At the end of a week when he has been hung, drawn and quoted, Steve Bruce showed Birmingham City's relegation rivals yesterday that he is far from cowed by the crisis. After urging his depleted, defeated team to "come out fighting" at Manchester United tomorrow, he astonishingly turned his fire on David Sullivan, the club's co-owner.
Sullivan, in a tirade that must have had Bryan Robson and Harry Redknapp rubbing their hands at West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth, had questioned the attitude of certain Birmingham players after the 7-0 FA Cup capitulation to Liverpool. He expected better from players earning £30,000 a week. Bruce made clear his disdain for the remarks, not least at the way he felt they conflated character and cash. "I'm disappointed by the owner's criticism of the players," the Birmingham manager said. "I don't think they should be aired in public. We can respect what he says and he is entitled to his opinion. But character doesn't come down to money, as has been suggested in a few articles. Money, pensions, etc - let me tell you, it means nothing.
"If you've got any pride, whether you're playing for two bob or for 30 grand a week, you don't want to get beat by seven at home. You've got to accept criticism when you lose like that, but it disappoints me when the issue is angled towards money," Bruce said.
Sullivan, of course, was questioning whether some of Bruce's squad did have the requisite pride. Commitment, fight, bottle: call it what you will, Birmingham will certainly need it, and more quality and organisation than they have mustered all season, if Old Trafford is not to prove another chastening experience.
They lie 18th in the Premiership, leading Portsmouth on goal difference and trailing Albion by three points. History, as well as form, injuries and arguably the toughest run-in, may militate against their improving that position. Three visits to Bruce's former club since they gained promotion in 2002 have produced three defeats and no goals, leaving Birmingham without a win over Manchester United in 18 attempts.
"When you've been stuffed like we were by Liverpool, what do you do?" asked Bruce, in rhetorical mode. "Raise the white flag and surrender? Or come out fighting? I hope the players feel like I do and I'm sure they will. A heavy defeat can be the ultimate kick up the backside. Old Trafford is the most daunting place of all, but what a stage to do it."
Barring a freakishly poor run by Aston Villa or Middlesbrough, it appears certain that the two clubs accompanying Sunderland into the Championship will come from the Midlands duo and Portsmouth. In the latest round of matches they each face a club vying for a place in the Champions' League.
To the undoubted relief of Bruce and Robson, Pompey have an arduous task this evening at home to Arsenal, whom they have not beaten since 1958. The "belief" which Redknapp says his players now possess looks sure to be tested by Arsène Wenger's side, with the Portsmouth manager hoping against hope that they can contain the threat of the France striker Thierry Henry.
"If Ronaldinho at Barcelona and Henry were both available to me, I'd take Henry," Redknapp said yesterday. "Arsenal can't afford to let him go. He's got everything and he plays for a team that can kill you with one pass, which he invariably gets on the end of. Normally it's a joy to watch him."
These are anything but normal times, however, especially for Portsmouth. A last-minute win over Manchester City and a 4-2 success over a weakened West Ham have replaced despair with optimism.
"Things are starting to fall into place," Redknapp said. "We played well for a couple of months without getting the breaks we're getting now."
Relegated with Southampton last May, the former West Ham manager insists he did not lose hope as his return to Fratton Park initially failed to spark a revival. "If you stop believing, everyone stops believing," he said.
"We have closed the gap when it looked like a two-horse race. Suddenly we're back in it. We've had a hard sequence of games, but if you look at our fixtures between now and the end of the season, they are all winnable."
Albion, whose run-in appears almost as forbidding as Birmingham's, go to Tottenham on Monday night, the memory of a 2-0 win over Spurs in December doubtless fresh in their minds. To Robson, who has lost his back-up goalkeeper Chris Kirkland with a broken finger, the way Martin Jol's side are set up offers an opportunity his faltering team must seize.
"Spurs are a good footballing outfit and they allow you to play," the Albion manager said yesterday. "Our games with them have all been close and we've proved we can match them.
"People are talking about our run-in and how hard it is. But it isn't dissimilar to last year. We had five away games then, including Spurs, and lost only one. We need to go on that sort of run again by making it difficult for teams to beat us."
Bruce encapsulated what the coming weeks are all about to all three clubs. Intended as a rallying call for his own beleaguered troops, his words could equally be used by Redknapp or Robson to fire up their men for the battle ahead.
"We all want to play in the Premiership. Nobody wants to go into the Championship. No one wants relegation on his CV, whether it's the player, manager, coach or owner."