Bruce finds home at last
It's not so long ago Steve Bruce was a laughing stock. Seemingly the least loyal man in football, he managed five clubs in three-and-a-half years. Some fans visit all 92 Football League clubs; was Bruce aiming to manage them all?
Eighteen months later, that joke isn't very funny any more. The nomadic Bruce has settled in Birmingham and he rather likes it there. They like him, too, and with good cause.
After a first ever promotion to the Premiership, Bruce's side, pre-season relegation favourites, have guaranteed a second season in the top flight, beaten Aston Villa twice and are likely to finish as Birmingham's top club for the first time in 28 years.
It's a greater feat because Birmingham were stuck in a rut when Bruce was appointed. But the evident ambition which led him to leave two clubs in rapid succession has transformed the sterile side Trevor Francis left.
The millions made by the Gold brothers and David Sullivan in their unconventional businesses helped, but their money has been spent wisely.
Stern John, at £100,000, scored the goals to take them to the play-offs last year. Paul Devlin, Damien Johnson and Jeff Kenna, signed for a combined total of under £1million, played their part and have all flourished in the higher division.
Their return on a limited outlay contradicts the image of big-spending Brucey. Only the loan signings of Ferdinand Coly and Piotr Swierczewski have failed, even if club record buy Clinton Morrison has yet to have the impact expected when he was signed last summer.
Promotion, though, was otherwise followed by pragmatism. Birmingham were unlikely to out-play many Premiership sides, Bruce reasoned, but they might out-fight some. Enter Robbie Savage and Aliou Cisse, the former more aptly named than the latter, epitomising their snarling approach.
If no one outside St Andrews especially liked the Senegalese Lion and the Welsh poodle, Birmingham weren't overly concerned as they reached 20 points by the end of November.
By the end of December, however, injuries had broken up both the midfield duo and the solid defensive partnership of Darren Purse and the under-rated Kenny Cunningham.
Birmingham's squad was creaking, as Savage warned relegation loomed if they did not strengthen. Instead, backed by his board, Bruce signed seven players in the January transfer window.
Coupled with injuries - particularly to Cisse, keeper Nico Vaesen and striker Morrison - Birmingham's side in recent months is almost their second of the season and the third of Bruce's reign.
The most visible constant from the first half of the season is Savage; the most obvious difference is Christophe Dugarry. Much like his manager, the Frenchman's arrival at St Andrews prompted a reaction of bemusement elsewhere. What use, after all, is a forward who doesn't score goals?
Except, all of a sudden, he does. Five in four games have won over Dugarry's doubters, though the Birmingham crowd were already convinced of his merits. So, too, was Bruce, who has called the Frenchman the best player ever to pull on a Birmingham shirt.
If anyone bristles at this description, it is probably Francis, previously unchallenged as the greatest ever Blues player. But while Francis' signings are now playing for Scarborough (David Holdsworth), Carlisle (Jon McCarthy) or released twice in 12 months (Danny Sonner), Bruce has lured a World Cup winner to Birmingham.
Crowd favourite, flair player, goalscorer and (with Savage) talisman, Dugarry takes much of the credit for a remarkable run of seven wins in nine games. A more surprising hero is his strike partner, Geoff Horsfield.
It is an unlikely combination, brilliance from Bordeaux alongside a brickie from Barnsley, but Horsfield's robust approach has complemented Dugarry's more delicate touches. It is testament to Horsfield's unselfishness and resilience that he has become a Premiership regular; three derby goals this season have also cemented his status as a cult hero.
Increasingly, Horsfield is an anomaly in a side starting to shed their image as the Premiership's streetfighters. For all his wholehearted efforts, the target man is a remnant of Birmingham's days in the Nationwide.
January signings Stephen Clemence and Jamie Clapham have improved their passing; the inconsistent Stan Lazaridis and Bryan Hughes are starting to show their undoubted ability. And in Matthew Upson, the player Arsene Wenger should not have sold, Bruce made a second signing of real ambition.
And Birmingham's last three wins - against Charlton, Southampton and Middlesbrough - have shown a higher standard of football, capped by quality Dugarry goals. Sheer survival is already, Bruce said, a greater achievement than promotion or any of his many trophies at Manchester United.
So it is no surprise that as fears of the drop have receded at St Andrews, Dugarry's future has become the prime concern.
With Liverpool and Tottenham reportedly interested and a one-year contract the likely offer at St Andrews, Bruce needs to display his own ambition again to keep the player who can take Birmingham into mid-table next year.