Behind Enemy Lines: Birmingham City

MILLWALL are in Birmingham where they face Gary Rowett’s former side at St Andrew’s on Saturday.

The Lions have drawn their last four league games and are unbeaten on the road since losing at Swansea on October 3.

Rowett’s side have not lost on their last four visits to Birmingham, last season’s meeting finishing 1-1 after Shaun Williams gave the Lions the lead before Jake Clarke-Salter’s equaliser.

Alex Grace spoke to Blues fan Gabriel Sutton this week.

Twitter: @GabSutton

Why do you support Birmingham?

Short answer: they’re my local team and my father supported them.

Long answer: I went to a few games in the late ‘90s and early noughties but didn’t really feel gripped by football – which feels like a strange thing to write given where things are now.

I went to watch Ian Bennett’s testimonial in summer 2003 – for some reason against Trinidad & Tobago – and something about the experience clicked in a way it hadn’t before. Luckily someone my dad knew had a season ticket but couldn’t go due to living in America, so I could go every week.

What season did you first start following Blues?

2003-04 was the first season I went every week and had a genuine emotional investment in the team. We finished 10th in the Premier League with the likes of Maik Taylor, Robbie Savage and Mikael Forssell – we’ve only since come higher than that once so I started with a good’un!

What is the most memorable Birmingham game you’ve seen?

You’ll probably think I’m going to say the League Cup win over Arsenal in 2011 – but in a sense, we could have lost that game and it would still have been an amazing day out.

We drew 2-2 at Bolton on the final day of the Championship season three years later to stay up with 43 points and, in some ways, that was memorable in a different way because it would have been a disaster had we lost.

Millwall stayed up on the final day that season, too.

Ben Thompson scored Millwall’s goals in their 2-0 win at Birmingham in 2018-19

Last season was a disappointing one – what did you make of it?

It was actually going okay up until March, when the 3-1 loss to Reading ended a long unbeaten run just before lockdown.

After the restart, we leaked goals at an alarming rate and could have sleepwalked our way to relegation were it not for Wigan’s points deduction.

It’s still early days in the Aitor Karanka era – are you happy with what you’ve seen so far?

Yes, but I may be in the minority. A lot of fans are disgruntled at the perceived defensive style of play, but personally I can enjoy a solid defensive display and there has been a drastic improvement in organisation. George Friend has been a fantastic signing in that sense.

It’s been a strange year or so in terms of the managerial shenanigans at St Andrew’s – what have the fans made of it?

Garry Monk did a good job with little leeway in the transfer market and left over a dispute with the board.

Pep Clotet I still think has a good tactical mind but possibly lacked the communication skills of his predecessor and pretty much everyone wanted him out really by the end.

I just hope Karanka is given time because we’ve had seven different managers in the last four years and I don’t think you can build anything like that.

What have you made of Birmingham’s start?

Solid if unspectacular. We’ve only lost two games against sides outside the top two which I think is a positive, but it’s frustrating that they’ve come against strugglers Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe.

The quick fixture turnaround has seen Karanka chop and change a lot and I can understand the rationale for keeping players fresh, but perhaps it has come at the cost of us homing in on any clear playing identity.

What are your aspirations for the season?

I would be more critical of Karanka if we were in the same position in 12 months, but we’ve faced the threat of relegation in five of the last seven seasons, so this is a process. Let’s build a clean-sheet machine this year and then refine our use of the ball to push on next season.

Former Blues boss Gary Rowett was appointed Millwall boss last October – what do you make of the job he’s done so far?

I felt straight from the appointment that something about Rowett and Millwall just fits like a glove.

He’s clearly drilled you into shape and I feel you’ve got four very good centre-backs on your books. Perhaps you’ve been held back going forward by injuries to the likes of Kenneth Zohore and Troy Parrott.

I get the sense he’s looking to evolve the side technically a bit more this season, too, perhaps? There doesn’t seem to be a like-for-like replacement for ball-winner Jayson Molumby which, for me, could be telling.

Are you happy with Birmingham’s summer business?

Yes. I’d argue every player we’ve brought in has improved us individually. Friend I’ve already mentioned, Mikel San Jose adds composure and class in midfield, Ivan Sanchez is skilful, Neil Etheridge is a top goalkeeper at this level, Riley McGree is full of running and great at linking midfield to attack. Some fantastic business.

If you could add two Millwall players to the Birmingham side, who would they be and why?

Jake Cooper and Jed Wallace. Cooper is a real aerial threat – he’d help us get more out of Sanchez’s quality set-piece deliveries and Marc Roberts’ long throws, although I’m actually a bit surprised he hasn’t scored more for you since that 2018-19 campaign.

And you don’t need me to tell you how good Wallace is.

Gary Rowett faces one one of his former clubs

Who are Birmingham’s danger men?

I’m hoping Karanka goes with a three-man midfield of Ivan Sunjic, San Jose and McGree, because I just love the blend of qualities they bring. Sunjic is extremely tenacious, a bit like Molumby, San Jose can collect the ball off the defence and dictate, while McGree has that energy and dynamism.

I’m sure you’ll be familiar with target man Lukas Jutkiewicz from our battles over the years – it wasn’t quite his day in the 0-0 draw with Coventry last Friday despite three good chances, but he netted from the spot at Luton in midweek.

What’s your predicted Birmingham starting XI and formation?

Karanka went to 5-3-2 in midweek but with San Jose in midfield capable of dropping into defence at times, I don’t feel like we need the extra centre-back – certainly not ifFriend is on the far left of the defence as well.

I’m hoping he switches to 4-3-3 with the following line-up:

Etheridge; Colin, Roberts, Friend, Pedersen; Sunjic, San Jose, McGree; Sanchez, Jutkiewicz, Bela.

And a score prediction?

I’ll back my team. 1-0 Blues. Good luck to the Lions, hope you make the play-offs this season as you’re a top bunch and I’d love to see Rowett do well.

Image: @ShedCreative