The Insight: Can Birmingham City finally escape apathy under Wayne Rooney?

 | December 14 | 

7 mins read

Wayne Rooney Birmingham City graphic

Relief. That was the emotion that overcame Wayne Rooney as the full-time whistle blew at the Cardiff City Stadium on Wednesday. His Birmingham City side had just recorded their first away win under his tenure, and only their second victory in the 10 league matches he has taken charge of since coming into the role in early October. 

It was a managerial change that shocked the entirety of English football. John Eustace had built an impressive squad over the summer with some financial backing from Shelby Companies Ltd and Blues sat sixth in the table. Despite the new owners setting big targets, it looked like Eustace was exceeding all expectations. 

For the first time in seven seasons, Birmingham were realistically targeting a top-half finish in the second tier. Let’s not forget the mind-numbing misery this club has suffered over that time period. Their last seven league finishes read: 19th, 19th, 17th, 20th, 18th, 20th, 17th. It’s actually an impressive feat to be that poor for that long, and yet avoid the bottom three. 

Rather than being pathetic, the Blues have been apathetic - which is almost worse. 

As recently as the start of the 2022/23 season, Birmingham City were favourites to be relegated from the Championship. They had just finished 20th in the league the season before and were fortunate to escape the drop after both Derby County and Reading were docked points.

With the club in dire straits financially, former owners BSHL seemed destined to drag this iconic club into the pits. But there were murmurings of a takeover bubbling under the surface. At one point it looked like the Blues would be thrown out of the fire and into the frying pan as eccentric former Watford owner Laurence Bassini declared his interest. 

But things soon cleared up and, in the summer, Shelby Companies Ltd - a subsidiary of an American investment group, Knighthead Capital Management, fronted by Tom Wagner, purchased the club. Birmingham City were finally in the clear, and after keeping the club up Eustace began to build a decent squad for this level. 

Krystian Bielek, Ethan Laird, Siriki Dembele, Cody Drameh, Dion Sanderson, Tyler Roberts and Lee Buchanen all joined as Birmingham spent some decent cash on transfers. With the off-the-field problems sorted, the players quickly gelled on the pitch. A 1-0 win over Leeds United in August was the highlight of the season so far, while back-to-back wins against Huddersfield Town and West Bromwich Albion took them into the play-offs. 

Then Tom Wagner and co. got itchy feet. The decision to sack Eustace and replace him with Rooney didn’t go down well with the home fans who had enjoyed such a positive start to the season, but the reasoning given does explain it to some extent.

Birmingham City betting odds:

  • Birmingham to beat Leicester City @ 5/1
  • Birmingham to finish in the top six @ 28/1
  • Birmingham to be relegated @ 8/1

In an open letter to supporters, CEO Garry Cook said that Eustace had "clear ambitions and goals for the season", but "following a series of meetings over a number of months" it was apparent that the ambitions of the owners and the coach did not match. He said that "when this happens, the best thing to do is to part company."

Cook instantly became the most unpopular man in the second city with this decision. The CEO hired by the new owners had sacked Eustace, a talented coach who had made strong connections with those in the stands, in favour of one of England’s greatest-ever players. A big name, especially in the States, critics saw this as a publicity stunt - with little consideration for how it would impact the squad and results on the pitch. 

Birmingham fans were left even more frustrated by this managerial switch, given they’ve seen how this kind of thing has unfolded in the past at their own club. On this day in 2016, Gary Rowett was sacked by Blues with the club seventh in the Championship table and pushing for the play-offs. In came Gianfranco Zola, with the same narrative about ambition being spouted by those who made the change. 

It backfired spectacularly as the Italian manager won just two of his 22 matches in charge, eventually resigning with the club in 20th place. After one win in Rooney's first nine games (a worse start than Zola), it felt like this was déjà vu for those in blue. The main difference between the two situations is that this Birmingham squad is far superior to the one that Zola inherited. Rowett was vastly overperforming, whereas there was a lot of hope that this current crop would be able to finish in the top half this term.

Clearly Rooney still has a lot to prove in football management. His greatest managerial achievement so far was how he handled himself at Derby County, during a period when the club almost went out of business. Amid all of their off-the-pitch troubles Rooney first kept the team in the second tier, and then after starting the season with only a handful of first-team players, he almost kept them in the league for a second successive time. 

His spell at DC United in the United States was less impressive, but the former England captain is still learning his trade in the dugout. He is at the very start of what he hopes will be a long and successful career. Another factor at play is the cynical and derisive viewpoint some football fans have towards former players moving into management. 

We have seen the same with both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, a feeling that they haven’t deserved the jobs they have been given and are only there because of their playing careers. As a result, there is a feeling across football that the public want these former players to fail. Combine that with the circumstances that Rooney inherited at Birmingham, which were completely out of his control, and you have a negative environment from day one. 

The performances on the pitch haven’t been great, and there has clearly been a regression from what we saw at the start of the season under Eustace - but ten games is simply far too early to write off a relatively inexperienced manager who could still do big things in the game. The Cardiff result could be a sign that a corner has been turned, or it could be a one-off win against an unpredictable outfit. It’s up to Rooney to make sure it is the prior rather than the latter. 

The new owners of Birmingham City have got almost everything right so far. They’ve invested massively in the facilities, upgraded parts of St Andrew's and have been listening to fans. The Tom Brady ‘investment’ felt a little showbiz, but they’ve done brilliant work in the community, recently setting up a new foundation that will provide presents for underprivileged children this Christmas. 

The club is certainly moving in the right direction, and Cook has vast footballing experience as the CEO of Manchester City between 2008 and 2011, and now the CEO of the Saudi Professional League. He’s not immune to mistakes though. This bold call to sack Eustace may not sit well with the footballing public, but it could pay off in the long run - with the ultimate target for the Blues being a return to the Premier League. If it doesn't come to fruition, however, it is far better that the owners make this mistake now rather than two or three years into the project. Deciding how much time to give to Rooney, a man they have already invested so much money and hope into, will be their next big call. 

For now, at least the Blues have escaped the abject apathy that strangled their club for so long. 

Birmingham City to beat Leicester City at 5/1

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