'Only as good as your strikers'

May 7, 2006
By Richard Jolly
(Archive)

Bolton Wanderers 1 - 0 Birmingham City

Long-suffering football fans can be particularly perceptive. When Mario Melchiot's miserable touch ruined a promising attack, a chorus of 'that's why we're going down' came from the Birmingham supporters.

GettyImages / MichaelSteeleSteve Bruce is desolate as Jermaine Pennant is surely headed for the exit door.

Shortly after, Jermaine Pennant released Dudley Campbell on the counter-attack and, betraying his non-league roots, the striker rolled his shot tamely wide.

'That's why we're going down,' repeated the travelling faithful. It was not the last time the chant was heard at the Reebok Stadium.

There are, in truth, many reasons why Birmingham are going down. Any thorough post-mortem would be, like their injury list, lengthy. That, however, serves as no excuse. Of greater significance was an ageing squad - and a failure to recognise the decline of the admirable Kenny Cunningham, in particular - characterised by an almost chronic lack of pace, Pennant excepted.

Then there is a fact that those irritated by a particular ostentatious Welshman are reluctant to admit: Robbie Savage has proved irreplaceable. Salif Diao and Nicky Butt have tried and failed and the supporting cast - whether Jamie Clapham, Stephen Clemence or even the wholehearted Damien Johnson - have been unable to exert the same influence.

No one else, from the centre of midfield, has been able to knit the Birmingham team together and Bruce has shown a marked reluctance to use either of the attacking options, top scorer Jiri Jarosik and the injury-prone David Dunn, there. Valuing industry over invention has backfired; only Sunderland have scored fewer goals.

That is a consequence of Birmingham's strikers which, in turn, reflects badly on Bruce's buys. Where once an eclectic assortment of signings - Christophe Dugarry, Savage, Cuningham and Matthew Upson - gelled in an unlikely blend of effort and occasional inspiration, only Pennant of recent arrivals should not be considered a failure.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in attack. Between them Birmingham's five strikers - Emile Heskey, Mikael Forssell, Walter Pandiani, Chris Sutton and Campbell - cost almost £13 million and finished the season with a combined tally of 10 goals in 99 Premiership games.

By no standards can Birmingham be considered a creative team, yet a constant of the Blues games this observer has attended has been Heskey's profligacy; his eventual total of four league goals was a miserable return for a £6 million striker. At least the target man, ironically touted for England by his own fans, was not the major culprit on this occasion. That was Campbell, denied when through on goal by Jussi Jaaskelainen; Pennant was the provider.

While the rest of the midfield is lacking in imagination, it is hard to fault the supply line from the right flank.

Not that Birmingham had a left flank for much of this game. Bruce attempted to replicate Bolton's 4-3-3 formation. Fine in theory, but in practice, Birmingham had three central midfielders, two strikers and a right winger; it could hardly be classed as a tactical triumph.

And, partly as a consequence, they bowed out of the Premiership with a whimper. After a sterile first half, Bruce did nothing while Sam Allardyce was more proactive, introducing the invention of Jay-Jay Okocha and the pace of Ricardo Vaz Te.

He was soon rewarded. Kevin Nolan's cross was nicely flighted for the advancing Vaz Te to volley in at the far post. Remarkably, the Birmingham fans' response was 'Brucey, give us a wave.' The players' response was negligible and, from Vaz Te's slide-rule pass, Kevin Davies almost added a second goal.

'That's the the 20th time in the Premier League we've not scored - that's been our Achilles heel,' admitted Bruce. 'The simply facts are there to see. You're only as good as your strikers and we've had a huge struggle all season.'

Candid, approachable, honest and hugely dignified after Birmingham's relegation, there is much to admire in Bruce - certainly since his club-hopping days ended. As a man, his reputation has grown; as a manager, it has not.

He had a meeting on Friday to resolve his future, and admits it is now out of his hands. 'I can't remember seeing a club which has been relegated with support like that. I would relish the opportunity to bring them back but that's not just for me [to decide].'

It will, he knows, be a vastly different squad. 'Only 25 percent of clubs who have been relegated have come back straight away. It's not a foregone conclusion,' he explained.

Only Kenny Cunningham of his out-of-contract players may be retained and Bruce added: 'We've got eight people out of contract, two loans and three serious injuries. After that we've got 15 players, five are 20 or under and there's a huge rebuilding job to be done. Fifteen players isn't enough; there's big issues to be addressed.'

And at the same time, Birmingham's better players may be in demand elsewhere. Talk of only selling one may be well-intentioned, but it is unrealistic for an established Premiership club. Ask Southampton, or Leeds, or Coventry, or West Ham. The championship has a tendency to come as a nasty culture shock to the overpaid, the overrated and the underachieving.

Continuity is no longer be an option; the questions now revolve around how radical the changes are, about what the eleven who start next season will be and who the manager in charge of them is.

MAN OF THE MATCH (1): Jermaine Pennant - Elusive, electric and invariably let down by his team-mates. The Premiership vultures should be circling: he is too good to play in the Championship.

MAN OF THE MATCH (2): At the start of the second half, a man in a wetsuit and flippers staged the silliest of pitch invasions and bellyflopped into Jaaskelainen's goal.

BOLTON VERDICT: Sam Allardyce has identified a lack of goals as a problem in recent games and bringing on Vaz Te made Bolton more incisive in attack. The Portuguese youngster should figure more often next season. 'He has got potential,' said Sammy Lee, before adding cheekily: 'Gary Speed has got plenty of potential, too.'

BIRMINGHAM VERDICT: Their immediate future looks bleak. A spell outside the top flight seems to beckon. Acquiring the winning habit as well as a team capable of winning promotion within three months is unlikely. It may get worse before it gets better.

FAREWELL, BIG SAM? Rumours circulated that this was the Bolton manager's final game in charge. Certainly he has seemed increasingly restless in recent months, perhaps recognising that topping last year's sixth-place finish is unlikely at the Reebok. More prestigious jobs - whether England or Newcastle - seem to have eluded him, however, and Sammy Lee's reply to queries about Allardyce's future was: 'It's the first I've heard of it.'

Allardyce himself opted not to face the press.

FAREWELL, THE BIRMINGHAM EIGHT: Nicky Butt, Jiri Jarosik and Mario Melchiot are the biggest names to leave in the cull at St Andrews.


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