X-rated rants, swingeing cuts and a manager on the brink - how Birmingham City descended...

ASFN Admin

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May 8, 2002
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Welcome to the mad, bad world of Birmingham City, where the volatile chief executive has become notorious for swearing at officials, a once-vaunted academy is now threatened with closure and yet another manager is under growing pressure to prove he should keep his job. Almost exactly 10 years after the finest moment in their history - the League Cup final win over Arsenal at Wembley - Birmingham are a club in tatters. Having improbably escaped relegation in three of the last four seasons, they are circling the drain again and will need a dramatic intervention to prevent them being sucked into League One. For the fans who descended on Wembley in their thousands in 2011, there is now simply frustration and disillusionment with a club which appears to be losing its soul and identity. Aitor Karanka, their sixth permanent boss in four years, is under increasing scrutiny and defeat against Luton on Saturday could leave him facing the sack from Zhao Wenqing, one of the club’s more powerful directors. Karanka is an experienced manager in the division, after spells with Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, but there is no disguising his struggles at St Andrew's. The recent statistics paint a bleak picture of their survival chances: over the last 46 games - a full league season - Birmingham have accrued just 41 points, a lower total than any of the three clubs relegated last year, and they have not won at home since Oct 28, losing six of the last seven games. Yet it is behind the scenes where Birmingham seem to be unravelling, with controversial chief executive Xuandong Ren continuing to run the club seemingly unchallenged. During Ren’s tenure, he has appointed Harry Redknapp, Steve Cotterill, Garry Monk, Pep Clotet and now Karanka, but it seems no manager can navigate a path to progress amid the chaos. Ren, known at the club as ‘Dong’, was appointed in 2017 and is a hands-on operator who attended training at Wast Hills last season in full tracksuit. Long-serving senior employees, the fabric of the club, have mysteriously departed due to “Covid-19 reconstruction” and cutbacks over the past three years, including Julia Shelton, the club secretary for two decades, and financial director Roger Lloyd. Recruitment staff have been furloughed, while Karanka was allegedly staying at the plush Hampton Manor hotel, where the top suite costs £500 a night, for three months after his appointment. Ren had threatened to close the highly-regarded academy, which has recently produced the likes of Borussia Dortmund’s £30million signing Jude Bellingham, Nathan Redmond and Demarai Gray, before an embarrassing U-turn. The uncertainty over the academy’s future has already resulted in the sale of 15-year-old Calum Scanlon to Liverpool. A number of other youngsters, including Bellingham’s younger brother Jobe, are being targeted by rival clubs. The influential academy manager Kristjaan Speakman recently left after 14 years to join Sunderland. On matchdays, Ren sits behind the dug-outs and can frequently be heard swearing and shouting at officials. At a recent match, a local radio station had to turn their effects microphone off as it was picking up Ren’s bad language, while in December he was fined £7,500 by the Football Association for confronting a referee after a defeat at Cardiff. Birmingham have also been charged twice by the EFL for breaching financial rules, which included the nine-point deduction in the 2018/19 season. Figures also show the club to be more than £100million in debt. Lockdown and the absence of fans has arguably saved Ren from further scrutiny, yet there is mounting fury over the perceived lack of accountability and football knowledge around the club. Ren is 39 this month and his Birmingham future could be intrinsically linked to Karanka: he is understood to have told the board and chairman it was an appointment that could take them back to the Premier League. In fairness, Ren has backed Karanka with funds in the transfer market this season as they began a proposed three-year project. But a recent 0-0 draw at bottom club Wycombe, where Karanka’s decision to make only one substitution left fans bewildered, suggested simply avoiding relegation should be the priority this season. The general consensus is that unless there is a change of regime the future does not bear thinking about. Birmingham have not operated in the third tier since the 1994/95 season, a time of Barry Fry, Steve Claridge, Ian Bennett and Kevin Francis. It used to be Aston Villa who circled the plughole, before they were eventually relegated in 2016: now it is their Second City rivals who are scrapping to avoid a similar fate.

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