Blues counting on more McLeish magic
Alex McLeish sighed and shrugged after Birmingham City's calamitous home defeat by Fulham. "You can't just magic a performance out of thin air," said the manager, but that is precisely what his injury-hit team may have to do at Tottenham on Sunday to stay in the Premier League.
Super-optimists among the Bluenose fraternity, who could probably be counted on the fingers of an offensive gesture after Fulham won 2-0 going on 6-0 last weekend, will note that McLeish has a track record of conjuring unexpected victories against the odds. He did it as Scotland manager, completing a competitive double over a France side who had just contested the World Cup final and repeated the feat when Birmingham won at main rivals Reading to clinch promotion from the Championship two years ago.
Most famously, he did it again when Birmingham stunned Arsenal to win the Carling Cup at Wembley 12 weeks ago on Sunday.
So "magicking" a performance is something which McLeish is eminently capable of doing. It is the "thin air" bit of his assertion that will concern Birmingham's supporters, for it conjures an image of a team gasping for breath at the higher altitude that is the Premier League.
Since the heady day at the end of February when Obafemi Martins leapt on an Arsenal defensive mix-up to poke in the goal that shattered Arsene Wenger's season, Birmingham have won just two of their 11 league matches. They go into the final round of fixtures standing outside the relegation zone only on goal difference - by a solitary goal - and will have to match, or better, the results of Wigan and Blackpool to secure a third consecutive season among the elite.
If they fail in that aim, they will become only the second club, after League Cup winners Norwich in 1985, ever to lift a major trophy and get relegated in the same campaign. Should that happen, McLeish may feel he has had enough of struggling to get by on modest resources. Then again, Carson Yeung, the owner who came in promising (but so far failing) to deliver an £80 million war chest, could either decide to dispense with the Scot or beat a hasty retreat himself.
Far-fetched scenarios, some might say, but as the snapping of David Sullivan and David Gold's patience with Avram Grant at West Ham proved, relegation changes mindsets. Worryingly for Blues, the other teams on 39 points, Wigan and Blackpool, showed tangible battling spirit in defeating West Ham and Bolton respectively. By contrast, Birmingham surrendered wearily to a Fulham side famous for their frailty on the road.
Afterwards, one reporter questioned whether Birmingham had demonstrated sufficient stomach for the fight. McLeish's untypically brusque response, in which he intimated that the journalist might be "torn apart" if he repeated the charge in the dressing-room, highlighted the strain he is under. The hope must be that his players will be imbued with similar aggression and disdain for defeatist talk by the time they run out at Tottenham.
For McLeish, the first problem will not be the attitude of his side, but its very composition. Last season he was able to field the same starting XI for nine matches in succession. This time he has suffered a plague of injuries, topped off by untimely suspensions. "We're short of legs and presence," he said. An inelegant phrase but one that summed up Birmingham's predicament.
The rock-like partnership between Scott Dann and Roger Johnson in central defence was ended by the former's serious injury in January. James McFadden, whose wonder goal against France earned McLeish the tabloid title of "Master of Paris", has not played for eight months and the list goes on, taking in both Wembley scorers, Nikola Zigic and Martins. After three men limped off against Fulham, substitute Aleksandr Hleb then had to be carried off. If it wasn't for bad luck, as a different kind of blues adage has it, Birmingham would have no luck at all.
Their woes can't be solely attributed to misfortune, however. Aston Villa have banished the spectre of relegation mainly by Darren Bent's scoring touch, and another neighbouring club, West Bromwich Albion, have pulled clear largely through Peter Odemwingie's 15 goals. Bent, who cost Villa £18 million, rising to £24 million, was outside McLeish's range (though Yeung initially encouraged the impression he could finance such deals), but Odemwingie set Albion back just £1 million.
A finisher of that quality, grafted on to a team that boasts an England-quality goalkeeper in Ben Foster (even if he has chosen a sabbatical from international football) and the vastly experienced Barry Ferguson in midfield, might have seen Birmingham avoid the last-day trauma and drama that awaits them on Sunday. Instead they signed Zigic for a reputed £6 million. The giant, slow-turning Serb's place in the club's folklore is assured for his Wembley goal; his place among the Premier League's top scorers list is conspicuous by its absence. Birmingham, indeed, have collected fewer goals than any top-flight team.
Still, strange things happen and form counts for nothing when Birmingham play the north London clubs. Quite apart from the last-gasp victory over Arsenal, McLeish produced a 3-2 win at Tottenham - out of thin air, many would say - on his debut as successor to Steve Bruce. Sebastian Larsson scored the vital goal in 2007, and in the last seconds to boot. A similar upset, rather than the defeat Birmingham have suffered on their other five Premier League visits to White Hart Lane, is the straw at which McLeish is clutching.