December 23, 2015 by Shane Ireland
By Shane Ireland
Made in Brum’s Shane Ireland caught up with former Blues star Paul Devlin.
In part one, Devlin discussed his first spell at St Andrew’s, Barry Fry and winning promotion to the Premiership via the play-offs in 2002.
This time, the winger looks back on Blues’ first season in the top flight for 17 years, playing alongside Christophe Dugarry, and the unforgettable derby clashes against Aston Villa.
He also gives his opinion on Birmingham’s current crop and boss Gary Rowett.
How did the club and squad make the transition to the Premiership in 2002?
In fairness to Steve [Bruce], he said to the team that got promoted that he’d give us all a chance in the Premiership, and he did. We stayed up in that first year comfortably. He made some good additions to the team, obviously, with the likes of Kenny Cunningham, Matty Upson and Sav [Robbie Savage] and a later date [Christophe] Dugarry. But the basis of the play off team was still there. And one thing the team had with the likes of Michael Johnson, Geoff Horsfield, Jeff Kenna, Stern John and Martin Grainger was a lot of determination, grit and fight.
We never knew when we were beaten. You could hang your hat on each one of those lads and you knew what you were going to get out of them. I remember speaking to Steve Bruce when I was finishing my career at Walsall and all of the play off team had gone and Blues had the likes of Melchiot, Gronkjear and others and he said to me that he “regrets breaking up that team so early,” because he didn’t know what he was going to get out pf the players he had at that particular time. It was unfortunate, Daz Carter left, I left, Horsfield left, I think that if you were to ask him again, Bruce would have given that team another year or two. We never knew when we were beaten and we could play as well.
Christophe Dugarry is fondly remembered as one of the finest ever players to pull on a Blues shirt, what was it like to play in the same team as him?
He was fantastic. Christophe came in and I think everyone knew he had a bad knee but he did that well that Blues had to offer him a contract. I don’t really subscribe to the myth that he kept us up singlehandedly, I’ve got to be honest, we’d have stayed up with or without Christophe that season. But to have a World Cup and European Championship winner in the squad with some of that class and with some of his touches, it was like having the cherry on the cake with Christophe there. He was brilliant, anybody who achieved what he achieved in the game has to be a top, top player.
Promotion set up the derby matches against Villa, how did it feel to play in those games?
Everyone talks about the home game, the 3-0, the Enckelman game. The amount of people I’ve spoken to over the years who say they could actually feel the ground moving is remarkable. As a Brummie lad and a Blues fan, to get the chance to play against the Villa under the lights, it felt so special. We hammered them 3-0, and with the Enckelman incident and everything else that came with the game, it was just a dream come true. I remember leading up to the game that Mellberg and a couple of the other Villa players were quite dismissive of us and Steve didn’t need a team talk, he just pinned up a couple of articles and said “right, this is what they think of you.”
We had them beaten in the tunnel, Geoff Horsfield will say the same, players like Grainger, Kenna and Horsfield were in the tunnel and we were so up for it that I think we intimated them. They were looking at us and probably thinking “who are these bunch of lunatics?” and I think told when we got out on the pitch. We absolutely battered them. And it was the same at Villa Park to be honest, we had them beaten in the tunnel on both occasions because we were that up for the game and so aggressive in the tunnel, Villa just didn’t get out of the traps on either occasion. I remember after the game, I had started and Horsfield came on as a substitute and scored, Bruce said to us, “listen you two, do not go out,” so we listened to him for about 30 seconds then we both went out and celebrated for a day or two. The matches against Villa were fantastic.
You played over 30 times in the 2002/03 season, but does your goal against Leeds United stand out as a personal memory?
Yes, I think so. I was suspended for the first three games because I’d been sent off in a pre-season game up in Scotland which was gutting. We played Arsenal, Everton and Blackburn in the first three league matches, so I was gutted the miss them but we lost all three. But in fairness to Brucey, he put me straight back in the side for the Leeds game and that time, Leeds had a great team. I remember the goal, it was from a set-piece, a corner routine that we had worked on that week and any professional will tell you that when you work on a set piece it very rarely comes off the first time you try it. But it was the first time and it worked to a treat. It was great. People often say that it was the first Premiership goal we scored, it wasn’t because Stern scored a penalty at Everton, but to get the first Premiership goal at St Andrew’s and to get the first victory at St Andrew’s was a dream come true. Although Damien Johnson’s goal on the day was probably better!
Leaping forward into the present day, Paul, what are your thoughts on Gary Rowett and the current situation at St Andrew’s?
If you ask anybody it’s an unbelievable job with the resources he’s got, what Gary’s done since he came in from Burton. If you would have asked me at the start of the season, I’d have taken mid table. We had a great start and have been hovering around the play offs, but if you look at the budget Gary has got to work with, the players in a threadbare squad and who he can bring in, I think everyone would agree Blues have overachieved in the last 12 months. They’re going through a little bit of a sticky patch at the moment which I always thought would happen because we don’t have a big enough squad, but I’m sure Gary will come through it. The main thing is that the attention around Rowett, especially from Fulham and QPR has gone away. That’s a positive for the club. Moving forward, there won’t be a huge degree of certainty around the club until the ownership issue is resolved, which never seems close to ending. Everyone’s guess is as good as everyone else’s as to how that one will pan out.
Finally, do you see a future for yourself in the game? Do you have any plans at the moment?
I’ve been involved with my company Paul Devlin Football Coaching for 15 years and I’ve been running the courses myself since 2009. I’m here at Chelmsley Wood and there’s a big course he on Tuesdays. I keep my hand in, I still play over-35s football when I can. My lad is in the Blues academy, he’s 13, he’s been in the academy for three or four years and I try and get to the games. I’m still regularly in contact with Hors, Johnno and Kev Broadhurst so I still keep my hand in.