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Monday, 15 February 2010

Birmingham City: Europe via the league or FA Cup glory – you decide?


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I never thought I’d see the day that our Prime Minister would cry on national television nor did I think I’d ever see Burnley ply their trade in the Premier League and I certainly never thought I’d see Birmingham City sitting just seven points off a Champions League spot and in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

Alex McLeish has worked his magic at St Andrews this season and they on course for their best campaign in the top flight since they finished sixth back in 1956. The former Scotland manager knows all about defending following his glittering playing career at Aberdeen under Sir Alex Ferguson and he has ensured that Birmingham’s success all comes from a solid rearguard. He has also acquired a number of experienced pros in midfield, players who know what it takes to win games and stop the opposition getting into their flow.

All in all it is a great time to be a Birmingham fan. The team is enjoying success on the pitch and off the field there is plenty of money to spend if and when McLeish feels the need to open the chequebook. But what is the main aim of the fans right now – to finish as high up as the league as possible to bring European football to St Andrews or a day out at Wembley in the hope of winning their first FA Cup?

Birmingham City have been up and down the top two divisions like a whore’s knickers in recent years but McLeish’s main priority is to re-establish the Blues as a top flight team. Unless they have a calamitous collapse between now and the end of the season, Birmingham will playing Arsenal and Manchester United again next year. But looking at their remaining fixtures there is no reason why the Blues shouldn’t be entertaining some of Europe’s top names either.

They start their run-in with a trip to Craven Cottage this Sunday. Fulham may be a bit jaded following their Europa League exploits in midweek so there are points there for the taking. Then they host the league’s most Jekyll and Hyde side Wigan Athletic. Roberto Martinez’s men have beaten both Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers away from home this season but the Blues should be better prepared and organised for their visit.

Birmingham then face basement boys Portsmouth at Fratton Park before hosting in-form Everton and then travelling to under pressure Sunderland. McLeish then faces his hardest spell of the season with home games against Arsenal and Liverpool before travelling to Manchester City. And to finish the season off they have home games with Hull City, Burnley, Bolton and away days at Villa and Blackburn – a game which needs to be rearranged due to cup commitments.

That is not a bad run-in at all and at worst I can see Birmingham picking up 22 points from those games. It would give Birmingham a points total of 59 which would have guaranteed them European football last season.

However, it’s been 54 years since Birmingham were last in the FA Cup Final and the fans would love to finally get their hands on the famous trophy at the third time of asking. In 1931 it was Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion who prevented them from winning the competition and in 1956 it was Manchester City’s turn to give Birmingham the cup blues.

The St Andrews outfit have seen off Championship high fliers Nottingham Forest, Merseyside giants Everton and East Midlands rivals Derby County to book their place in the last eight with another away day their prize, this time to crisis club Portsmouth. Alex McLeish will never underestimate an opponent but he will have been pleased to have avoided some of the big guns still left in the competition and secretly fancy his chances of progressing to the semi-finals.

Birmingham City haven’t featured in an FA Cup semi-final since losing to Fulham in a replay in 1975. This is arguably their best chance of rectifying that stat and with the prospect of possibly playing Villa or West Brom at Wembley for a place in the final, McLeish would not want to let the fans down.

But what’s more important to you –European football or a place in the FA Cup Final? You never know Big Eck may be able to replicate Arthur Turner’s side of 1956 by reaching Wembley and finishing sixth, but if you had to place one over the other, what would it be? I’d love to hear from you.

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Colin Illingworth

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