Unhappy home has Blues on the brink

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The Independent Online

Kevin Keegan may have struck a chord when he spoke of the difficulty of breaking into the top four, but it is just as difficult to put down roots among the country's top 20. With Derby County doomed, and Birmingham City poised to be relegated with them, this could be the fourth time in five seasons that two of the promoted three have gone straight back down.

If Reading also go down, for the second time in three seasons all the promoted clubs would have been relegated within two campaigns. Only Wigan and West Ham, promoted in 2005, and Sunderland last year, will have survived of the last dozen clubs promoted.

Sunderland have survived this time largely by dint of spending £40m. Another crucial factor has been winning half of their home matches, the best record in the bottom 11.

It is Birmingham's inability to do the same at St Andrew's which, said Alex McLeish yesterday, has left them in their perilous position.

"I think the bottom line is, if we had won more home games, we would be safe," said the City manager. "That's how you stay in the Premier League. If you win your away games, you climb the League.

"We haven't won nearly enough home matches. We certainly had the opportunities, and we've had the performances, but eight draws out of the last 12 home games is something that sees us fighting where we are, rather than being out of sight of the bottom three."

Today even a home win, against a Blackburn side chasing the dubious prize of a place in the Intertoto Cup, may not be enough for Birmingham. They must get a better result than Fulham, who travel to play a Portsmouth team which has been hugely distracted by the prospect of next week's FA Cup final. They must also surpass the result Reading get at Derby.

McLeish, understandably, is already preparing his board for the worst, talking of his "long-term plans".

"When I came in December, the short-term goal was for us to be in the Premier League at the end of this season. But there also had to be a long-term vision. I want to make Birmingham a bona fide Premier League team, not a yo-yo club going between the divisions. There is massive potential at Birmingham and it's about harnessing that."

McLeish added: "I would like to be judged when I am able to build a team myself, and that cannot happen overnight. I have been here five months, I have brought three players in. I think they have enhanced the squad."

McLeish does have sympathy from a board which admits some culpability for City's situation, and yesterday gave him a vote of confidence . David Gold, one of the co-owners said the protracted, and ultimately fruitless takeover by Carson Yeung had destabilised the club.

"I think we made mistakes as a board allowing the takeover to drag on some three months," he said. "There were difficult times and it was traumatic when the takeover bid collapsed."

Gold added: "The one redeeming feature was that we brought in Alex and his backroom staff. I think they are an exceptional team. That has been the silver lining in an extremely difficult season."

The track record of Gold, his brother Ralph, and David Sullivan suggests this is not a hollow vote of confidence. Nevertheless, McLeish's fire-fighting abilities do not compare well with Roy Hodgson, whose Fulham team leap-frogged Birmingham, and escaped the relegation zone, after winning last week's match between the teams at Craven Cottage. Hodgson has brought in more players, but Fulham were in a more parlous position.

The veteran is now on the brink of a rescue act which would match any of his many achievements in a distinguished career. Three wins in four matches have put Fulham in command of their own destiny – but Hodgson insisted, they are not safe and to fail now would be even more painful.

"We were in a dire situation at one point – we looked dead and buried," he said. "It's nice to still be fighting in the final game but we'll be devastated if we lose it from here."

"It is not all over," insisted McLeish. "That was the message I gave to the players after the Fulham match. That was the pick-me-up for everyone after what was not a very good performance on the day.

"When I came in, I said 'this looks like a battle to the end' and that's what we find ourselves in. It is exciting, nerve-wracking. I am looking forward to it. I'd rather it was [today] because the waiting is the worst part about it. We'd like just to get on with it and get it done."

By tomorrow night the waiting will be over, all that will be left will be the hangovers. At one club they will last a day, at the others they will last all summer long.

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