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Oct 22, 2009

Yeung must keep Super Promise International

Who will receive the warmer ovation at Birmingham City on Saturday - the new owner and president, Chinese tycoon Carson Yeung, or the Sunderland and former Blues manager Steve Bruce? Yeung, the one-time Kowloon hairdresser whose business interests range from publishing and property to casinos, mining and water-supply, is guaranteed an enthusiastic welcome as he attends his first home match since completing an £81.5m take-over. By promising manager Alex McLeish a £40m kitty for transfers and wages in January, with the same amount to follow if Birmingham stay in the Premier League, the 49-year-old Grandtop International Holdings magnate persuaded the St Andrew's faithful to suspend their deeply ingrained scepticism at a stroke. The fans had grown tired and weary, to coin a phrase, of a perceived reluctance to maintain levels of investment by the previous owners, even though David Sullivan and David Gold left Birmingham debt-free and with a three-quarters-rebuilt stadium. But Bruce, too, should be greeted affectionately. He restored Birmingham to the top flight, initially kept them there for four seasons and had the beating of Aston Villa. When he left, two years ago, it was only because Yeung, then the prospective buyer, would not ratify his new contract. Football being the parochial and partisan sport it is, Yeung's vision of the future may test the decibel levels more than Bruce's contribution to Birmingham's past - especially if the reception Yeung and his directors received on arriving from Hong Kong is any guide. Staff lined up to applaud them into their inaugural press conference. Some even bowed. Yeung shook hands with many of them, like a politician on the campaign trail, and if there had been a Bluenose baby present he would doubtless have kissed it. Well, he has named himself president. The cynics present, sensing it was all rather stage-managed, murmured "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is". And when Yeung was asked whether McLeish's job was safe and said "Not at the moment", they thought he had unwittingly exposed his true intentions. That turned out to be a mis-translation by one of his aides, and the Chinese joined in the laughter. Yet there are enough grey areas in their blueprint for the future, and in Yeung's past, for those not steeped in the club to resist the temptation to join in the love-in. Take the populist pledge to give McLeish up to £40m in the next transfer window. Yeung's top-table partners apparently looked surprised to hear it. Whatever the truth, it seemed naive business practice to reveal the size of your war-chest. Even if clubs are prepared to sell their better players to Birmingham in mid-season, they will now, surely, bump up the prices. Persuading players to sign might be difficult if Birmingham are in danger of relegation. £40m, moreover, is not the kind of money that would transform the club the way the takeovers at Chelsea and Manchester City did. The proof is on their doorstep; Villa are into a fourth year of splashing Randy Lerner's cash and have neither won silverware nor reached the top four. McLeish has already declared his preference for quality over quantity - the anti-Barry Fry, one might say - and must be allowed a free rein, with no interference from the board. Yeung has made all the right noises about letting his manager manage, but the news that his right-hand man, Sammy Yu, is to be based at the training ground in a tracksuit does not augur well. The last time Yeung owned a football club, Hong Kong Rangers in 2005, he fired coach Tim Bredbury after three games. Bredbury, a Liverpool trainee in the Bob Paisley era, alleged his employer tried to influence team selection. 'To have someone who's not a football person, and doesn't attend training, telling me "He should play and he shouldn't" just doesn't work,' he said. Yeung's men insist they will not meddle. McLeish has been publicly upbeat, although one of his comments about the Grandtop deal - "The sound-bites have been good" - suggested a football man's wariness of those who would buy themselves a piece of his game. The fans, judging by the phone-ins and message-boards, are more effusive. Sections of the local media, keen to stay onside with Yeung, have enthused about his charisma. They know he was fined for insider-trading in Hong Kong (in 2001) and for failing to disclose his holdings in a company (2004). They are aware, too, that David Gold claims Grandtop reneged on a promise that he would stay as chairman. This, though, is a classic case of the king is dead, long live the king. None of which means that Yeung and Yu cannot make a difference at Birmingham, or that they are not genuine football-lovers. Pleasingly, the positive response by Blues' followers shows we have moved beyond suspicion of foreign owners simply for xenophobic reasons. As Gold put it, who would you trust more to run your club, Randy Lerner or Mike Ashley? It may be advisable, however, to maintain a degree of caution, and avoid getting carried away by heady talk of Birmingham becoming the Manchester United of the Midlands or suddenly having a lucrative fan-base, many millions strong, in China. One of Carson Yeung's companies is called Super Promise International. As they prepare to welcome back the excellent manager he was partly responsible for losing, Birmingham's long-suffering fans must trust the new owner lives up to his.

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