Fry enjoys ending the slumber

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The Independent Online
When Barry Fry left Southend United for Birmingham City in late 1993 he argued that the opportunity to awake a "sleeping giant" was one he could not be expected to turn down.

Embittered Southend fans took a glance at Birmingham's paltry honours list (several Second Division titles, a League Cup in the days when nobody entered and a Leyland Daf Cup) and retorted that City were not so much sleeping as comatose and beyond revival. Given the crumbling state of St Andrew's, and the long list of failed managers, including such luminaries as Stan Cullis, Sir Alf Ramsey, Ron Saunders and Dave Mackay, this assessment seemed fair enough.

However, Fry has so much oxygen he could give the kiss of life to a statue, and slumbering Birmingham were up and running. Twenty months and more than 50 players later he has won the "double" (Fry's hyperbolic description of the Second Division title and Auto Windscreens Shield) and is confidently talking of more.

Saturday's 3-1 opening day win over Ipswich Town did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm although, as he admitted later: "I would still be saying we can win the championship if we had lost."

Fry, by then, was wearing a sober suit though the sweat which ran off his brow illustrated the stress as well as the humidity of the afternoon. Earlier he been more brightly attired. The sight of him leaping about the touchline dressed in City's new cherry red away kit - right down to the socks and studded boots - was almost as memorable as the Ricky Otto goal which provoked his dance of delight.

Fry's antics evoke love rather than derison among the St Andrew's faithful - almost 19,000 of whom turned out, the biggest gate of the day. His sheer force of personality, as much as the impressive stadium rebuilding and the soap opera antics of David Sullivan and Karren Brady, are what has set City alight.

The force of personality in football is well-noted. Its latest manifestation, at Leyton Orient, drew twice last season's average gate to Brisbane Road on Saturday, attracted by a combination of Barry Hearn's verbal hype and cut-price admission. But the style must have substance. If Orient reprise last season's dreadful form the extra fans will soon drift away.

City supporters had their fill of flash in the mid-1980s when John Bond oversaw a grim 16 months. Fry's ebullience is of a more earthy nature. He may be all barrow boy chirpiness and market stall promises but there is no gold and glitter on his ample frame.

His traders' instincts are sound, too. Of the eight summer signings, four were on duty on Saturday and only Ian Muir, who looked uncomfortable alongside Steve Claridge in attack, failed to impress. Richard Forsyth, signed from Kidderminster Harriers, betrayed some rustic touches - notably the tackle that put Neil Thompson out of the game - but looked promising. Andy Edwards, bought from Southend for pounds 400,000 and Jason Bowen, lured from Swansea for a similar fees, were even better.

Edwards, composed and sure-footed, even outshone the commanding Liam Daish at the back while Bowen's excellent movement was rewarded when Louie Donowa picked out his run for the third goal.

His 55th minute introduction, together with Otto, changed a game that had been moving Ipswich's way. The visitors, two divisions ahead of Birmingham last year, had been the neater side during a scrappy first period, without creating much in the way of chances. The one opportunity they did make, a one-on-one for Ian Marshall, was confidently saved by Ian Bennett. Thus it was some surprise when, a minute into the second period, Marshall's mis-hit shot trickled past Bennett following an intricate one-two with Steve Sedgley.

Fry's response was typically bold. He threw on three forwards in nine minutes. Only nine of the First Division sides in action on Saturday risked playing without a reserve goalkeeper and none used their substitutes as aggressively. "I love it," said Fry. "Sometimes I would change the whole team if I could. And the beauty of having 18 forwards at the club is that there is always a spare one."

The substitutes stretched Ipswich's defence until it snapped. Just after the hour Craig Forrest flapped haplessly at Gary Poole's cross and Paul Tait brought the scores level. Then Mark Ward drilled a cross-field ball which Otto chested past Mick Stockwell and drove spectacularly into the net.

Had Gus Uhlenbeek's headed "equaliser" not been inexplicably ruled out for offside there could have been a late twist but Bowen soon volleyed the third and St Andrew's rejoiced.

However, while Birmingham are going to be hard to beat at home neither they, or Ipswich, look promotion material. But City may not have to wait long. As long as Fry, David Sullivan, the owner, and Karren Brady, the chief executive, can preserve their tempestuous but catalytic relationship, a place in the Premier seems as inevitable as the next signing.

Goals: Marshall (46) 0-1 ; Tait (64) 1-1; Otto (72) 2-1; Bowen (86) 3- 1.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Poole, Edwards, Daish, Frain; Forsyth (Bowen, 54), Ward, Tait, Hunt (Otto, 54); Muir (Donowa, h-t), Claridge.

Ipswich Town (4-4-2): Forrest; Stockwell, Wark (Chapman, 82), Vaughan, Thompson (Yallop, 16; Milton, 75); Uhlenbeek, Williams, Sedgley, Thomson; Mathie, Marshall.

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

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