Bruce raises prospects in the City

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When Barry Fry walked out on Southend United to manage Birmingham City a decade ago he justified the move, from a team then third in the First Division to one lying 18th, by arguing Birmingham were "a sleeping giant". A Southend fan responded that they were not so much sleeping as comatose.

When Barry Fry walked out on Southend United to manage Birmingham City a decade ago he justified the move, from a team then third in the First Division to one lying 18th, by arguing Birmingham were "a sleeping giant". A Southend fan responded that they were not so much sleeping as comatose.

It was an understandable response. Blues may bear the name of the country's Second City but their lifetime "achievements" are comfortably eclipsed by clubs such as Burnley, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town and barely match those of Oldham Athletic, Watford and Luton Town.

Despite a support which once packed nearly 67,000 into St Andrew's, and regularly fills the current 30,000 capacity, Birmingham have never finished higher than sixth in the league, never won the FA Cup, and can point to just one Football League Cup (won in the days when most leading clubs ignored it), a Leyland Daf Cup, an Auto Windscreens Shield, and a clutch of Second Division titles on their honours board. Prior to Matthew Upson's elevation to the international team last year, they had fielded one current England international, Trevor Francis, in 40 years.

The club's home used to be equally mediocre. It is only 15 years ago that a city councillor (and Blues fan) said: "We have worked very hard to win an international reputation for Birmingham, and yet the club with our name is a place of flaking paint, rust and filth." The main stand could still do with the sort of improvement that requires a demolition ball but St Andrew's is otherwise unrecognisable from this description. Since David Sullivan, the Gold brothers, David and Ralph, and Karren Brady arrived at the club, it has been given a makeover to rival anything on Changing Rooms.

This investment would be wasted, however, had the team not been similarly enhanced. Fry took over a squad heading for the Second Division, pausing only to be knocked out of the FA Cup by non-League opposition. A decade on and Birmingham this afternoon host Manchester United from the lofty position of sixth in the Premiership. The prospect of playing European football, possibly even in the Champions' League, for the first time since City competed in the early years of the Inter-City Fairs Cup more than four decades ago, beckons.

This thrilling possibility is, admits the club's manager, Steve Bruce, more than he dared dream of in August. "If someone had suggested that at the start of the season, I'd have sent for the men in white coats and had them taken away," he said after training yesterday. "I didn't expect us to be challenging for Europe and it will be a major shock if we nicked a place above Newcastle and Liverpool, but with seven matches to go, we're in with a realistic chance."

Even if Europe proves beyond them, Birmingham appear on course for their highest league placing since 1956 and the days of Gil Merrick and Jeff Hall. That they have not finished in the top 10 since the Fifties surprised Bruce. As a general rule the potential of a club is reflected by its history because it indicates a well of support. Thus Sheffield Wednesday will eventually recover, while Wimbledon will not. Birmingham - despite a poorer honours board than any club in the Premiership bar Fulham - could prove an exception.

"When it comes to history other clubs might have an advantage," Bruce said, "but we have no debt - how many can say that in the Premier League. We are very well run, have some good players and look a club that's on the up. There's not many that can say that."

It was this potential, discovered during two years at the club at the tail-end of his playing career, which drew Bruce to Birmingham in December 2001. They were a club which regularly made the promotion play-offs, but failed to progress. Within six months Bruce had taken Birmingham the extra step. Last year, having been tipped to struggle, they finished 13th, helped by what he describes as a "very important Easter". He added: "Easter often provides a clearer picture and we produced our two best performances of the season to beat Southampton and Charlton and keep one foot in the Premiership."

Of the players he inherited only Stan Laziridis, Bryan Hughes and Darren Purse are regularly involved. More recruits are earmarked. "We have to keep getting established and I hope to bring in four or five players to help us do so," Bruce said, looking up at the wallchart in his sparsely furnished office listing his thin squad.

Among the targets are Mikaël Forsell, who has been the inspiration this season, just as Christophe Dugarry was last. Forsell, though, remains under contract to Chelsea. Another possibility, it is rumoured, is Emile Heskey. Bruce added: "You can't stand still in this league, you must progress. I know next year we might not be as high, look at Everton, Man City and Blackburn."

The requirement for teams to operate in a state of constant evolution was brought home to Bruce at Old Trafford. "I thought that 1994 team, the first to do the Double there, was unbeatable," he said. "It was a fantastic team and in 18 months six of us had gone, disappeared. After the 1994 final that team never played again. Paul Parker was injured, then he sold Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. A year later I went [at his own volition, Bruce had no desire to be a squad player].

"The make-up of the manager [Sir Alex Ferguson] is 'OK, it's been great, I'll do it again, I'll build another team'. Which he did, and it looks as if he is building another one."

Though Bruce left United, after 10 seasons, in 1996 half his mail still relates to his time there and he retains an interest. This is his take on the current club. "It's nonsense to say they are a club in crisis. Looking from the outside there's obviously a major rebuilding job going on. That takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. You have to give new players time to settle and young ones time to come through.

"I saw the headlines: 'the empire's crumbling'. They made me laugh. It just makes their resolve stronger. A lot of people had to eat humble pie over the last two results. They've had every success and I'm sure that'll continue. Look at Darren Fletcher, Cristiano Ronaldo - he's 19 - and Eric Djemba-Djemba. These young lads have now had another year. Think how strong they'll be next year with the experience. You can never write United off."

Will Bruce, now 43, still be building teams at 62, like Ferguson. "Definitely not," he said, but you wonder. He has the same enthusiasm for football as Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson, the other manager he is tipped, one day, to succeed. Not that Bruce will countenance any talk of his long-term future. He has a job to do at Birmingham, one which, at present, is much more "exciting" than being "down at the bottom, fighting for your life, being nervous and edgy".

Winning brings its own burden, that of raised expectations, but Bruce wants his players to relish that. "We're a big city club, the supporters will always expect. The more we go up the division the more the players will have to handle that expectation."

Today's opponents again provide the example. "The hardest part of playing for Manchester United," Bruce said, "is you have to play to your maximum week-in, week-out. Everybody wants to turn you over, every game is huge. I'd never try and copy Alex Ferguson. All you can do is do it your way, don't try to be something you are not. But I did learn from him that art of winning. I did enjoy that."