ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham and is one of the most respected voices in the English game.
Holden out for a hero
On Saturday, Birmingham's challenge for an unlikely cup double continues when they face Bolton Wanderers in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. But such unexpected and accelerated accomplishment comes at a price. The demands placed on Alex McLeish and his squad have been considerable this season, and it remains to be seen whether they become victims of their own success.
Though they have rightly been basking in the glow of a Carling Cup triumph over Arsenal at Wembley, Birmingham's recent league form has been real cause for concern, leaving them as it does just outside the relegation zone on goal difference. McLeish recently admitted fatigue was setting in and, for a club of Birmingham's size, that is no surprise given the amount of games they have been forced to play. Though winning a trophy is a fantastic feat, and a cup run helps bring money into the club, it makes excessive demands on the playing staff.
Last season, the club enjoyed an excellent season in the league and no less than nine players made at least 30 Premier League starts. Their team was the very model of consistency. However, a congested fixture list has brought with it more injuries this season, strains and pulls that have forced McLeish to chop and change on a more regular basis. For example, the bedrock of their success last season was the defensive partnership of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann, but this season it has been disrupted. While clubs in the bracket of Manchester United and Arsenal have the necessary personnel to rotate and compensate for injuries, in truth, Birmingham don't. They are short of both numbers and quality.
When I was a manager, I was always very reluctant to juggle my players around. I didn't believe in it. I tried to play my strongest side at every given opportunity, but sometimes you have to compromise due to injuries. At this stage of the season, your medical staff become very important as they assess who is fit and who isn't. Balanced against the demands of an extensive fixture list, it can be a fine line to tread. Was Cesc Fabregas fit enough to play against Barcelona? Yes. Was he fit enough to do himself justice? Probably not. These decisions are very hard to take. As a manager, you must be ruthless. The minute a player is injured or suspended, you push them out of the back of your mind. He can be your most important player but he is no good to you. The king is dead, long live the king.
Of course, cup success can have a positive aspect as well. It focuses players' minds, as they are desperate to retain their place in the side with a showpiece final on the horizon. But the attritional impact it has on the squad can be very detrimental. You must cope with extra games, under increasing pressure, and with less rest as the season progresses. The demands are manifold.
Certainly cup success has compromised Birmingham's league campaign, but not fatally. I believe they have the necessary quality to stay up. Thankfully for McLeish, he has a stronger squad at his disposal than he did last season, with players such as Obafemi Martins joining their ranks. Martins is a player who can win games on his own by doing things out of the ordinary. Certainly his cup final goal had an element of farce about it, but he is an excellent signing who knows the English game well. He may play an increasingly important role as the season goes on.
Continental competition is another burden to shoulder for a squad of that size.” -- Kevin Keegan on Birmingham's European place
If Birmingham do avoid relegation, and I suspect they will, then having won the Carling Cup they will face yet another challenge in the form of Europa League football for next season - continental competition is another burden to shoulder for a squad of that size. For example, Manchester City have played ten games already in Europe this season and they are not even in the quarter-finals of the Europa League yet, with a long trip to Kiev their task this week.
A European adventure can enthuse supporters and create a buzz around a club, entailing 14 games and a cup final, but it can also be over swiftly. During my time at Manchester City, we qualified for the UEFA Cup but after beating Welsh club TNS, we were then knocked out by Groclin of Poland. Short and not so sweet. The journey is hard to predict, but one thing is certain - Birmingham do not, at present, have a big enough squad to cope with the Premier League, Europe and a couple of cups next season. Priorities will have to be established.
Alex McLeish is the right man to do that, though. I have always liked him as a person as what you see is what you get, which isn't always the case with certain managers. He was a very good centre half in his day, is a hard worker, and has learned from some of the best, like Sir Alex Ferguson during his time at Aberdeen. Given his management career includes spells with Scotland and Rangers, it is clear he knows how to manage expectation and pressure so it is no surprise to see him in charge of a side that has won something.
The challenge is now to show that he can cope with the fresh obstacles that success brings.