The Premiership Interview: First lady of the second city

Ever-expanding nature of Brady's business
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Just as well, because a solitary point from the first three Premiership fixtures means the heat is on for her club, Birmingham City, in today's lunchtime derby at West Bromwich Albion. Brady, 36, is nearing the 12th anniversary of her appointment by a new owner, the Sport Newspapers publisher David Sullivan, to head a club in deep decline. After their rise under Steve Bruce, she did not expect to approach the landmark sweating over a "blip" in their fortunes.

"We've probably got the best manager and best squad this club has ever had," says Brady, clearly still bemused by Tuesday's 3-0 home defeat by Middlesbrough and what Bruce branded the worst performance in his four-year reign. "There were great expectations, and rightly so, which we haven't fulfilled. So this is a very big game.

"If we can get a win, we would be up to four points from four games, with a home match [against Charlton Athletic] to come. We're all saying that you can't judge a season on three matches, but this is not the start that Steve wanted. It puts extra pressure on the Albion result."

Managers' heads always roll as summer fades into autumn. Brady, however, is more likely to be fending off interest in Bruce than firing him when the first mini-crisis of his tenure comes along. After false starts with Barry Fry and Trevor Francis, she, along with Sullivan and his co-owner, David Gold, remains convinced that the former Manchester United captain is Birmingham's man of destiny - and confident that he is still determined to establish "Blues" among the élite.

"I believe Steve is as committed as me," says Brady, who is aware that the Geordie would be touted as Graeme Souness's successor should Newcastle United's poor start continue, even if decorum forbids her to discuss the possibility. "He had the opportunity to leave last summer [for Newcastle] and he chose to stay. We're all in this together. Every member of the board really likes Steve and wants him to do well. That relationship means it would be incredibly hard for him to walk out.

"The most important person in any club is the manager. They make or break it. If they buy the wrong players, or get them playing the wrong way, they bankrupt you. Steve has done all those things right. He's also a true leader, someone with high standards and respect for others.

"What we have to do now is make sure we retain him by working with him to fulfil his ambitions for Birmingham. As a board, we have sit down with Steve and say: 'It hasn't been the start we wanted. What can we all do to try to make a difference?' He has managed at places where he didn't always feel there was that bond."

Brady views Bruce as a kindred spirit, highlighting an enduring, shared enthusiasm for the sport in the face of "depressing" facets like spiralling players' salaries and the drain of money out of the game to agents. "Together we're quite dynamic in working to get deals done. He identifies the players he wants. What I can do is work the budget to get the best value for our money. I've done that by building relationships with other clubs, like Chelsea, from whom we've signed four players in the past year, and Newcastle, where we took Nicky Butt on loan."

With the transfer window closing at the end of the month, the pair have had a busy week. In came the Czech midfielder Jiri Jarosik on long-term loan from Chelsea; out went Clinton Morrison to Crystal Palace.

"Steve's a winner and so am I," asserts Brady. If the statement sounds boastful, her preferred self-description is "forthright". When she took over at the rotting, rusting monument to failure and neglect that was Birmingham City, 23 years old and with a background selling advertising, the staff she sacked called her ruthless and much worse.

Like Bruce, though, she was building a team. "It was make or break. We were in administration and we had to turn things around quickly. Bringing in the right people, developing and motivating that group, was crucial."

She attracted intense media scrutiny, especially after marrying the Canada striker Paul Peschisolido, who was a Birmingham player when they met but is now with Derby County. Coverage ranged from her clothes and make-up to her opinions on feminism and sex. She was the subject of a television documentary. The City pages talked of her "turnaround skills". Yet as the spotlight eventually moved elsewhere, and the interview and picture requests receded, Brady was getting on with changing perceptions by reconnecting club and community.

"We were in a terribly run-down state. The terraces were crumbling and toilet blocks had no roofs," she recalls, basking in one of the plush, if overheated rooms beneath the new main stand, one of three to have risen since Sullivan and Gold pooled their resources. "We had nothing to shout about in terms of players, either. Barely a mile away Aston Villa won the League Cup around the time we came and they also had an excellent stadium. So we couldn't say, 'Come to Birmingham, the facilities and team are great', because they weren't.

"We had to think what our message was. People would say they supported Birmingham but they hadn't been for years; our crowds were down to 6,000.

"We launched all sorts of initiatives - visits to schools, anti-racism, kids for a quid, bring a friend, single parents to bring two children for a fiver, kids who had to have free school dinners receiving free tickets, and so on. What we were saying was: 'We care about the working-class community here.' As a result, the hard-core passion about the club grew."

Sullivan, having been joined by Gold of the Ann Summers sex-shop chain, provided Fry and then Francis with the funding for a tilt at promotion to the level they left in 1986 at the start of a rapid descent into the third tier of the English game. Neither manager cracked it, and although Francis took Birmingham into the play-offs, his relationship with Brady was reputedly fractious. She does not deny that it never matched the "trust and understanding" she has with Bruce.

As for Fry, the inveterate wheeler-dealer who collected lower-division centre-forwards as if on commission, a mutual affection has grown. "I see Barry a lot. He's still a good friend to this club. After he went off to run Peterborough United, he phoned me and said: 'I'll never forgive myself for how I treated you.' He remembered my saying to him: 'Well, where's the money coming from, Barry?' and admitted that he thought there would always be this pot where he'd drum up cash from."

Bruce, prised from Crystal Palace amid accusations that he cynically jumped from club to club, took Birmingham up inside six months. In their first three seasons they finished a respectable 13th, 10th and 12th, but Brady sees no reason why they should not emulate Bolton Wanderers or Everton by joining the pack trying to close the gap on Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

"The top clubs make the league very exciting. Some people argue that they're so far ahead that catching them up is unrealistic. But there's always at least one club that challenges them. We hope to be that one at some point. We have to stop looking down the table and begin looking up; not fearing relegation but embracing the Premier League. Just retaining Premiership status is simply not good enough for us or for our supporters. We've still got places we want to go. That's why everyone here will pull together to find ways to overcome this blip."

Brady is a self-confessed workaholic, who becomes "bored" if she does not have "at least eight things to do". But she and Peschisolido have two children, Sophia (nine) and Paolo (six). How does she balance her hands-on running of every aspect of Birmingham City - except picking the team - with running a family?

"I'm a high-energy person, but I'm also laid-back, so I never get frantic or stressed out about things.

"My son wants to be a goalkeeper, though we have kind of explained to him that he will reach a certain age and not grow any more, especially with a father who isn't very tall. On Wednesday night I went straight from work and watched him training until 8.30. That's three evenings a week, plus Saturday, and games on Sunday. My daughter has gymnastics twice a week. I'm always driving from one thing to another."

Fortunate, then, that she is so clearly a driven woman, albeit still the only one, apart from Delia Smith at Norwich City, moving in the game's higher echelons. "On the surface there hasn't been a breakthrough, at least in terms of being represented on boards. But there are lots in the background, operating the business. It will happen in time. Ownership is still a male preserve - that's a historical thing - but we've got a female club secretary, and we're far from being the only ones."

Brady is convinced that Birmingham will not be embroiled in a relegation battle as today's opponents were last season. She declares herself "delighted" by Albion's dramatic survival last spring, saying: "They're a great club. When their result came in and they stayed up on the final day, the whole of St Andrew's burst into applause."

With a hint of mischief, she adds: "We've got a good rapport with them, which isn't quite replicated with Aston Villa."

Like the Albion manager, Bruce's former team-mate at Old Trafford Bryan Robson, whom she admires greatly, she regards bad results as a reason for dusting down those turnaround skills rather than for panicking.

"Just when you think you're on the verge of real progress, you lose two home games and you realise how much more there is to do," says Brady. "We've got to keep on achieving. So this is a job you never grow tired of."

As Birmingham City's financial and playing position became more stable, Karren Brady took up several invitations from outside football. She is now a non-executive director of Mothercare, Channel 4 and Kerrang! Radio. "Business is what I love most," she says. "It's natural for me to go not into the gym, but into someone else's boardroom. I like to see how other companies treat their staff and develop their business."

As well as hosting Brady Bunch, she has appeared on Loose Women and Live Talk. Her books include Brady Plays the Blues, Trophy Wives and United. Last year she co-authored Playing to Win: 10 Steps to Achieving Your Goals.

Yet football remains the domain in which she feels most "pride and passion". In 1997, she became the youngest managing director of any UK plc when she led Birmingham's flotation. The club had been in danger of liquidation four years earlier, but went on to make a profit of £6m last year. "The way the game is now, creating a club that's progressive and soundly run is a real achievement," Brady said.

"We generate income to give to the manager to fulfil his and the fans' ambitions. But it's getting more difficult. Anyone in football will tell you that wages and agents' fees are very, very high - but you do it all to stay in the Premiership."