McLeish: We may be knocked down, but we'll get up again
Sunday 22 May 2011
It has been a long, eventful season for Birmingham City, and on the eve of the game that will decide whether the Carling Cup winners and Europa League entrants are running out at Millwall or Manchester United next season, Alex McLeish started to paraphrase Chumbawamba lyrics.
"I've been knocked down a few times, but I get back up pretty quickly," said the Birmingham manager when asked if he would have liked the security of knowing, like Mick McCarthy at fellow relegation candidates Wolves, that his job is safe. "It doesn't bother me. I've been used to pressure before and dealt with it."
If not quite a tub-thumping rallying cry for Birmingham's last stand at Tottenham – a match McLeish describes as the biggest of his managerial career – the response encapsulates what his team must do, regardless of how Wigan, Blackpool, Wolves or Blackburn fare. After the home surrender to Fulham last weekend, which left them with one point from the last 15, they have to summon what the Scot terms "every last ounce of energy" at White Hart Lane.
The Wembley triumph over Arsenal, 13 weeks ago today, seems a distant memory, with McLeish admitting that Birmingham's relentless schedule meant he has still not found time to savour fully only the second major trophy in the club's history. Yet it is that spirit, and the energy levels they showed to beat overwhelming favourites in the dying minutes, that he is looking to recreate on their return to north London.
The expected reappearance of key players can only help, with Liam Ridgewell and Craig Gardner back in defence and midfield respectively after suspension, and Cameron Jerome hoping to be fit to play in attack. "Personnel changes can help, some fresh legs," says McLeish, adamant that weariness rather than a lack of fight undermined them against Fulham. "The tiredness can be a mental thing and the players can psyche themselves up for one last gigantic effort. It's amazing what the human mind can do. These players are certainly capable of doing it."
The former Scotland manager claims the "tempo" of the squad's training this week has been "fantastic", adding: "I've got a belief in these guys, just as I had when we won at Wembley, when we beat West Ham in the semi-final after being dead and buried and when we beat Chelsea. There have been some magnificent performances. We've given the fans some great days. Now we're looking to give them one more."
There have also been a surfeit of weary, mistake-strewn displays since the final, as a run of two wins in 11 matches suggests. Birmingham have won only nine of 47 League fixtures since last season tailed off from a more comfortable position. When they were riding high in 2009-10, McLeish fielded the same starting 11 in nine consecutive fixtures. The injuries which now deprive them of Nikola Zigic, Obafemi Martins, Scott Dann, James McFadden and possibly Lee Bowyer have exposed a dearth of depth.
"Every single game, from the very first one up at Sunderland, we've had to scrap and battle for every single point. If we make it, it'll be a case of limping over the line. The nucleus of the side has been playing for two years solid."
Tottenham, curiously, are in an even worse run of form, having won twice in 14 since the victory at Milan, although Harry Redknapp's team showed scant sign of fatigue in winning 2-0 at Liverpool last Sunday. "They were excellent. We just have to concentrate on our own game," says McLeish, who is nevertheless aware of Spurs' record of four draws, three losses and no wins against the bottom four.
Talking of whom, McLeish is confident that whatever Birmingham's fate may be, whoever clinches Premier League safety will have done so on merit. He speaks as one who suffered relegation to the Championship in his first season in England (although he did win 3-2 at Tottenham on his debut as successor to Steve Bruce), as well as with Hibernian.
Speculation that Manchester United might field a weakened side against Blackpool does not faze him. Declining to reveal whether he had contacted Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager at Aberdeen during the 1980s, he adds: "Look what United did to Schalke with an under-strength team. The integrity of the British game is intact, but it's about the whole season, not just one game. Three teams are going down and they probably don't deserve to. But I think we'll stay up."
Should they do so, McLeish will regard it as "my best season, relatively speaking". And if they drop, he will have no regrets about what Wembley took out of his team. Whatever the outcome, however, Birmingham's 10-month slog has left him in need of a holiday. "I've not been able to relax since the Carling Cup final. We've never celebrated that at all because I knew there was other business to attend to."
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