McLeish values solidarity over pledged £40m spree

Birmingham take unbeaten run to Chelsea with manager not tempted to spend big
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The Independent Football

Steve Bruce craved it. Trevor Francis could only dream of it. Barry Fry would have killed for it. But with the transfer window due to close at the end of this month, Alex McLeish appears almost blasé about the £40m war chest he was promised when Carson Yeung bought Birmingham City.

McLeish, who will tonight pit his team's 15-match unbeaten run against Chelsea's near-invincibility at Stamford Bridge, has so far bought only two midfield players, adding the signing of the Aston Villa squad player and boyhood Birmingham fan Craig Gardner for £3m yesterday to that of Sporting Gijon playmaker Michel for a £1m down payment.

The former Scotland manager wants to add a forward and wide midfielder before the window closes. Yet a combination of natural prudence and determination not to jeopardise the dressing-room solidarity means he is balancing carefully the wage demands of potential targets against the impact they might have on results.

Birmingham have fielded virtually the same side throughout their unbeaten sequence, which stretches back more than three months. McLeish, who cut his teeth as a modestly paid centre-half in Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen team of 30 years ago and has previously managed on low budgets in Scotland, is aware that morale can be damaged by the arrival of a player on a salary that would break the Blues' wage cap.

"What we've spent so far is a long way short of the £20m to £40m that was bandied about," the Birmingham manager said, referring to the pledge unexpectedly volunteered by Yeung when the Hong Kong entrepreneur bought out David Sullivan and David Gold in October. "I have no intention of spending that amount given the way this team has played."

McLeish, however, realises Birmingham are in a position to move to the next level in their development – from a club that has tended to be satisfied by mere survival in the Premier League to one that could challenge in one of the cups or for a place in Europe – and is pursuing deals that would build on a position of strength. Among the players in whom he has shown interest are three attackers -- Roman Pavlyuchenko, Tottenham's unsettled Russian, Ryan Babel, of Liverpool, and Standard Liège's Milan Jovanovic, although he is reputedly promised to Milan.

"I still believe we have to spend some money to bring in a striker and a wide man for more cover before the window closes," McLeish said. "I am building a squad. It's about enhancing the quality as you go along, and Craig Gardner will do that. This is a major signing for us because two seasons ago [when he succeeded Bruce] we wouldn't have been able to do that. We're adding a dynamic player who can play in a couple of positions. He is also bursting to play for Birmingham and is another great character to go in our dressing room."

The 23-year-old Gardner, who admitted he had "not slept properly for three of four days" while waiting for the deal to complete, was not registered in time face Chelsea. McLeish believes Carlo Ancelotti's side are "the team to beat for the title, although Manchester United always come on strong in the second half ".

He added: "On any given day, Chelsea, like United and Arsenal, can embarrass you. I'm not making any predictions, but I've got players I can trust and that's a major factor for a manager. We could be going there fearing for our lives, but with what we've achieved, we can go and play with freedom and confidence."

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Craig Gardner

Signed a four-and-a-half-year contract from local rivals Aston Villa for a fee of £3m. The former England Under-21 international made the switch across the second city yesterday after 79 appearances for Villa. Gardner, who has been a supporter of Birmingham since he was a boy, found first-team opportunities limited under Martin O'Neill and will hope to be as successful as new team- mate Liam Ridgewell, who made the same switch in 2007.


The Spanish midfielder became the first signing of Carson Yeung's reign at St Andrew's after joining from Sporting Gijon in a deal worth £3m. Michel made 138 appearances and scored seven goals for Gijon since making his first-team debut during the 2005-06 season. The 24-year-old was the La Liga club's player of the season during each of their last two campaigns.