Martin Hardy: Lee Clark's task gets tougher as Birmingham seek to avoid Portsmouth's fate
Life Beyond the Premier League
On the sidelines at Walker Central Boys Club stood an emerging Newcastle United star. Lee Clark was just beginning to make a name for himself as a player when he first started planning a future for when he wouldn't even be one.
Clark was taking charge of junior teams not long after Walker Central was formed in 1988, such was his desire to coach, to make players better, to see the technical side of the game and to become a manager. The ultimate dream has always been, one day, to manage Newcastle United.
Managing Birmingham City will certainly prepare him for the problems that tumble down from Barrack Road and land on that city's only football club, should that one day be his port of call. Birmingham are not, at present, an easy football club to manage.
There is a new phraseology outside the Premier League these days. "Doing a Portsmouth" is not, as you would probably imagine, a reference to winning the FA Cup as an underdog. It is a hushed acknowledgement to a club in serious financial difficulty, which Birmingham are.
Clark's record as manager at Huddersfield Town, his first job after a 15-year playing career, was excellent. His win ratio over four seasons was nearly 50 per cent. He took the club on an unbeaten league run of 43 games, a new Football League record, and he developed Jordan Rhodes into an £8m forward. He was still asked to leave after doing a very good job, but as Chris Hughton and Nigel Adkins will testify, those decisions happen inside the Premier League, as well as out of it.
When Hughton left Birmingham last summer to take over at Norwich City, Clark was offered the chance to manage in a division he had thought would come with Huddersfield, the Championship. Different club, different problems. City have no money. Jack Butland will play for Birmingham for the rest of the season, but it will be as a Stoke City player following his £4m transfer to the Britannia Stadium. Then he will be gone. Papa Bouba Diop was released three weeks ago from his month-to-month deal. Having no money is not unusual outside of the Premier League. In fact, it is the norm. However, Birmingham's position is beneath the norm. The threat of administration hangs over St Andrews. Birmingham are in a severely precarious financial position, and Lee Clark is managing through such a storm.
"It's a different test," says Clark. "I didn't come in with my eyes closed. I knew there were one or two issues and different things have come up. Much of it is out of your control as a manager.
"I've just got to deal with the players that are here. There have to be substantial amounts slashed off the wage bill before I can consider bringing people in. I'm not a crackpot. I'm not saying I'm enjoying it but it's completely different. If I can come out of it, and build for the future, and we have good young payers coming through, we can go from there. Obviously it's not ideal. You want to keep your best young lads. I was restricted in the summer to the deals I could do. I'm not dealing in the incoming market at all. I see it as a big challenge. One I can get through.
"It's been a tough time. It's a big club. It's an honour to be the manager of the club. I haven't enjoyed the results. I want to turn that around. I'm not used to losing that many games, as a player or as a manager. I look at top managers, and they've had situations where they've had to dig in. I have to do that now."
There have been calls to more experienced managers for advice. Terry McDermott, his number two, has offered support. In a dark spell for Newcastle at the start of the 90s, Clark, Robbie Elliott, Steve Watson and Alan Thompson emerged as young, local players with genuine talent. It could be Birmingham's saving grace.
"I've had to deal with lots but I had seven teenagers playing and they're all doing brilliant," he added. "They've given me a right boost. They can give me the future of the club. I like to work with young, hungry players.
"I was coaching Shola [Ameobi] when I was 18 at Walker Central. It was something I really enjoyed. This is something I've wanted to do for many years. I knew what I wanted to do when I stopped playing. I started getting into the Uefa courses and went from there.
"I enjoy coaching young players and building them up and seeing people like Anthony Pilkington and Jordan Rhodes develop into top-class players. We have to have a positive second half to the season. We have to try and get the club up the league. We're closer to relegation than the play-offs. We have to be realistic. We have to win quickly and move up the table, then we have to make sure nothing silly happens with the football cub. If a takeover does or doesn't happen, we have to make sure what happened at Portsmouth doesn't happen here. I've tried to keep away from the financial parts of it. The chairman made a statement that we needed to sell players. He was determined we wouldn't go into administration. We have to make sure that is the case and we have to be competitive.
"I love working here. The people are brilliant. They're great people at the club. They see when I'm down with the results and they come in positive with me. 99.9 per cent are Birmingham fans behind the scenes. We have to give them something positive."
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