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Blues look ahead after cup triumph

Five years into its second century, St Andrew's appeared to have seen it all. Promotion and relegation, the Fairs Cup and the Third Division, heroics and hooliganism, the Electric Light Orchestra rocking out over crackly loudspeakers and "Keep Right On" booming around the stands.

However, Birmingham City's fortress on a hill has never attracted a full house on consecutive days, as it will this weekend. And to compound the novelty, the first of the occasions will be "another cup final", according to manager Alex McLeish.

The supporters whom McLeish branded "long-suffering" enjoyed the first final - when their team confounded the odds to beat Arsenal in the Carling Cup at Wembley last Sunday - so much that the idea of another sounds irresistible.

This one, though, is a Premier League derby against West Bromwich Albion. If anything could rain on Birmingham's cup victory parade at the stadium on Sunday, it would be a home defeat on Saturday by one of their rivals to avoid relegation.

McLeish has his sights on another run to Wembley in the FA Cup, in which they have a home quarter-final against Bolton a week on Saturday. Blues have never won the competition. Now their fans are daring to dream of a double.

Yet the Scot is acutely aware that the glitz of knock-out football, the great day out at Wembley and the prospect of Europa League combat next season will fade if they distract Birmingham from their aim of finishing 17th or higher in the top flight.

When he described Birmingham as a "small club" after Sunday's triumph, it was neither false modesty nor an attempt to rub Arsene Wenger's nose in it. Based on attendances that sometimes only scrape past 20,000 mark, and a 136-year history of under-achievement, it represented an accurate assessment. But if ever the word "potential" applied to a club, it is to Birmingham, bearing as it does the name of the Second City. The Carling Cup could be a one-off. Or it could be the first step towards fulfilling that potential.

If it is to be the latter, the former Scotland manager's task, once the transfer window swings open again, will be to hold owner Carson Yeung to the £80 million promise he made when he arrived 18 months ago.

"The £40 million in the January (2010) transfer window is my commitment to the fans," the Hong Kong businessman gushed. "Next season we'll put £40 million into the team, making it much stronger." McLeish duly bought Craig Gardner, Nikola Zigic and Martin Jiranek, but the outlay amounts to barely a quarter of the sum Yeung volunteered.

Indeed, when Aston Villa were lavishing a club-record £24 million fee on Darren Bent, there was an air of crisis and panic among Birmingham's followers that now appears ridiculous. They saw their team sliding into the lower reaches amid rumblings of discontent that were only partially assuaged by the signing of Obafemi Martins.

The Nigerian, with one side-footed shot into a gaping net, has instantly achieved cult status and should help transform Blues' status as the division's lowest scorers. Whether the signing becomes permanent during the close season may depend on whether they stay up. The incentive of European football should attract a higher standard of player, though not if they are back in the Championship without adequate funding.

Three wins ought to secure their status. With 12 matches remaining and a succession of winnable home fixtures, there is ample opportunity to achieve them and prove they belong in the top half rather than the bottom six.

The ability and the experience is certainly there. Ben Foster's performance against Arsenal underlined his claim to be England's No 1, only months after Joe Hart looked to have the title wrapped up. Roger Johnson and Jiranek, a centre-back duo for only a handful of games since Scott Dann's injury, looked like the "proper" defenders Arsenal so transparently lack.

The captain, Stephen Carr, found energy reserves that made his opposite number, Bacary Sagna, look sluggish by comparison. There was leadership, too, from Barry Ferguson, a metronomic midfielder who seldom wasted possession.

Sebastian Larsson's lung power and set-piece play were also a revelation, while autumn-misfit Zigic has never looked back since his Carling Cup winner against Villa in December.

Perhaps, scrutinising their line-up and the big-game know-how it contained, it was not such a massive surprise that they overcame Wenger's relatively raw team.

McLeish is loyal to players, such as his former Rangers skipper Ferguson, that serve him well. That will not stop him wanting to "grow" the team with new blood in the summer - a careful balancing act in that better players command higher wages which could, in turn, undermine the team spirit at St Andrew's.

And, though no one will say so publicly for fear of bursting the bubble of euphoria Blues have been living in all week, there would be no shortage of suitors for McLeish should Yeung prove unable or unwilling to come up with the finance to take the club forward.

The Glaswegian is, after all, a disciple of Alex Ferguson's. Given his success on a limited budget, he would be a candidate for the top jobs were he to become available. All that, however, will become just hot air if Yeung comes up with the cash and Birmingham actually build on their first major trophy in 48 years.

A win over West Brom, reinvigorated after standing up to Stoke's giant strikeforce, would maintain the momentum. Then the celebrations can resume in earnest.


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