Hughton gives his regrouped Blues stability
Birmingham 3 Watford 0: Manager steers Birmingham into play-off places despite club's financial uncertainty
Monday 23 January 2012
No one is for sale, but everyone is available for sale. Not a pearl of Confucian wisdom, but the subtle distinction made by Birmingham City's vice-chairman, Peter Pannu, which encapsulates the constraints under which Chris Hughton has worked the near-miracle of guiding the relegated Carling Cup holders into the Championship play-off zone for the first time this season.
Pannu is the public face of the consortium led by Carson Yeung which bought control of Birmingham 17 months before Obafemi Martins' late winner broke Arsenal at Wembley last February. After the numbing fall from the Premier League, and the manager Alex McLeish's defection to Aston Villa, he was instrumental in the appointment of Hughton when others within the hierarchy favoured Gianfranco Zola or Roberto Di Matteo.
It has proved a judicious choice. On Saturday, the former Newcastle manager steered a revamped Birmingham side into the top six by virtue of of beating Watford 3-0. As if Hughton, 53, needed any more boardroom shenanigans after his bizarre sacking by Mike Ashley on Tyneside, the progress has come against a backdrop of financial uncertainty created by Yeung's arrest on money-laundering charges. The club president, who has a 26.3 per cent shareholding and brought in myriad small investors, is not allowed to leave Hong Kong, where his assets remain frozen.
In the wrong hands, Birmingham could easily have become a basket case; another Portsmouth or Plymouth. But the calm, undemonstrative Hughton – think Barry Fry, one of his predecessors at Small Heath, and imagine the polar opposite – has constructed an impressively cohesive team from a mixture of survivors from last summer's fire sale, Bosman signings and academy graduates.
A 14-point haul from six games during an unbeaten start to the new year, which has also seen them win at Wolves in the FA Cup, reflects well on Hughton's training-ground prowess. With his No2 and fellow ex-Tottenham stalwart, Colin Calderwood, and coach, Paul Trollope, he has built from the base of a well-drilled defence.
Watford's manager, Sean Dyche, remarked after their capitulation to two headed goals by centre-back Curtis Davies and a solo effort by the outstanding winger Chris Burke that Birmingham possessed "a big squad". Their pockets of Premier League quality, he added, were "what extra finance brings". He was wrong on the first count; of the 25 players with squad numbers, five are untested teenagers and three goalkeepers. Hughton does, it's true, have players with top-flight pedigree and wages, such as Davies and Nikola Zigic. However, as Pannu intimated, any or all could depart if the price was right.
"Most of the big earners have gone," Hughton said. "The players here work very hard. They like each other. [Unity] is also promoted by winning games. There's no doubt that spirit is always more evident when you're winning. Our Europa League campaign helped because it allowed players in the squad to get games. People such as [Keith] Fahey, [Jonathan] Spector and [David] Murphy, are playing more than they have for a long time. That's helped the feel of the group.
"It also means that whenever we've needed to or wanted to make changes, you feel the lads you bring in are in good enough condition. The only fear is that you pick up injuries. Until now we've been quite fortunate in that respect."
Hughton hopes to add a striker, although Birmingham's circumstances dictate it will be a loan signing. He may also, of course, lose personnel before the transfer window closes. Davies, for instance, is rediscovering the form that persuaded Martin O'Neill to lavish £10m of Villa's money on him, defending resolutely as well as scoring four goals in five matches.
Clutching the man-of-the-match champagne, Davies was asked whether he was Birmingham's next saleable asset. "As a striker," he replied, grinning, before explaining his frustration at missing a hat-trick. "I was hoping there would be a penalty so I could wrestle Zigic for the ball. I'd have asked the question and just hoped I wouldn't have had to fight the big man."
Birmingham's prospects, said Davies, were finally coming into focus. "All season it's been an unrealistic table. We've always been two or three games behind, saying if we won those we'd be in the play-off places. Now we're there and still have a game in hand that could push us on a couple more places. Of the top six before today, we've played five away from home. We can affect every team that has to come here. A lot can happen in 20 games, especially in this crazy league. We haven't written off automatic promotion."
Hughton, by arguing that West Ham and Southampton have "great momentum" and are "the best sides in the division", shrewdly kept the pressure off Birmingham. How long, though, before Pannu, in Yeung's absence, has to fend off interest in their manager?
Birmingham: MYHILL; SPECTOR; DAVIES; CALDWELL; MURPHY; BURKE; MUTCH; FAHEY; BEAUSEJOUR; KING; ZIGIC
Watford: LOACH; DICKINSON; MARIAPPA; NOSWORTHY; HODSON; HOGG; YEATES; BUABEN; EUSTACE; DEENEY; SORDELL
Scorers: Birmingham City Davies 35, 60, Burke 81.
Substitutes: Birmingham Rooney (King, 51), Elliott (Zigic, 83) Redmond (Beausejour, 84). Watford Iwelumo (Buaben, 71), Jenkins, (Hogg 84).
Booked: Birmingham Zigic. Watford Dickinson.
Man of the match Burke. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Birmingham 55% Watford 45%.
Attempts on target: Birmingham 8 Watford 1.
Referee T Kettle (Berkshire).
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