McLeish looks to build after 'dream start' to the season

Years of uncertainty have given way to optimism as Birmingham hope to go sixth
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The Independent Online

Just six months after facing an uncertain future in charge at Birmingham, Alex McLeish is mounting a compelling case for the Premier League's manager of the season. After a gruelling Championship promotion campaign against a backdrop of boardroom sniping, bloated expectation and an unprepossessing brand of football, McLeish must have feared the worst this summer when he was given meagre funds.

Despite the arrival of ambitious owner Carson Yeung in October, after almost two years of flirting, it must have only increased McLeish's concerns that his reign was approaching its denouement, but the Hong Kong billionaire has arguably helped galvanise a club sorely in need of energising. Since Yeung's grand entrance, at a packed press conference at St Andrew's, Birmingham are yet to lose and face Blackburn tonight having won five of their last seven matches.

On a tight budget, with an array of waifs, strays and has-beens, McLeish has taken Birmingham to mid-table and the 17th place he targeted in May appears a humble ambition on current form – if they win against Blackburn, depending on results elsewhere, Birmingham could end the week in sixth spot, in the mix for the Europa League.

McLeish said yesterday: "We've reached the giddy heights of eighth position but we have to move on. We don't look back and the focus is on winning the next game.

"After 16 games, to think we would be level on points with Liverpool is stuff that dreams are made of. I am sure Liverpool won't be looking at it like that, but we have to be proud of what we have achieved so far."

Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson were booted out of their previous clubs, West Ham and Rangers respectively, but both midfielders epitomise the new Blues that could help end Birmingham's reputation as a club yo-yoing between the top two divisions.

The portents are promising for McLeish's season to become even more impressive, with the assurance of significant funds in the new year. For while it may have been naive for Yeung to reveal that £40m would be made available in January, and another £40m in the following transfer window, at least it means McLeish can stop fishing around the bottom of the bargain basement after two years of wrestling with former chairman David Sullivan for every penny.

McLeish is the not the only person at Birmingham with a broad smile since the new owners breezed in. His players have also been queuing up to talk about a "new era" and how the money will transform the club. Their determination to remain part of the new revolution beyond the new year has undoubtedly been another factor behind their recent resurgence.

Summer signing Ferguson has been a revelation. This is the same Ferguson, who along with Allan McGregor, is serving a lifetime ban from representing his country for sparking "Boozegate" with an all-night drinking session four days before Scotland's crucial World Cup qualifier against Iceland.

The same two players compounded that crass error with the schoolboy antics of flicking V-signs at photographers as they sat out the game at Hampden Park. Damaged goods? Not a bit of it. McLeish's gamble on the midfielder, who played under him at Ibrox, has been very much rewarded.

This evening Ferguson will play against a former club in Blackburn, insisting he has no point to prove despite a number of critics claiming his time in the North-west was largely forgettable. "A lot of people say I didn't enjoy my time at Blackburn but I loved my time there," Ferguson said. "But when you grow up a Rangers fan and your former club comes back in for you, I made the decision to go back up the road. The first time I came to Birmingham I felt I had been here for a long time though. It is a great dressing room and a great bunch of boys and coaching staff. We are not getting too carried away but we are on a good run. I think it is all down to hard work. You see the way the team works – everyone fights hard for each other."

New Blues: McLeish's savvy signings

*Roger Johnson: The defender was prised away from Cardiff City for a hefty sum of £5m but has been outstanding. Even being spoken about as a future England centre-half.

*Lee Bowyer: Dumped by West Ham to cut costs, Bowyer is already a cult hero at St Andrew's and has proven he can still operate at Premier League level.

*Stephen Carr: The former Spurs and Newcastle defender retired last year but McLeish's decision to tempt him back has been a masterstroke.

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