Last weekend’s fixtures began with a gutsy victory for Birmingham City against the league leaders Cardiff at St Andrew’s.
New manager Steve Cotterill answered humiliation to Hull City a fortnight ago by inspiring his side to a 1-0 win against the Bluebirds in a game that will be remembered more as an attritional war of physicality than a match-up of two great footballing sides.
Two weeks is a long time in football
The close of September saw Birmingham thumped 6-1 at the KCOM Stadium. As the last signs of summer vanished, Blues fans went into the international break staring into the void. A phenomenal sense of dread had befallen the blue side of the second city—it might be Birmingham’s harshest winter yet.
Lee Carsley’s final game in charge as caretaker manager was characterized by apathy. Early goals from Frazier Campbell and David Meyler ripped holes through the defensive ranks leaving cracks for Jarrod Bowen, Kamil Grosicki, Markus Henriksen, and ex-Blue Seb Larsson to exploit at will.
Harlee Dean and Michael Morrison were non-existent at the back, while the front three of Jeremie Boga, Lukas Jutkiewicz, and Jacques Maghoma were totally devoid of any creative intuition or ruthlessness in attack.
Fast-forward two weeks and Michael Morrison is a monolith in the heart of the Blues defense against Cardiff, while Jacques Maghoma puts in his best shift of the season in a Birmingham shirt.
Cotterill opted to wring the changes for the home tie against the league leaders, preempting a physical game in which his side could out-battle their opponents—it was a bold move and it worked.
Every player brought into the side played exceptionally. Marc Roberts never put a foot wrong, rekindling the type of performance Barnsley fans were so used to seeing in recent years. Jonathan Grounds returned to left-back and (aside from one misguided decision to cut out a through ball, which saw Kenneth Zohore escape his grasp) competently fought off an in-form Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. The re-introduction of Grounds meant that Maxime Colin could return to his favored position on the right side of the defense where he silenced the dangerous Junior Hoilett.
Further up the pitch, Maikel Kieftenbeld, so nearly sold to Derby on deadline day, took his second chance with aplomb. He was a constant thorn in the side of both the Cardiff attack and midfield. Alongside last year’s player of the season David Davis, he broke up play time and time again. In a cruel twist of irony for both Cardiff and Derby County fans alike, he had the better of Craig Bryson, whose delayed transfer meant Kieftenbeld’s proposed move was unfinished before the deadline.
The front three of Che Adams, Isaac Vassell, and Jacques Maghoma terrified Cardiff’s defense with its pace, imitating the kind of in-behind play fans are more used to seeing at Anfield than on the Coventry Road. Adams return from injury was a godsend, and he showed his next-level ability by cutting through the Cardiff defense with ease to slot the only goal of the game into the bottom corner of Etheridge’s net. Vassell, meanwhile, in his first Championship start for Blues, never stopped running—the only thing that could have possibly improved his performance was a goal.
Cotterill’s Birmingham team was unrecognizable compared to the eleven chosen to face Hull before the international break. In Yorkshire, Blues looked beaten before the game had even reached the twentieth minute; two weeks later, they looked unbeatable.
What Blues fans can expect going forward
Steve Cotterill managed to turn a team that had unceremoniously shipped six goals at Hull into one that frustrated an in-form-and-confident Cardiff City in the space of only a single game. If he can inspire his defense to maintain that kind of solidity for the majority of the remainder of the season, the only facet that he needs to worry about is Blues’ attack.
While the front three worked hard and caused Cardiff a number of scares, it still remains to be seen whether Birmingham can totally blow a team away. With only eight goals to their name so far this season, the jury is still out, but the return from injury of Che Adams is certain to bring that tally up.
And speaking of players coming back from injury, Cotterill still has the return of Jota to look forward to. The Spanish attacking maestro was unplayable for Brentford in the second half of last season and a lengthy run in blue is precisely what he needs to recapture that sublime form. When he plays at his best, he can provide a creative spark that has been absent from St Andrews for a number of years. His transfer cost Birmingham a healthy £6 million. This makes him Birmingham’s record signing—he’s also the best signing they’ve made for a long time.
If Birmingham play to their capabilities, they should beat Millwall at The Den next weekend.
A testy, second city derby at home against historic rivals Aston Villa follows in what will be perhaps the most conclusive test of Cotterill’s team’s character so far. If all goes well, Birmingham should be sitting much prettier in the table come the end of October.
That said, mid-table is realistically the best Birmingham fans can hope for this season. The damage has, unfortunately, been done by their poor form at the start of this campaign. It would take a miracle to propel Blues into contention for promotion come May.
Nevertheless, fans should take heart from Neil Warnock’s example. Before being dispatched 1-0 by Birmingham, Warnock had guided Cardiff to 78 points in his 46 games in charge. In most Championship seasons, that would place the team from South Wales in the playoff places.
If Cotterill can inspire that sort of form in his Birmingham side, it may well be blue skies ahead.