On the 26th of June 2012, Lee Clark was confirmed as the new manager of Birmingham City. Chris Hughton had succumbed to the lure of the Premier League by taking over at Norwich. Nobody blamed him – he deserved to manage in the top flight. The man who had led us to a 4th placed finish, the Europa League group stages and an FA Cup fifth round replay was gone. So, it was Clark’s time. Could he go one further than his predecessor and take us to Wembley? Was automatic promotion even on the cards?
Behind the scenes, our owner Carson Yeung had been arrested on money laundering charges and the club’s future looked unstable. Jordon Mutch was sold to Cardiff to raise much-needed funds to reportedly ‘keep us going’. A transfer embargo was placed on all incoming transfers, although this was lifted. Those early hopes of promotion soon faded as fans realised Clark had a tough job on his hands.
Upon arriving, the new manager had to deal with masses of transfer speculation surrounding young goalkeeper Jack Butland, Nathan Redmond and Curtis Davies. Blues managed to hold on to all three during the summer transfer window. Lee Clark did what he could with the tight budget he had been given and brought in Hayden Mullins, Peter Lovenkrands and Darren Ambrose. The latter being the only player that commanded a transfer fee. Ravel Morrison and Paul Caddis joined on season-long loans, with Adam Rooney going to Swindon as part of the Caddis deal.
Blues started at home to newly-promoted Charlton, and it took a 94th minute goal from Nikola Zigic to rescue a point. It took until September 1st for Birmingham to record their first league win of the season; a 1-0 victory over Peterborough, a match in which five of our substitutes were teenagers. This was a sign of things to come, with many Blues youngsters making their breakthrough’s this year.
Three weeks later, Barnsley were the visitors to St Andrew’s and no matter how much Blues fans try to forget that day, it was quite simply, unforgettable. We’d comfortably dispatched Bolton in the midweek leading up to the match and I was quietly confident of a victory. The first half was drab, uneventful and uninspiring but nothing could have prepared the 13,893 crowd (less than half of that by the end) for the events of the second period. Just 28 minutes after the restart, Barnsley were 5-0 up. Craig Davies had scored four at the home of the club he supported as a boy after Stephen Foster’s opener. The worst thing was our goalkeeper actually played well! Seven days later Blues emerged the victors at the Amex with a 1-0 win over Brighton, showing everyone what a ‘funny old league’ the Championship is.
By 5pm on Saturday October 6th, Birmingham City had lost as many home league games in 14 days as they had during the whole of the season before. A solitary loss during the 2011-12 campaign – two in two weeks during this one. Supporters who had started the season as optimists were now ‘glass half-empty’ kind of people. Blues weren’t performing and Clark was under pressure. Just a single win during October further increased the pressure on our boss, although Leroy Lita’s goals which won the three points at Leeds was a special one indeed.
A packed November schedule followed and a chance for Blues to find some form and distance themselves from the relegation zone. However, just two wins from seven ensured this wasn’t the case. Another sub-15,000 crowd at St Andrew’s saw a confident home side dominate the game against Bristol City; the scoreline should have been greater than 2-0. This was a stark contrast to the loss versus visitors Ipswich three days before. Two more draws and two more losses then followed as Blues rolled over at home to Hull City, 3-0 down at half time, and at Pride Park against Derby. We played host to Middlesbrough in the final game of November and won 3-2 against a backdrop of a large ‘Clark Out’ banner at the top of the Tilton End.
Up next was a visit to Molineux in the first Wolves derby of the season. In truth it was a tame and boring affair, nothing a derby match should be. Blues’ top scorer Marlon King was the only player on the scoresheet, unfortunately scoring an own-goal in front of the South Bank. We beat Barnsley 2-1 on Boxing Day, the return fixture of that horror show at St Andrew’s three months earlier.
After losing 1-0 to Cardiff on New Year’s Day, our FA campaign finally got underway and Blues were drawn away to Leeds. The match ended 1-1 with Wade Elliot scoring the goal of the season but that was overshadowed by a horrible leg break sustained by Blues’ young American defender Will Packwood. Thankfully, Will is progressing well after nearly six months out. The replay saw The Whites through to the fourth round. The only win in January came at Turf Moor; Marlon King’s stunning injury time volley cancelling out Burnley’s equaliser.
Onto February and Blues’ on-field fortunes were looking up with a loss to Watford the only blip. Comfortable wins over Nottingham Forest and Peterborough propelled Birmingham up the league and up to the dizzy heights of mid-table. The match against Forest was one of significance as it saw Alex McLeish’s first return to his old ground since he joined Villa from Blues in 2011. The reception he got was less than welcoming and Chris Burke, one of McLeish’s targets during the January window, fittingly scored both goals in a 2-1 win, thus achieving back-to-back wins for the first time under Clark’s reign. The Scottish winger was also on target at London Road against Peterborough in a 2-0 victory.
The month of March was undoubtedly a turning point for Lee Clark and his squad, fans harboured play-off ambitions once more and the form tables were led by Blues. After victories over Derby and Middlesbrough this fine form undoubtedly peaked when Blues visited Selhust Park and ran out 4-0 winners, and on Sky too. Shane Ferguson’s sensational free-kick capped off the performance of the season, one that everyone connected with Birmingham City had a right to be proud of. I was one of the 1300 away fans on that Friday night and was in awe at an absolutely magnificent achievement of hammering the team with one of the best home records in the league.
Unfortunately Blues couldn’t carry that form onto the visit of Wolves, but if we had, who knows what could have transpired in the closing months of the season? We were within sight of the play-offs but after going three games without a win that dream seemed to be slipping away. But, after wins over Bristol City and Leeds, Blues went into the final two games of the season still within mathematical reach of sixth place. But an altogether anti-climactic finish to the campaign ensured that Birmingham City finished 12th place in the Championship, seven points of the play-off places and seven points from the relegation zone. Fifteen wins, fifteen draws and sixteen losses. We couldn’t have finished more mid-table if we had tried.
Lee Clark has my praise for assuring safety and another season in the second-tier of English football. Next season however, with the tightening of the wage budget and increased instability off the field, could prove an even tougher task.
Written by Shane Ireland, We Are Going Up’s Birmingham City blogger
Shane tweets at @_ShaneIreland