Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Birmingham rebound in the Europa League

Unexpected Journeys : Chapter 3

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 8, 2018
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Birmingham City’s first major European adventure for 50 years started more than 1,500 miles from home on the island of Madeira. CD Nacional were the opposition and their ground was closer to the North African coast than the Portuguese mainland. The heat was intense and a makeshift Blues team dominated but were unable to score.

Despite hitting the woodwork three times, the first leg of their Europa League play-off ended goalless in front of a crowd of just over 4,000 at the Madeira Stadium. Those who travelled did so fearing that this would be their only opportunity to watch Birmingham play away in European competition. Thankfully they were proved wrong.

Supporters turned out in force for the return leg at St. Andrew’s and were rewarded with a stirring 3-0 victory to confirm their place in the group stage. Exciting academy graduate Nathan Redmond cut in from the left to smash home the opener from distance after 15 minutes, his first goal for the club. David Murphy added a second before on-loan striker Chris Wood put the finishing touch to a neat passing move late on.

Of the 11 players that started that night, just four had been with Blues the previous season. Only one, the club captain Stephen Carr, had been in the team that won the League Cup final earlier that year, securing qualification for the Europa League. On and off the pitch, Birmingham’s situation had completely changed in the space of a few months.

It all began with victory over Arsenal at Wembley. Obafemi Martins’ 89th-minute winner earned Blues only the second major trophy in their history, and the goalscorer a permanent place in the club’s folklore. The final was played on owner Carson Yeung’s birthday and he watched on, delighted at a defining success. But the squad that achieved it was soon torn asunder.

A disastrous run of form ended in relegation from the Premier League, the departure of manager Alex McLeish and mounting financial issues. Yeung was arrested on money laundering charges in Hong Kong and prime assets had to be sold. Against this backdrop, Chris Hughton was appointed and successfully navigated his team through an epic 63-game season.

“The players were aware of the financial situation,” says Wade Elliott, a midfielder who made 40 appearances that season. “We didn’t know the intricacies of it, but I’ve got to say that it was never really something that affected the group. We had some really good characters in the squad, who were quite experienced and had good personalities, and obviously the management too.

“Chris is very calm in every situation. He was never too high when we won and never too low when we lost. He just steered everything really well. You’re not isolated as a player, you’re aware of what’s going on, but it wasn’t ever something that affected us. Character-wise we were strong enough to put things like that to one side.

“Chris was excellent. He managed people really well and tactically he was very good. He had a clear idea of what he wanted and everybody understood their roles. He was just a really good, genuine guy that you wanted to play for. You felt a responsibility towards him to do well and he was a massive factor in why that team was so good.”

The squad was constructed on the cheap, with Elliott one of just two players for whom a fee was paid. That summer, seven first team players were released, another six sold, and one loaned out to save money. Twelve replacements arrived and an improbable European journey as a crisis-ridden second-tier side was embarked upon.

“It was a great opportunity to play European football and that was big factor in me joining the club. That was the icing on the cake really. They’d qualified by winning the League Cup the season before and then beating Nacional. The lads said the atmosphere was great and obviously I got to taste that in the group stage a bit later on. The whole journey was brilliant,” says Elliott.

Blues were drawn against Club Brugge, FC Maribor and Braga, the previous year’s runners-up. They faced Braga at home in their first group game and were thoroughly outclassed. The visitors fielded several Portuguese internationals, including Hugo Viana and Nuno Gomes, and dominated possession. Marlon King temporarily cut the deficit before Helder Barbosa clinched a 3-1 win with his second of the game.

A trip to Slovenian champions Maribor followed and Blues fell behind after deputy goalkeeper Colin Doyle swung at fresh air when attempting to clear a poor Jonathan Spector backpass. They recovered impressively in the second half, scoring twice in front of the Blues fans to get off the mark. Chris Burke slid home the first before Elliott’s 20-yard shot squirmed through Jasmin Handanovic and over the line.

“The home games were great because of the atmosphere but for me the highlights were the away games,” he claims. “It was a completely different experience in terms of your preparation and travel, and everything that came with it. We went to Maribor and I scored. It was a really tight ground and all our fans were behind a fence on some terracing at that end. They just went wild.”

Birmingham’s third match of the group stage was by far the most dramatic and memorable. More than five thousand supporters descended on Brugge to claim the town centre as their own. The Belgian side were unbeaten against English opposition at the Jan Breydel Stadium until, on a charged night, Blues somehow brought that run to an end.

“I think because Brugge is so easy to get to – you can fly, you can go on the train, you can get the ferry and drive – there were just thousands and thousands of Blues fans there. We were obviously in a hotel a little bit out of town but the staff would often nip into the centre and come back with videos of what the atmosphere was like and how it was building,” says Elliott.

“I remember the journey from the hotel to the stadium and it was just electric. There was a bit of a crackle in the air and you could feel it. We went 1-0 down after about four minutes and I don’t think we’d touched the ball. I remember thinking ‘We’re in a bit of trouble here.’ They were a very, very good team.”

Against the run of play, David Murphy equalised, finishing off Elliott’s low cross. From then on the game was more even and Blues pushed for the winner after the break. Their efforts were interrupted by a serious head injury to defender Pablo Ibanez, who lay motionless on the ground before being carried off on a stretcher.

The game resumed after a long delay and Chris Wood struck with virtually the last touch. Keep Right On rang out across the stands and supporters stayed behind to celebrate a famous win that put the unfashionable outsiders joint-top of their group. “Brugge had a really proud record at home in Europe and Woody scoring a last-minute winner in front of all our supporters was probably the best moment of the campaign.”

A fortnight later, Birmingham and Brugge reconvened at St. Andrew’s. Chris Hughton’s side fell two goals behind and were once more forced to respond. Chilean winger Jean Beausejour pulled one back and then Marlon King calmly slotted in a penalty to rescue a point. It kept the pressure on ahead of a tough trip to Braga.

The previous season Braga had competed in the Champions League group stage for the first time in their history. They finished third behind Arsenal and Shakhtar Donetsk, being parachuted into the Europa League knockout rounds. Liverpool were amongst the teams they saw off on the way to the final, where they lost to domestic rivals Porto. Regardless of the defeat, they had an impressive pedigree.

As a result, Blues travelled to Braga more in hope than expectation. They were greeted by one of the most unique grounds in world football. Built for Euro 2004, the Municipal Stadium of Braga has just two stands, on either side of the pitch. The city can be glimpsed behind one goal, while the other is cut into a steep quarry face.

Attacking that end in the first half, Blues should have taken the lead. Wade Elliott was fouled in the box but Nikola Zigic failed to take advantage from the penalty spot, his tame effort comfortably saved by Quim. They were made to pay as Hugo Viana’s deflected shot gifted the home side an important victory.

“Braga were very expansive. It was a different type of football to what we faced week-in and week-out. We had a decent side ourselves, and good management and good coaches. We adapted pretty well and we were probably a little bit different to what they were used to coming up against,” says Elliott.

“I’m sure we posed them slightly different challenges as well. That was part of the beauty of it, experiencing something different in terms of the atmosphere, the type of players you were up against and the style of football. Everything combined made it a little bit special.”

In the other game that night, Club Brugge recovered from 3-0 down with 16 minutes remaining to beat Maribor. A curious result, it meant that even if Blues won their final group game, a draw between Braga and Club Brugge would be enough to send both sides through at their expense. And so it proved. Adam Rooney’s header meant that Birmingham did their bit but were squeezed out at the last.

“It would have been lovely to progress and experience a bit more but it wasn’t to be,” reflects Elliott. “St. Andrew’s, especially under the lights and with a full house, is a great atmosphere anyway. They were really big nights and the numbers that travelled abroad were phenomenal. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go and see Birmingham in European competition. It felt like an occasion that everyone wanted to come out and be part of.

“That transmitted itself throughout the whole season. There was a really good synergy between the players, the club, the fans. Maybe not so much with what was going on at boardroom level, but there was a good feel about the place. Europe probably capped it off.”

Much as players and supporters wanted the run to continue it came to a premature end in the group stage. As the games racked up and injuries accumulated towards the end of the season, with Blues going out in the play-offs to Blackpool, there was a sense that the club’s Europa League exploits had perhaps stretched some too far. Even if that was the case, many would contend that the memories made along the way were worth it.

Series: Unexpected Journeys

Unexpected Journeys: When Ipswich Town’s tractor boys roared into Europe Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Wigan Athletic take solace in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Birmingham rebound in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Middlesbrough’s year of miracles in the UEFA Cup Unexpected Journeys: When Stoke City ran up the Europa League air miles
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