Promotion. Can’t beat it.
However, the adrenalin rush that followed a return to the top flight has come to an end, and in the cold light of day, Alex McLeish will have realised the task that awaits him. Where do Blues go from here? It is undeniable that this squad would struggle in the Premier League, and it is up to McLeish, Aitken, Watson and the Board to bring in players who can help us to attain McLeish’s aim of finishing “in the top 17”. The question for McLeish is not, “where do we need to improve?”, no way, the question is, “where do we start?”. Blues need 5 or 6 players who will fit straight into the side, and possibly another 3 or 4 who would provide adequate cover if required during the long and arduous season that is to follow. The Board are looking for value for money, and McLeish is looking for…well…money. Looking at the defence, there is major surgery that must be constructed over the Summer months if McLeish’s men are to avoid the fate that was suffered by West Brom, Middelsbrough and Newcastle. If rumours about Colin Doyle’s future are true, he will go on loan next season to a Championship club, leaving Blues with only one goalkeeper on the books who has top flight experience. Problem. You cannot go into a Premier League season in such a position. If Taylor gets injured, Blues would have to rely on young keepers from the Reserves/Academy, and you cannot expect a young player to take to Premier League football like a duck to water. McLeish will need to find either a decent back-up keeper, or a keeper who will be in with a chance of starting week-in week-out. Initial reports have suggested that Joe Hart of Manchester City could be the solution, and I’m all for it, especially considering the undoubted potential of the player who Mark Hughes has not utilised in the 2008/2009 season due to the outstanding performances of Shay Given.
The defence, and in particular the centre-half position will provide Alex McLeish with his greatest headache over the Summer months, as he looks for centre-backs to replace the out-going Rahdi Jaidi and the unfortunate Liam Ridgwell who will miss all of pre-season and the first couple of months of the season. Oguchi Onyewu, the player who had a spell in the Premier League previously with Newcastle, appears to be the number one target for McLeish, along with Cardiff’s Roger Johnson, as McLeish searches for younger, more dynamic and athletic defenders to ‘refresh’ the side. My personal choices would be Matthew Kilgallon from Sheffield United and Onyewu from Standard Liège
Since the loss of Matthew Upson to West Ham, Blues have never really had a settled defensive line, and it has cost them at times. However, on a brighter note, the arrival of Stephen Carr has provided McLeish with an experience and ‘know-how’ that could prove crucial next season as Blues battle against the drop. However, it must, and probably alraedy been acknowledged that while their defence was the meanest in the Championship, the current defence would not survive in the Prem – it’s as simple as that.
The midfield is probably where Blues’ strength will lie. With Seb Larsson on one wing, and Lee Carsley in the centre of the park, McLeish will have a number of players to choose from to fill the remaining positions. Damien Johnson and the incoming Lee Bowyer (hopefully) will provide McLeish with strength in depth, whilst Keith Fahey and James McFadden provide a spark and an assurance on the ball that Blues will need if they are to create chances for their strikers. However, if their is money available, McLeish should look to add one or two younger midfield players who can ‘get around the pitch’ with an eye for a pass. Danny Guthrie, the Newcastle midfield player would be a perfect acquisition, and he has provided some of the few highlights for Newcastle fans in a season full of disappointment. In the Championship, it was assumed that Blues’ front line was their greatest strength…If only it turned out that way. A strike force of Cameron Jerome, Kevin Phillips, James McFadden, Garry O’Connor, Marcus Bent, and Carlos Costly (for a short period of time) flattered to deceive. Goals did not flow as one would have hoped, and only Jerome and Phillips emerged with any real credit. While O’Connor and McFadden were plagued with injuries throughout the season, Bent, and Costly were at times appalling. Do not be surprised to see Bent leave the club along with Costly, whose loan expired after the Reading game.
It appears that next season, Kevin Phillips will have a bit-part role to play during the season, due to his age, and it is paramount that he is replaced. In the 08/09 season, Phillips was Blues’ top scorer, and his abilities as a sharpshooter were a key factor in Blues’ promotion.
McLeish should look to do what he did during Birmingham’s last stint in the top flight, when he signed Mauro Zarate on loan for the second half of the season. Zarate provided the club with a massive boost during his stay at St Andrews, and if McLeish can repeat the feat, the fans will look to the new season with optimism (for once).
It is going to be another Summer of change at St Andrews, something that Blues fans have come to be quite accustomed to over the past few years, but maybe, just maybe, this time, things will be different. The 08/09 Premier League season was the most competitive season that we have known for a long time. If McLeish can sign a couple of good centre-halves, and a good striker to match, then Blues will be on their way. Maybe this season will be different. Maybe this Summer, the manager will get his way. Maybe this is the season when Blues spend big to match the fans’ ambitions.