Despite a 10-game unbeaten run in the league across January and February, Birmingham appeared to crumble after the restart in June and didn’t win a single one of their nine fixtures, owing to their survival by just two points. Just how difficult was that final month?
It was horrible to watch, actually. It felt as though they were sleep-walking themselves into danger having got themselves into quite a good position at the start of the year. They were mid-table when the season resumed and they just never seemed to have the appetite; lockdown really seemed to affect them. A lot of the players looked like shadows of the ones beforehand. Maybe that was because they were assuming they were safe or maybe the fact that Pep Clotet announced he was going to be leaving. The bottom fell out of the season and they survived by just a few points, which should never have been the case because, at the end of February, they were looked at something a lot more comfortable.
Clotet’s departure paved the way for Aitor Karanka to take over as head coach. Having left Nottingham Forest in early 2019, he clearly has unfinished business in the Championship. Do you think that personal hunger will rub off on the squad, who’ve now endured several difficult seasons?
I do. He’s been out of the game for about 18 months and one of the things he said at his first press conference was that he spoke to Blues and then went to speak to his family and his family could see in his eyes that he wanted to come back. I do think he’s really hungry for success and I’m really pleased they have managed to get someone in of his calibre, to be honest. It’s been a bit of a hot seat and his appointment reflects well on the pulling of the club.
There seems to be an increased sense of positivity around the club at the start of this season, which is in stark contrast to last term. Would you agree?
There was uncertainty last season, whereas I feel that there’s a bit more optimism with Karanka in charge now. While they haven’t spent huge amounts of cash, the squad has been re-shaped and there is authority in the manager’s office at the moment and he seems to have been given the autonomy to run things how he sees fit. There’s a long way to go and the team and squad are quite a distance from being competitive in terms of a play-off challenge but I do feel there has been a step in the right direction this summer.
The Spaniard has already brought in Adam Clayton and George Friend, whom he worked with at Middlesbrough, among six permanent signings to date. What have you made of the club’s transfer business so far?
They’ve only paid a fee for Jonathan Leko and the rest have been free transfers. I think the Leko deal has a lot of upsides, so that could be quite an imaginative deal and I think the others speak for themselves, really. With Friend and Clayton you get leadership and stability, Jon Toral and Ivan Sanchez bring a bit of imagination and guile to the attack, while Andres Prieto has come in as the senior goalkeeper. I think they are addressing the right areas and they’ve not gone crazy, which is probably right in the current climate. Overall, it’s been a pretty decent job of a re-build in a difficult time.
How is Karanka likely to set up his side for the season opener at St Andrew’s this weekend?
I think it’ll be a 4-2-3-1 with a line-up similar to the following: Prieto, Colin, Dean, Friend, Pedersen, Clayton, Sunjic, Bela, Crowley, Lakin, Jutkiewicz. I’d say they are going to be reasonably direct at the moment, because Jutkiewicz is their only fit striker so they’ll necessarily have to play to his strengths, but I think the long-term aim will be to have more possession but needs must at the moment. I think the story of Birmingham’s season will be that they’ll develop gradually and they’ll probably end up looking very different at the end of the season to what they do at the start.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
I’ll say 1-1.
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