Alex McLeish wanted the Birmingham players to view the promised £40m recruitment drive in January as a challenge rather than a threat. Christian Benitez, whose shirt identifies him as "Chucho", responded in style to help scupper Steve Bruce's return with Sunderland.
The Ecuadorean's nickname translates as "street dog", but Benitez's display was that of a striker intent on being top dog by the time McLeish uses Carson Yeung's cash to bolster Birmingham's squad. All that was missing was the goal that has eluded him since his summer arrival from Mexico for a £1.2m fee that could rise to a club-record £7.7m depending on appearances.
While Bruce's trademark equanimity gave way to an acrimonious swipe at Karren Brady, Birmingham's managing director during his six years at St Andrew's, McLeish savoured Benitez's live-wire performance and the prospect of signing more like him. "Chucho's a real box of tricks," the former Scotland manager said, "but that doesn't stop us looking to add quality."
Birmingham's goals came from Liam Ridgewell and James McFadden, who finished with aplomb after a flowing move, yet Benitez's perpetual motion unsettled Sunderland.
"People say he needs a few chances to score, but he seems to create four or five opportunities anyway," McLeish said. "That's the next big step for him – to prove he can score in the Premier League. He pops up in areas where it's hard for defenders to pick him up. I don't tell him about his movement; he knows where to go. At 5ft 6in he's not going to be the best tackler but if he's in the right positions when we don't have the ball, he can still affect the opposition."
A late own goal by Scott Dann, who gave strong support to Roger Johnson, could not disguise a dog-day afternoon for Sunderland and their manager. Like Benitez, Johnson, the £5m ex-Cardiff centre-back, is a good advert for McLeish's eye for players at the end of the market where Birmingham will realistically be operating.
Their last concerted spending spree, in 2003, netted Matt Upson, whose transfer to West Ham still grates on Bruce. Ms Brady, he alleged, sold the defender without his agreement and "shafted" him over a contract, rendering her recent newspaper eulogy to him "patronising". For Birmingham, however, raking over the past has given way, at least temporarily, to relishing the future.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson (Carsley, 84), Ferguson, Bowyer, McFadden (O'Connor, 76); Jerome (McSheffrey, 76), Benitez. Substitutes not used: Maik Taylor (gk), Phillips, Queudrue, Parnaby.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Turner, Ferdinand, Richardson; Malbranque (Campbell, 68), Cana (Zenden, 68), Henderson (McCartney, 68), Reid; Bent, Jones. Substitues not used: Fulop (gk), Nosworthy, Da Silva, Healy.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Birmingham Johnson, Ferguson, McSheffrey; Sunderland Gordon.
Man of the match: Johnson.
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