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As ill-advised managerial changes go… - Interview
Thursday, 16th Feb 2017 19:19 by Clive Whittingham

Birmingham have won one from 13 since sacking one of the division’s most sought-after managers Gary Rowett and replacing him with Gianfranco Zola. Blues Matthew Elliott and David Jackson try to make sense of it all for us.

Was firing Gary Rowett as stupid as it looked to an outsider?

ME: For a lot of fans, yes. We were in seventh place when he was sacked. However, I don’t think it was as stupid as it seems. It felt like we were beginning to stagnate with Rowett in charge and I don’t think we would have challenged for promotion come the end of the season. To coincide with some poor to average work in the transfer market, there was also talk in various circles that Rowett had allegedly spoken to a number of clubs during his time at Blues. He interviewed at Fulham and Wolves, with varying degrees of success, spoke to QPR (which I’m sure you are aware of) and there may have been one or two other clubs in the mix too. The club offered him a three year deal to tie him down. It wasn’t signed in a timescale the club approved of and they saw this as a lack of commitment. Were they going to let a manager have £10-12m to spend on players if he could walk out on the club at any given moment? I know what I’d do…

DJ: Rowett’s sacking came on the back of a home win against Ipswich with the club seventh in the league and only outside the play-off places on goal difference. In that respect, to many looking in, it’s fair comment to say the decision looked a bit nuts and a good proportion of fans feel the same. Rowett was held in quite high regard by many at the club and obviously followed Lee Clark who was far more divisive. Rowett took a ship threating to sink into League One, steadied it, and seemed to be moving things in the right direction. However, there were many who questioned whether Rowett was the right person to lead the club back to the top flight. Yes, Blues were within sight of the playoffs, but others thought the club were punching above their weight and there had been criticisms over some of his signings. Of course, the latter was somewhat influenced by the club’s financial position at the time.

Was hiring Gianfranco Zola as stupid as it looked to an outsider?

ME: Currently, yes, it does look pretty stupid. I can definitely understand their reasoning for sacking Rowett, but the appointment of Zola was a bit of a headscratcher. Apparently, there were more candidates for the role, Michael Laudrup, Michel (former Marseille, Olympiakos) and Francesco Guidolin, to name a few. All with limited English football experience and no Championship experience at all, so I can maybe see why they plumped for Zola.

DJ: When Rowett was sacked, in the few hours before Zola’s appointment, I don’t think many fans or pundits without any insider information had Zola on their shortlist. Regardless of the club, fans want to be confident any new manager has a proven track record of taking a club forward. Yes, he had plaudits at West Ham United and took Watford to Wembley, however, had poor records at Cagliari and Al-Arabi. Even in his first press conference for Birmingham he seems a little surprised he’d being brought in by the club’s new owners.

Has he actually changed things and it's not working, or is it a case of Rowett's players downing tools?

ME: Rowett’s team was very defensive, quite direct with long balls up to the front man and would vary between 4231, 433 and 442. Zola has tried to get us to play a more attractive brand of football using 433, 442 diamond and now 352, which I think he may stick with. People keep referring to Zola wanting us to have more possession, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. I just think he wants us to be more attacking, take more risks and generally play a nicer passing style of football. You can see that working in some respects, but we don’t have midfielders that are fully comfortable doing this and we are not taking our chances when they fall to us. Mistakes are being made by the whole team and the defence seems to have fallen apart. We’ve been unlucky in some games and have played really well, but you just can’t compensate for mistakes that are being made the players.

DJ: One of the most apparent changes (aside from regular defeats) has been a change in the style of play. Blues haven’t quite made the full transition to ‘tiki-taka’ football, but there’s been an obvious switch to a more passing style of play, rather than ‘hoofing’ the ball up towards Clayton Donalson. It’s worked in parts, but opposition teams have been quick to catch onto and counter what the team is trying. I don’t think it’s a case of Rowett’s players downing tools. In terms of formation, Zola has been experimenting with a diamond midfield with two wingbacks.

Any suggestion he's under pressure already?

ME: I am under the belief that he will get at least until the end of the season. The owners will want to give him time after investing in him and half a new first team. The problem is, the team are not getting results at the moment and if we start to fall down the league closer to the danger zone they may pull the trigger. Zola’s body language and responses in the post-match interview have normally been fairly positive, but I saw a change in that after the Preston game on Tuesday which maybe suggests that there could be some added pressure from above.

DJ: With a 'won one, drawn four and lost eight', record in his first 13 games he’s absolutely under pressure. (Maybe not a Ranieri level of pressure though.) It’s been a woeful start. Even Bruce won a few games when he took over across the city.

How's the mood among the supporters after one win in 13?

ME: We are all frustrated and deflated with recent results. However, there is a divide between the fans. Those that appear to have patience and want Zola to do well and those that appear to be the polar opposite. There is also a lot of animosity towards the current regime and Panos Pavlakis (director). It is causing some pretty heated arguments online and I’ve even witnessed it in the stands. I desperately want Zola to work out, but as time goes on even I am losing faith.

DJ: Surprisingly, the mood seems OK. I think people are largely behind Zola and it’s important he’s given a chance to prove himself with the signings he made in January. I don’t think Birmingham would have been promotion contenders with the squad under Rowett. He’s tried to change the way Birmingham play and there are positives which are coming out of his methods.

The ownership situation has finally changed since we last spoke, who's bought it and what outlandish promises are they making?

ME: Trillion Trophy Asia, fronted by Hong Kong entrepreneur Paul Suen. He has basically made a living by turning around distressed stock. You can see why he was interested in taking on Blues. They have been very quiet since the takeover. No real communication with the fans, no press conferences, no outlandish promises and no real vision shared with anyone. I’m not even sure Blues are that much of a priority for them at this point in time. They will have other fields of interests where they intend to make money. I think there is a longer term goal with Blues, it might even coincide with how Birmingham develops as a city and could even coincide the Commonwealth games coming to Birmingham in the future.

DJ: After years of turmoil under the ‘Carson Yeung’ era, the club is now owned by Trillion Trophy Asia following its takeover last year. TTA is owned by Paul Suen Cho Hung and the company own a controlling stake of Birmingham International Holdings, the holding company which owns the club. TTA has previously said it’d invest £12m into the club and bring in about ten players. To their credit, the squad has been bolstered during the recent transfer window with players of a higher pedigree of what Rowett achieved. All in all, a little less ‘outlandish’ than the £80m Yeung reportedly said he was going to invest when he took over in 2009.

Stand out players and weak links...

ME: Goalkeeper, Tomasz Kuszczak, has been keeping us in games and making defeats slightly more respectable for the last two years. Other than that?? Our new left back, Cheick Keita, plucked from Serie B looks quite a prospect, going forward especially. Unfortunately, Keita is also part of a defence that is struggling on the actual defensive side of the game. Lukas Jutkiewicz has been fairly prolific since joining on loan, despite a number of crucial misses and another forward, Che Adams, looks like he is finding some form that will cause the opposition some problems. With regards to weak links… Zola? Seriously though, collective mistakes, individual errors and a defence with no confidence.

DJ: Cheick Keita who signed from Virtus Entella and Emio Nsue from Middlesbrough, are both looking promising in their wingback roles and the return of Craig Gardner on loan from West Brom has provided a bit more quality in midfield. Although we’ve signed Lukas Jutkiewicz from Burnley and he has been scoring goals, he’s also squandered a few chances which have probably cost the club points. Blues aren’t scoring enough goals and central defence is still a bit shaky.

Short, medium and long term aims for the club...

ME: This season is just to embed a new style of play and get them playing it confidently. Next season we have to have a real crack at the play offs. Long-term of course they’ve got to look at promotion to the Premier League and possibly a move to a new stadium eventually.

DJ: Sort term aim – double the number of games won under Zola.
Medium term aim - do enough to stay up because let’s not kid around - this is bordering on relegation form.
Long term, continuing the turnaround of the club to one which can (one day) mount a serious promotion challenge.

The Twitter @matthewblue1875, @davidtjackson, @loftforwords

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TacticalR added 12:40 - Feb 17
Thanks to Matthew and David.

Changing the whole style of play mid-season? Sounds like us.

'Blues aren’t scoring enough goals and central defence is still a bit shaky'. Also sounds like us.

Myke added 13:01 - Feb 17
Time for the cnampionship charity club, aka QPR, to step in and help Birmingham out of a bind.

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