropriately outdated view of her presence in their boardroom.

Brady understandably objected to being told she was lucky to be allowed into this hitherto male preserve, and walked out. She admits that boardrooms aren't really her scene, and certainly a wet Tuesday night at Meadow Lane must have seemed tame coming only 48 hours after she had been backstage at the National Exhibition Centre to meet UB40.

But that's only partly because she's a woman. It's also her age - a mere 24, astonishingly young for someone in her position. She was conscious enough of this when she took over the job last March to let it be known that she was then 25, 'because it sounded better'. In fact she was only 23.

Brady's background caused a few raised eyebrows at St Andrews, brought in as she was by the club's new owner, the millionaire publisher David Sullivan. As the man who had made his money out of the Sport newspapers, with their combination of the salacious and the bizarre, Sullivan was seen as a caricature of the wide-boy football chairman, with some extra seediness thrown in. And as his protegee - she was the Sport's marketing director before coming to Birmingham - Brady found people quick to make assumptions about her. 'But I've had that since I was 19,' she says, 'so I don't even think about it.' It's less of a problem at Birmingham than at other clubs. At Southend earlier this month, a fixture spiced by the return of Barry Fry, Birmingham's new manager, to his old club, the home crowd hurled abuse at her, calling her a whore. 'It's not very pleasant,' Brady says, 'but you just have to ignore it.'

Brady is the daughter of a wealthy London printer who brought her up an Arsenal supporter. She is glamorous all right, and in her mini-skirt and black leggings stands out among the men in suits, both of the track and two-piece variety, who occupy the offices nearby. Not that Brady is alone in hers. She has for company a mongrel puppy she acquired from the Birmingham Dogs' Home. And when you talk to her about her other rescue act - helping take on a club that was pounds 1m in debt - it quickly becomes apparent that she's no more a bimbo than she is the opposite extreme of female stereotype, the Power-Dressed Executive for whom the boardroom is the only home.

Brady's style is warm and open and straightforward, the reason for her success, she says, being nothing more than her willingness to work 12-hour days. And she wants to do it for Sullivan, who has given her two big breaks and to whom she feels she owes a lot. Brady's career is taking off in other directions, too. She's discussing doing a series of television interviews with footballers, and is appearing in BBC2's new Football Fantasy League, which started its run on Friday night.

As for Birmingham City's fortunes - off the field at any rate - the past year has seen a huge improvement. The debt has been reduced to about pounds 200,000 ('I hate being in the red,' Brady says), thanks a good deal to the more aggressive approach she has brought to acquiring sponsorship and doing deals. On the field is a different matter. The club had a disastrous run earlier in the season, culminating in the departure of Terry Cooper as manager, and although they found what looked like an inspired replacement in Fry, the results, including last week's FA Cup third-round defeat at home by non-League Kidderminster Harriers, have not yet started to happen. 'That's the frustrating thing about this job,' Brady says. 'I can do all I can from a financial point of view, but the football itself might still not be successful.'

Fry thinks the world of Brady. 'When I first read about her coming to Birmingham I thought it was a publicity stunt,' he says. 'But when I met her I was immediately impressed by her commitment and enthusiasm. She can't do enough for the players. We have the best coach, we stay in the best hotels, she's just spent pounds 65,000 on a new gym. It's all done to take the pressure off the players. She's obviously got a very good business brain, and she's amazingly mature for one so young. And the great thing from my point of view is she's very supportive of the playing side, but doesn't interfere.'

Brady's policy is clear. 'If you bring someone in you've got to let them get on with the job,' she says. 'My only job is to help Barry get the players he wants at the best possible price.' Brady has allowed Fry to spend pounds 1.5m in his first month in charge. 'When you spend that much, you expect to be there or thereabouts,' Brady says, in a way that's more rueful than threatening.

But football itself is probably not Brady's strongest suit. This is the woman who Ron Atkinson, the Aston Villa manager, famously took for a ride after she had asked him whether Dalian Atkinson, Villa's black striker, was his son. The gaffe has become a running joke in Midlands football circles, and Brady is the first to see why.

'The next thing was Doug Ellis (the Villa chairman) had a dinner for his 70th birthday,' Brady says. 'There was a programme which was like a photograph album of the life and times of Doug Ellis. There was a picture in it of Doug giving me a cuddle, and underneath it had him saying, 'Oh, you must be Liam's daughter.' People like that because it allows them to say, 'Here's this little woman who doesn't know anything about football.' But I don't mind. I thought it was funny myself. You make a rod for your own back if you stand up and say you know everything. I don't pretend to be an expert, though I know a lot more now than when I started.' Would that the same could be said of Notts County.

(Photograph omitted)