Lazaridis flourishes as Birmingham make their push for Europe

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The Independent Football

It's Your birthday and a dozen back-packing strangers turn up at your workplace to wish you well. What do you do? If you're Stan Lazaridis, you invite them all home, stop off to buy meat and beer, and host a barbecue. "It felt like the thing to do," the Birmingham City winger explains. "Well, they had travelled a long way. From Australia."

It's Your birthday and a dozen back-packing strangers turn up at your workplace to wish you well. What do you do? If you're Stan Lazaridis, you invite them all home, stop off to buy meat and beer, and host a barbecue. "It felt like the thing to do," the Birmingham City winger explains. "Well, they had travelled a long way. From Australia."

The unannounced guests, who were visiting Birmingham en route to Dublin to support the Socceroos against the Republic of Ireland, met Lazaridis after the first match of what has become the most fulfilling season of his nine in England. A good time was had by all.

Today, however, when a compatriot whom the 31-year-old from Perth counts as a good friend breezes into Birmingham, there will be no char-grilled chicken or cans of Castlemaine to welcome him. Lazaridis, in fact, will do his damnedest to ensure that his mate from Melbourne, one Mark Viduka, endures a miserable afternoon in the Midlands.

Viduka's team, Leeds United, come to St Andrew's desperately seeking points to avoid relegation from the Premiership. "They'll be looking at Birmingham and thinking: 'Hang on, this is a fixture we could win'," admits Lazaridis. "But we see it as a good opportunity to improve our chances of getting into Europe. Should be fun."

Football as pleasure? Don't let such radical concepts, or Lazaridis' reputation for old-fashioned skills, like dribbling past defenders, fool you into thinking he is some kind of sporting slacker. Behind the personable manner and surfer's T-shirt with palm-tree motif, a brave fashion statement with a hail storm raging outside, lies a seasoned professional gearing up for his fourth World Cup qualifying campaign.

Yet it certainly started as fun. When Lazaridis was growing up he lived for Monday nights, when "English soccer" showed on Australian TV. "My family followed the Liverpool side of John Barnes, Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush. I loved Barnes' style and tried to copy it."

A good performance for a Adelaide side against a touring West Ham led to the offer of a trial from Harry Redknapp. "It went well and I ended up being there four years. I flew in one Sunday and the next day I played against Chelsea, marked by Ruud Gullit."

When it became clear he would not be playing as often as he hoped, there was no shortage of offers. "I looked into Birmingham and I saw potential and progress. The owners were putting money in. I just had a feeling the club would get promoted within two years. We did it in three."

The manager who bought him, Trevor Francis, left two and a half years ago. His successor, Steve Bruce, has brought about a transformation so drastic that Lazaridis is one of only three players from the previous era to have been regularly involved as Birmingham have played themselves into contention for a Champions' League or Uefa Cup place.

"A new manager means fresh ideas and an influx of players. I knew that the ones already here had to perform above expectations to convince him. Steve is tough in the standards he sets. He has told me after games: ' That's your level. Don't drop below it'.

"But he is also fair. If you're doing it for him, he'll reward you; he gave me a new two-year contract last summer. Since we got into the Premiership, I've probably been more consistent than ever before. Maybe it's the fear the manager has put into me! He has worked on my defensive responsibilities, especially positional play."

Birmingham would have risen to fourth had they beaten Leicester at home a fortnight ago. They lost 1-0, then went down 5-3 at Middlesbrough. "In general, we've performed well this season. We've won at Newcastle and Leeds, where we haven't won in years, and we drew at Chelsea. You think to yourself: 'We're a different team'."

"But I think fourth place will be difficult. I'm not writing us off but our strength in depth isn't as great as most of the clubs fighting for it. That may be the difference when it comes down to the last nine games."

In the first, Lazaridis might well have been playing for Leeds rather than Birmingham. When his contract was close to completion last season, his former Australia manager, Terry Venables, tried to take him to Elland Road. The deal was stillborn and, with hindsight, he is glad.

Part of the attraction was the prospect of linking up with Venables and Viduka. "I really loved working for Terry. He was a very special manager. Steve Bruce is similar in the way he makes you feel like you're the new John Barnes when you go out there.

"And I've always enjoyed playing with Mark. Apart from the fact that we get on well, he can hold the ball up, has great feet and is strong in the air. When he's in the mood, he's awesome. Judging by the way he hit the penalty against Manchester City on Monday, he is right up for it."

The new Leeds board has been criticised for the timing of their declaration that their major assets were likely to be sold this summer. Lazaridis maintains it will not affect the players' determination to escape the drop before departing. "For one thing, they're probably playing for contracts at other clubs. But they're also getting very well paid. For Leeds' sake, the players should feel obliged to return the favour."

Not every player, alas, shares Lazaridis's sense of duty. Last month, when Australia played a friendly in Venezuela, he made a trek that some high-profile colleagues skipped. The flight was long and tiring - quite a contrast with next week's match against South Africa at QPR - while his club were understandably uneasy. But the forthcoming World Cup will be his last and he reasoned that his country may end up playing off against a South American nation again for a place in Germany.

In 1993, he was thwarted when Diego Maradona scored the only goal a two-legged affair with Argentina. Four years later, Venables' Australia led Iran 2-0 when, in Lazaridis' words, "some idiot ran on, jumped on the net and pulled the goal down". After a 20-minute delay, they conceded two in five minutes. The last time, Uruguay scraped past them.

The experience gained - he played before 130,000 in Tehran - has helped him adapt from the days when Birmingham's itinerary took in Grimsby and Stockport rather than Arsenal and Manchester United. "The manager is ambitious and I know he's going to try to get some big players in this summer," says Lazaridis. "Who knows where he can take us?"

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