Fry ready to put heat on Leeds

Phil Shaw previews the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final first leg at St Andrew's tomorrow

A place in the Coca-Cola Cup final would save Leeds United's season and make Birmingham City's. For all that, the Premiership side would be ill-advised to assume that the desire to reach Wembley burns less fiercely in their opponents in tomorrow's semi-final first leg at St Andrew's.

After taking just 26 of the last 66 points available, Leeds urgently need to placate their frustrated followers. Two games against a middling First Division team appears the ideal opportunity for Howard Wilkinson to rediscover the plot, but they will find Birmingham bursting to atone for a century of mediocrity.

While neighbouring Aston Villa can point to a string of championships, FA Cups and success in Europe, the club bearing the name of England's Second City have won just one major trophy, the League Cup. Even that was in 1963, when the competition was an irrelevance with a two-leg final and no Uefa Cup place for the winners.

Enter, after a further 30 years of under-achievement, David Sullivan, Essex man and publisher of the determinedly downmarket tabloid Sport titles. With his managing director, Karren Brady, he pledged to create a brave new blue world. Sullivan's passions may have been for horses and birds (nudge, nudge), but he was (is) seriously wealthy and ready to back Barry Fry with his chequebook.

His investment, backed up by the Gold brothers of Anne Summers sex shops fame, has not been on the scale of Jack Walker at Blackburn or the Haywards at Wolves. However, a rotten and rusting eyesore is now a stadium for the 21st century. And Fry, the great wheeler-dealer, has been able to indulge his compulsion with six-figure sums.

The turnover in players has been staggering, nearly 70 having figured in the first team during Fry's 26 months as manager. This week he has recruited Vinny Samways, John Sheridan and Gary Breen and he was recently linked - or linked himself - with Jan Molby, Nigel Clough, Marcus Stewart, Vinnie Jones, Chris Powell and even Giuseppe Bergomi.

All of which has kept Blues in the news and sustained interest (the average gate of 18,600 is more than double pre-takeover levels). But increasingly, Fry appears restless with the rate of progress, berating his board for behaving like a small club by scrapping their youth scheme in response to Bosman and stating that his next signings had to be in the pounds 1m class.

Sullivan's reluctance to pay Premiership wages scuppered at least one deal. Some observers see this as evidence of a limit to his ambitions. Others sense that he harbours reservations about Fry's capacity to take them on to the next stage.

That is why for Birmingham, and Fry in particular, the Leeds tie represents more than the possibility of a prestigious scalp and a day beneath the twin towers. If the former Barnet manager can outwit Wilkinson, the owners would have to defy popular opinion to deny him chance to preside over Blues' ascent to the "big club" status craved by their fans.

Although Fry boasts "I don't do tactics", his tendency to shoot from the lip belies a useful track record. Having won the Second Division, Birmingham are in the pack jostling for play-off places. In last year's FA Cup they drew twice with Liverpool before losing on penalties. Coca- Cola Cup victims include Middlesbrough and Norwich, both in replays.

Fry's instincts are positive to a fault. He has a weakness for the long ball, but he also likes wingers and can now call on the midfield subtlety of Sheridan, a player Wilkinson was quick to offload at Elland Road. Suspension deprives Birmingham of three of the regular back four, so Chris Whyte, like Sheridan, is set to face his old club in spite of being available on a free transfer.

Bolton's charge to the final last spring, like Tranmere's aggregate draw in the semi-final with Villa a year earlier, show what is possible. Moreover, Birmingham are catching Leeds after three away defeats in which they leaked 10 goals and with the pressure on their manager intensified by the Tomas Brolin fiasco.

Having sold his best young forward, Noel Whelan, to finance the Swede's arrival, Wilkinson omitted Brolin from a depleted line-up at Villa Park because of his defensive deficiencies. Such reasoning would baffle Fry, whose answer would simply be to attack more. Tony Yeboah's return after his African sojourn can only improve Leeds' options in that respect.

Surprisingly, Wilkinson has no significant advantage over Fry in terms of preparing for a big cup-tie, and the prospect of a Brummie derby final against Villa should be all the motivation Birmingham need. One can almost hear Fry in the dressing-room, coming on like Del-Boy Trotter with a rallying cry of "He who dares wins it".

Leeds dare not lose. Whether the psychology of that position works for or against them remains to be seen.

BARRY FRY'S COMINGS AND GOINGS AT ST ANDREW'S

(Appointed manager Dec `93)

PLAYERS IN (48)

1993

December: Kenny Lowe (from Stoke) exchange deal; Ian Bennett (Peterborough) pounds 312,000; Gary Cooper (Peterborough) free transfer; Roger Willis (Watford) pounds 60,000.

1994

January: Peter Shearer (Bournemouth) pounds 50,000; Paul Harding (Notts Co) pounds 40,000; Steve Claridge (Peterborough) pounds 350,000; Steve McGavin (Colchester) pounds 100,000; Liam Daish (Cambridge) pounds 75,000; Miguel Desouza (Dagenham) pounds 25,000.

February: Neil Doherty (Barrow) pounds 10,000; Dave Barnett (Barnet) pounds 100,000; Richard Huxford (Millwall) loan.

March: Jose Dominguez (Benfica) pounds 160,000; Mark Ward (Everton) pounds 100,000.

August: Dave Regis (Stoke) exch; Ryan Price (Stafford) pounds 15,000.

September: Bryan Small (Aston Villa) loan; Jonathan Hunt (Southend) exch plus pounds 50,000; Gary Poole (Southend) exch plus pounds 50,000.

December: Ricky Otto (Southend) pounds 800,000.

1995

January: Kevin Francis (Stockport) pounds 500,000 plus increments.

February: Mick Bodley (Southend) loan.

March: Rui Esteves (Vitoria Setubal) loan; Paul Williams (Crystal Palace) loan; Ian Hendon (Leyton Orient) loan.

June: Steve Finnan (Welling) pounds 40,000; Ian Muir (Tranmere) pounds 100,000.

July: Ken Charlery (Peterbro) pounds 400,000; Richard Forsyth (Kidderminster) pounds 50,000; Andy Edwards (Southend) pounds 450,000; Jae Martin (Southend) free; Jason Bowen (Swansea) pounds 275,000; Steve Castle (Plymouth) pounds 225,000.

August: Ian Richardson (Dagenham) pounds 60,000.

September: Michael Johnson (Notts Co) pounds 225,000; Steve Barnes (Welling) pounds 30,000.

October: Sigurd Rushfeldt (Tromso, Nor) loan; Bart Griemink (Emmen, Neth) free; Dan Sahlin (Hammarby, Swe) loan.

November: David Preece (Derby) loan; Danny Hill (Tottenham) loan.

December: Gary Bull (Nottm Forest) free.

1996

January: Fred Barber (Luton) free; Paul Sansome (Southend) loan.

February: Vinny Samways (Everton) loan; John Sheridan (Sheff Wed) loan; Gary Breen (Peterbro') exch.

TOTAL SPENT: pounds 4,652,000

PLAYERS OUT (32)

1993

December: Graham Potter (Stoke) exch.

1994

January: David Smith (to West Brom) pounds 90,000.

March: Ted McMinn (Burnley) pounds 200,000.

July: Jason Beckford (Stoke) free transfer; Darren Rogers (Walsall) free; Lyndon Hooper (back to Canadian football, work permit refused).

August: Paul Peschisolido (Stoke) pounds 540,000 plus Regis; Kevin Miller (Watford) pounds 260,000; Keith Downing (Stoke) free.

September: Carl Shutt (Bradford C) pounds 75,000; Dave Regis (Southend) exch; Roger Willis (Southend) exch.

December: Richard Dryden (Bristol C) pounds 225,000; Paul Fenwick (Dunfermline) free.

1995

January: Miguel Desouza (Wycombe) pounds 100,000; Vasili Kalogeracos (to Malaysian football) free.

March: Steve McGavin (Wycombe) pounds 140,000; Paul Moulden (Huddersfield) free; Danny Wallace (Wycombe) free; Richard Scott (Shrewsbury) free.

July: George Parris (Brighton) free; Andy Saville (Preston) pounds 100,000; Jose Dominguez (Sporting Lisbon) pounds 1.3m.

September: Ryan Price (Macclesfield) pounds 20,000; Ian Muir (Darlington) loan.

December: Chris Whyte (Coventry) loan.

1996

January: Ben Sedgemore (Peterbro') free; Ken Charlery (Southend) loan; Ian Richardson (Notts C) loan; Scott Hiley (Manchester City) loan; Kenny Lowe (Gateshead) free.

February: Ken Charlery (Peterbro') exch.

TOTAL RECEIVED: pounds 3,050,000

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