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Sep 23, 2009

End of an era at St Andrew's

He was the former producer of films such as Emmanuelle in Soho. She was an ex-convent schoolgirl. Together they raised Birmingham City from the third tier of the English game to a place in the Premier League, transforming the squad, fan-base, stadium and training facilities along the way.

The achievements of David Sullivan and Karren Brady do not always receive the recognition, from the public or press, the duo feel they merit. Sullivan, having made his fortune in soft-core pornography, has never quite shaken off the 'Sultan of Sleaze' tag, while it took a long time for Brady to win over those who felt a woman had no place in a man's world.

Nearly 17 years after they arrived at St Andrew's, Birmingham's odd couple have now decided they will leave once the takeover by Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung is completed. Sullivan's co-owner David Gold, of Ann Summers sex shops fame, is to remain, but the change marks the end of the most colourful era in the club's history.

Early in 1993, when the then Daily Sport publisher Sullivan paid around £1 million for control of Birmingham, Blues had just escaped the old Third Division but were at the foot of the Second, playing to crowds of 6,000. They were also in administration.

The ground was rotting and rusting away, its walls plastered with the slogans of hooligan gangs. Diehard fans, accustomed to false dawns, were understandably sceptical.

Brady, whose background was in marketing, was named managing director at the age of 23. She became the public face of the new regime while Sullivan tended to his publishing empire from his Essex mansion.

Despite the publicity surrounding Brady, one major figure in Midlands football failed to recognise her in those early days. At a sportsmen's dinner, Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis kissed her hand and called her "darling".

"Who do you work for?" the old schmoozer enquired. Taken aback, Brady replied: "Birmingham City." Ellis, still not twigging, chuckled: "Oh, the council."

The story soon went round the city that she had suggested to Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager, that he must be proud to have his son, Dalian, in the side. Whether apocryphal or not, it underlined the perception of her as, in her words, "some bimbo".

Far from putting Page 3 Girls in the programme or 0898 numbers on the players' shirts, Brady began rebuilding Birmingham. She fired the chief scout and reserve coach. Then she dispensed with manager Terry Cooper as Sullivan, perhaps bizarrely with hindsight, identified Barry Fry as Blues' man of destiny.

The former Barnet and Southend manager, a compulsive wheeler-dealer, actually took them backwards, into the third level, before bringing them back up. But if Fry was not the man to take Birmingham into the Premier League, maybe Trevor Francis was?

Francis, the idol of the St Andrew's crowd as a teenager, returned with a promising managerial CV. Sullivan, whom Brady said now felt "appreciated" by supporters, and Gold, who was persuaded to invest and became club chairman, gave him strong financial backing. But Birmingham continually failed in the play-offs.

Meanwhile, the self-styled workaholic Brady - having married former Blues striker Paul Peschisolido and had two children - was revamping the infrastructure of the club. New stands rose on three sides, and she secured the Wast Hills site as a training HQ. The players had practised on park pitches when she first arrived, a poor advertisement for prospective signings.

In 1997, a year into Francis' five-year reign, she became the youngest managing director of any UK plc when she led Birmingham's flotation, four years after they faced liquidation. But her relationship with Francis was not always cordial. He was sacked, too, making way for Steve Bruce.

Within six months Bruce ended Birmingham's 16-year exile from the top flight. Brady's was no longer simply an administrative role (though she also introduced several community initiatives). "Together we're quite dynamic," she said of herself and the former Manchester United bruiser. "He identifies the players he wants. I work the budget to get the best value for our money."

In their first three seasons among the elite Birmingham finished 13th, 10th and 12th, and established derby-day mastery over Villa. Bruce, however, could not keep pulling rabbits from the hat, while Sullivan complained about what he saw as overpaid, underachieving players.

Relegated in 2006, Birmingham came back up 12 months later, but Bruce went in autumn 2007, his hand forced by Yeung's unwillingness to let him sign a new contract. In came former Scotland manager Alex McLeish but as the takeover initially stalled, Sullivan and Brady were arrested by City of London Police on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting.

In May last year, Birmingham went down again. Sullivan derided some of the signings McLeish inherited from Bruce, who had left "quantity not quality". He also maintained that the crowd's hostility had reduced his children to tears and increased his determination to sell up.

After a two-year investigation, no charges were laid against Sullivan and Brady. Now 60, he has found his buyer and is ready to take his estimated £600 million fortune elsewhere. "There's 20 clubs in Britain that would welcome me with open arms," Sullivan says. "But there would have to be potential. Dagenham & Redbridge would be tough - I'm not a magician."

Brady has spread her wings through TV shows such as The Apprentice and Loose Women, as well as holding directorships with Channel 4, Mothercare and Kerrang! Radio. Whether or not she decides to stay in football, she will be in demand.

Back in 1993, when this reporter asked what her main ambition was, her reply showed the clear vision and determination to achieve her goals for which Birmingham - for all the criticism of Sullivan's reluctance to splash the cash in the way that, say, Peter Coates has at Stoke - ought to be thankful.

"I want have a couple of kids in the next five years, though I have to find someone to have them with first. Hopefully, I'll be able to bring them to St Andrew's to watch Birmingham in the Premier League."

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