April 24, 2014 by bluenosebible
By Nat Peters
Anyone who knows me (or reads my articles on anything like a regular basis) knows I have backed Lee Clark during his time as Birmingham City manager. I have backed him and backed him, and backed him again. I’ve done this in the face of a lot of people telling me how bad he really is as a manager.
But I cannot defend that team selection of his on Monday. When I say team selection, it was more like a footballing suicide note. It went a long, long way to ensuring that we got hammered. A crucial game, and he has presided over what was the worst performance I’ve ever seen from a Blues team (in the first-half anyway). Worse, he’s not only presided over it, he has to ultimately take a lot of the responsibility for it.
I think the players also have to take some of the blame. The only two to come out of Easter Momday with any credit are Nikola Zigic and Mitch Hancox (who came on when we had fallen three and four behind respectively) – the rest of them were weak, spineless, lackadaisical and lethargic. It was pathetic; we may well have played better in the second half, but we were four-nil down by that point, so you have to say it was rather meaningless. They can hide behind what were bizarre tactical/selection decisions, but for me that doesn’t fully cover the total lack of effort and grit that was on show in the first half. I can’t help but think back to when we had the likes of Grainger, Johnno, Devs, Taity and the Horse; if we had been in that situation with those lot on the pitch for us, 2/3/4-0 down at home in a relegation battle, someone would have been killed before half-time
My opinion of Clark’s spell in charge here hasn’t changed dramatically mind; he is still managing a basket case of a club. He has passion and loyalty in bucket loads, when previous incumbents have walked away from this club as times got tougher he has stuck around. He has effectively built two mid-table Championship teams in my opinion – one finished last season in twelfth place in the league, and one looked as if it could emulate that feat this season at the turn of the year (it’s often forgotten that after beating Blackburn post-Christmas we were closer to the play-offs than we were to the bottom three). I think if we had kept together the team we had at the start of 2014 (and maybe even added to it) we would be much, much higher up the table, well clear of the situation we find ourselves in now, and that would be more than acceptable given the circumstances.
Both of those teams were systematically dismantled. The first because of the club’s hierarchy desire/desperation to get cash in; last Summer we sold off Jack Butland, Nathan Redmond and Curtis Davies, Ravel went back to West Ham and we had to let go of Keith Fahey. The second team (i.e. the one that finished 2013 so strongly) had the heart ripped out of it when Dan Burn and Kyle Bartley were both recalled by their parent clubs; it’s no coincidence we conceded twenty-seven goals in the first half of the season and so far in the second half of this season we have conceded thirty-nine, with most of those coming since both of those players departed. We also lost Jesse Lingard, another player who was becoming more and more influential. Even in recent times we have lost Lee Novak for the last five games of the season, and he has proved hugely influential this season. Every club loses players, but I can’t help but feel that LC has had the rug pulled from under him somewhat.
What I have just said is debateable (well it’s debateable in terms of how much impact it is having on the present). What really isn’t debateable is how bad the team selection for the Blackburn game actually was. A centre-midfielder at left-back, a left-back at centre-half, a centre-half at right-back and a right-back in centre-midfield. To me (and everyone else) it was just bonkers. Brian Howard and Peter Lovenkrands, two very surprise inclusions down the left hand side of the team, carried all the menace of the tooth fairy. As I said, the only two players to come out of the game with any sort of credit were Mitch Hancox and big Zig, and for the life of me I couldn’t fathom why neither started the game, particularly Hancox – in a relegation battle you need players who are guaranteed to put a foot in and get involved in the muck and nettles of a game, he would definitely have done that.
Clark’s comments after the game were astonishing, about how players weren’t out of position and how the balance of the side was better because we had half a team of left footers and half a team of right footers. The players were out of position when you consider where they have spent the majority of their Blues’ careers; Caddis has spent most of his time at full back, Reilly has generally played in the centre of midfield, Tyler Blackett has…um…tried to be a left back and Will Packwood’s best games have come as a centre-half. Considering how big Monday was, and considering we had a very inexperienced backline out there without Robbo, surely it would have been best just to play players in the positions they were most comfortable in, and bring in players like Mitch Hancox who have performed best in positions like left-back this season. I mean LC then went on about having left footers and right footers, but down that left hand side we were torn apart by Josh King; who cares what foot players kick with if they are so ill-equipped to cope with the task in hand?
Ultimately, even if he wouldn’t say so in the post-match press conference, he basically recognised he had cocked it up because of the fact that he had made two changes by the time the second-half kicked off. But as I’ve said, by then it was too little, too late. I personally think he’s panicked, he’s seen how far in the cart we are and picked a real surprising team to…well I don’t really know why he picked that team to be honest. Maybe it was to give the side energy because a few of those players never played at Forest on Saturday, maybe it was to startle the opposition; either way it backfired big time, and we are in deeper trouble than we were before 3pm on Monday. At this point of the season, we cannot afford such haphazard decision making; this is not the time for panic.
A common complaint of Blues’ fans is that “he doesn’t know his best team” – the fact that we have made a substitution at least once before the start of the second half in thirteen of the last twenty games would back that up. But in his defence, we have brought in so many obscure players recently to try and bolster the squad that I suppose it is hard to try and decipher the best XI. But I stand by what I’ve said; the root cause of our problems is the fact that we have many players who, right now, are simply not up to it, and it’s hard to rectify that because we don’t have the money to go out and get better ones.
I would personally stick with Lee Clark – clubs who change their manager season in, season out tend to come out the worse for it. I don’t buy the fact that he’s as tactically woeful as some people do; I think people who label him as the sole reason why we are in the cart are missing the point, that there have been many things going on this season at Blues (and generally since he arrived at the club) which have hindered him and the team which he could have done absolutely nothing about.
But generally I am a loyalist (in the footballing sense of the phrase). I wince a lot of the time when clubs sack their managers, particularly when they bring in replacements who you can tell won’t do any better, which is a point I constantly make. With the club in the state is in, the likelihood is that if Clark does end up going in the relatively near future we will go for another unproven manager at this level or we will go for some no-hoper like Iain Dowie or Owen Coyle.
I also rate some of the things Clark has done very highly. Bringing through young players from the academy has been a real highlight of his time here; even if his hand has been forced by circumstance to do so, he has shown a commitment to bringing through local lads that was noticeably absent in other managers we have had. You also cannot help but admire the fact that he genuinely has got a lot of passion, that he is desperate to succeed here; again, I would sooner have someone like that in charge than someone just here to pick up a few quid and keep things ticking over until he is shown the door (and a fat pay-off). He’s also built a reputation for getting the very best out of young loanees to the point where a lot of the country’s best clubs are sending their prodigious if raw talents to be honed here, because they trust his ability to handle them.
I do accept though that team selections like Monday’s undermine any long term aspirations he has for Blues. That level of performance and such a shambles in terms of preparation and selection cannot be tolerated, no matter how bad things are in and around the club.
His biggest problem now is that people like me, people willing to give him a chance once he is managing a club that is on something like an even keel again, are in the minority of those who flock to Bordesley Green every other Saturday. There are also others who are insisting they won’t set foot in the ground until he’s gone, which would be alarming to those who finance the club if that continued. The reality is that a lot of Blues fans do not like him, and do not want him around next season (a few even want him gone before the end of this season). That sort of feeling is very, very hard to shift once it seeps in into fans, and to be honest right now it is hard to see a way out for him.
Should we go down his fate is sealed; he couldn’t survive taking Blues into League One. If we do manage to stay up then whether he will be here come August is more debateable, but after what has been a harrowing season for all concerned, particularly at St. Andrew’s where the majority of punters only ever get to see Blues play, his position is becoming more and more perilous. I don’t think it would be particularly fair to sack him if we stay up, but life isn’t fair sometimes.
Whenever we are taken over, there has to be a root and branch review of the entire club and that includes him and the coaching staff. Whether the new broom will sweep totally clean and take him away from the Stan’s dugout or whether he will get a fresh chance under new ownership, I couldn’t possibly say, but I am increasingly starting to think his days here are numbered.
Still, the one positive to come out of recent times is that we aren’t in the relegation zone, our destiny is still in our own hands. A win at home to Leeds on Saturday could well see us all but mathematically safe. I’ve said that many a time recently, but Leeds have been dreadful for months now – we won’t have a better opportunity to secure our Championship status than we will on Saturday. Regardless of what you think of LC and the current crop of players, Saturday isn’t the time to jump on his/their backs; they’ll need all the support they can get.
You can read more of Nat’s work on his blog by clicking the link: http://nattubes.wordpress.com/