For Steve Bruce, the fundamental problem is simple; English players are simply not very good these days. It is, the Birmingham City manager admitted, sitting in of all places the club's academy on Friday, a horrible thing for a patriot to find himself saying. He is, it needs pointing out, talking about English players whom he can afford; which means until and unless the takeover of the club is completed, and he has a much bigger budget at his disposal, the only chance he has of strengthening his squad for the relegation battle that surely lies ahead is to do most of his shopping in the foreign market.
Bruce was responding to a question about the number of English players likely to start in the second-city derby at St Andrew's today. As many as eight for Aston Villa; as few as three for Birmingham. According to Bruce, it serves to illustrate the current financial chasm between the clubs. "I would love to be able to do that here, but if you're going to buy the best English talent, and you're going to buy young, it costs you." In the case of the in-form Ashley of that ilk, he smiles, about £9.5 million.
"It looks as though Martin [O'Neill] is trying to do that, but to do it you need dough, because we're not producing them like we used to. There's an argument they're not getting a chance, but look at the best young players in the Championship, who might be able to play in the Premier League, and where are they? You could maybe come up with a couple of possibles, but not many certainties. And yet we've all spent fortunes on academies."
It is ironic then that one of the Englishmen who will start for Birmingham, Liam Ridgewell, should be a former member of an Aston Villa FA Youth Cup-winning team. Bruce paid just £2m for the 23-year-old centre-half, who won eight England Under-21 caps during his time at Villa Park, and will be one of the few on his team with direct experience of a match that means more to both sets of supporters than any other.
"I got a terrific bargain in Liam," admitted Bruce. "Martin has bought in Zat Knight [for £3.5m] and Curtis Davies [on loan from West Bromwich with a view to a permanent £7m deal], which is his call, but Liam's reading of the game and his positioning are first-rate. Yes, he needs to improve his concentration levels, but that's normal for a young player, and centre-backs get better with age."
The form being shown by the likes of Ridgewell and the top-scorer Olivier Kapo – another value purchase at £3m from Juventus – gives Bruce real hope the Blues can get the better of their local rivals today. But in the long term he repeated the mantra that it will take huge investment for them to match their rivals on a regular basis.
"The blueprint for us the way things are is simply to stay in the Premier League. We've played five at home, won two, drawn one; if we can get the same return from our next five at home, we'll have 20 points by Christmas and be bang on course to stay up. If we aspire to go to the next level, and be fighting with the likes of Villa, Newcastle, Everton, you only have to look at the amount of money they're spending to understand what that will take."
Villa spent more on one player during the summer – £7.5m on Nigel Reo-Coker – than Bruce spent on bringing in all 12 of his new permanent and loan signings. "It puts it in context, but we played a behind-closed-doors friendly against Villa a couple of weeks ago and it was feisty, so even though it'll be their first derby for a lot of them, the players understand how big a game it is. The tackles were raining in, and it won't be any different when we do it for real."
Watch Steve Bruce's Birmingham take on their arch-rivals today on Sky Sports 1, kick-off 1pmReuse content