Birmingham City's training ground on Friday morning and a sharp autumnal wind is chilling autograph-hunters, young and old, waiting by the main gate. No wonder they call these supporters Bluenoses. At least there are none of those notices seen at the bigger clubs stating that players will not stop; Birmingham have never been like that.
Inside, and a few miles away at equally down-to-earth St Andrew's, the wind is one of change. After 16 years of David Sullivan, the Gold brothers and Karren Brady, Aston Villa's less fashionable second-city neighbours have suddenly taken on a more exotic aura. Out with the Golds and in with the new: Carson Yeung, a Hong Kong entrepreneur, has finally done as he promised two years ago and bought the club, ushering in, he hopes, an era of stability and prosperity. Alex McLeish's team, although thrilled with victory over Sunderland last time out, are only just keeping their heads above water. Chinese whispers suggest £40 million is available for the winter transfer window and Yeung's new vice-chairman (football), Sammy Yu, does not deny it. He insists, however, that there is a difference between Birmingham and today's opponents, Manchester City.
"They have a different way," he says of the other City. "Their logic is to do it immediately with the resources they have, get things done the next day. All the best to them, but we are different. We have to make a plan for a long-term programme.
"There's no point buying two or three top players costing £20-£40m who come in as superstars, standing in the middle of the park and doing nothing. It could happen. We'll get players of reasonable standard, better than we have, who can adapt to the club. We'll accumulate step by step like that, then we'll have a healthy way of proceeding to the top level. History has told us about Leeds, a big club, but how quickly they collapsed. From the top of the world to the bottom of hell."
Like his speech, Yu is a colourful figure and, with his designer specs, club tracksuit and trainers, an unusual one to be seen around the training ground of a Premier League club. The Newcastle United débâcle did not help the cause of employees with titles like vice-chairman (football) and the English game has always been suspicious of anyone perceived to be a boardroom man pulling on a tracksuit. Yet Yu insists his background is on the playing side of the sport, and that he is there to help and advise, not interfere.
"All my life I've been involved in football, from the bottom to the top, coaching the national team," he says. "I was appointed to work mainly at the training ground with Alex, first to improve or strengthen the team and second to see any possibility of helping develop the training ground for young players and future talent."
He can also claim responsibility for the involvement of Yeung, who, rather like Roman Abramovich, was taken to a glamorous football occasion, saw a classic match and was smitten: "Five years ago I took him to watch West Ham against Liverpool in the FA Cup final and I think that match gave him all his interest in football. Then we went to watch Barcelona against Arsenal in Paris. He said, 'Sammy, we must get a club', and destiny brought us Birmingham." Sammy is big on destiny. "It just came up at the right time. He came and watched a game, three years ago on Boxing Day, and got a feeling for it."
The collapse of Yeung's original bid – when the board grew impatient with missed deadlines, relegation followed and Steve Bruce left – led to a certain acrimony, but not so much that the old guard were prepared to spurn an £81m takeover this time. Sullivan and David Gold have now trumpeted him as the man to take Birmingham "to the next level", and the fans Yu encountered at a local radio forum last Thursday were, he says, supportive.
"I've met a lot of supporters who've said, 'Tell Carson we need a little love and care, and a team playing with fighting spirit'. Then they won't complain."
Resumption of talks with the council about a new 55,000-seater stadium is on the cards, and the new regime are naturally hoping to build links with Asia; but without neglecting the local community. "The biggest market in the world developing at the moment is China," Yu says. "Yes, we can do shirts and merchandise and live games but more important, we can have co-operation: cultural exchanges with China through the local education department. If China Oil want to invest in England, if Air China want to develop flights into Birmingham, or Bank of China want to work with us..."
It is a whole new world; and while Birmingham fans remember where they started in days of Gold (the Third Division, on gates of 7,000) and appreciate the improvement, they sound ready for one.
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