Simon Hart: Gary Rowett's making a success of 'the impossible job' at Birmingham


Click to follow

“The impossible job” is how Gary Rowett heard it described – and with good reason. Just two days before his appointment as manager on 27 October, Birmingham City lost 8-0 at home to Bournemouth. They sat second bottom of the Championship, with one win in 27 home league matches.

Factor in continuing off-field turmoil – the Football League has sought clarification over the role of jailed former owner Carson Yeung, as a boardroom battle goes on within the club’s parent company – and it might have been understandable had Rowett shared such misgivings.

Yet happily for the Blues fans who will fill St Andrew’s for the first time since May 2012 for tomorrow’s FA Cup fourth-round derby with West Bromwich Albion, Rowett did not see it that way. “You always look at the teams you played for and dream about these opportunities,” Rowett, a Birmingham player from 1998 to 2000, tells The Independent.

“People labelled it the impossible job but the thought of going back and managing in front of that crowd and seeing if we could turn things around was too big to turn down.”

It is a measure of Rowett’s transformative powers that a side that won two of their first 14 league games have won seven and lost just two of 12 since his arrival.

“I just said to them, ‘I am not bothered about what’s happened before, you will be judged on what you do from this point’,” says the 40-year-old. “Because they were at rock bottom, they all embraced the chance of a fresh start.”

Rowett brought with him from Burton Albion his back-room staff of Kevin Summerfield, Mark Sale and Kevin Poole – all ex-Birmingham players. He also brought a sense of calm, contrasting with his more emotional predecessor Lee Clark.

And his first priority, he explains, was to “create an environment where the players want to come in and enjoy their football. One of the big things I said was, ‘I want you to drive into training busting a gut to get started’.”

To tighten team spirit, Rowett – a keen reader of psychology books – has banned mobile phones from the training ground, just as he did at Burton. He has also tweaked the playing style. “The team played a pressing style and sometimes struggled to see out the last 20 minutes.” They have “locked up the middle of the pitch a bit more” and work on “counter- attacking in certain areas”.

The result is a revitalised squad: while he has signed two players – centre-back Michael Morrison and, this week, winger Lloyd Dyer – those he inherited are thriving, including leading scorer Clayton Donaldson and Demerai Gray, the 18-year-old home-grown winger, who was this week named Football League young player of the month.

Birmingham have rejected two bids from Bournemouth for Gray, praised by Rowett for remaining “level-headed” in the face of mounting Premier League interest.

Rowett’s consistency of selection meant that, prior to the 3-2 FA Cup third-round win at non-league Blyth Spartans, he had “only played 13 players in the starting line-up”. His wholesale changes that day nearly backfired when Blyth took a 2-0 half-time lead and he promises “we won’t be making another 10 changes” against West Brom at a sold-out St Andrew’s.

“Everybody has embraced the tie far more than I thought they would,” says Rowett. “I wanted to try to see if I could soak up the passion I saw as a player here in the crowd,” he adds, and that passion is stirring once more.

Rowett reached the Championship play-offs twice as a Blues player – and did the same as Burton manager in League Two in the last two campaigns. Now he has Birmingham looking upwards once more.