This is a post about leadership.
Gary Rowett became manager of Birmingham City at the end of October 2014. He faced a situation of poor performance on the pitch, fan unrest and, significantly, financial uncertainty that meant he could not buy players. The way he transformed the club overnight provides an interesting case study in management.
His leadership brought a clear plan that enabled what was essentially a team of league one players to achieve above themselves. The style of play stretched the game and put a defensive midfield player in front of the back four. This protected a relatively slow back four from exposure to pace. David Davis, a free transfer from Wolves, became a key figure as the player charged with disrupting any attacking play infront of the defence. Further up the field, Andrew Shinnie found more space and began to show why he had been such a valued player in Scotland. Playing on the break, the team showed that they could create chances and score goals.
The immediate impact of the plan bought Rowett time to settle the team. After the 8-0 home defeat that cost the previous manager his job, it was important to rebuild morale. Rowett did so by creating a nucleus of players who would play every match. The stability bred confidence and led to a run of victories as opposition players made the mistake of thinking that 3 points should always be possible against Blues. Rowett needed to be strong to choose the key players and stick with them. There were players discarded who had performed well, most notably David Edgar. By stabilising the team and avoiding losing, Rowett was able to both resist pressure to change and begin to mould his team. He took risks, as all good leaders must, by, for example banning mobile phones from the training ground. In doing so, he developed a persona of someone older and wiser than his years. Part of this projection of identity was wearing v neck sweaters. More importantly, he maintained a calm manner even in defeat that spoke of both dignity and continued belief.
Once teams became used to Rowett’s style of play, things became harder. At times the home fans demanded a higher tempo game and the chant of “get stuck in” would ring out but Rowett stuck to the plan and Blues defended in their own half and waited for their opponents to come to them. The extent to which Blues stuck to this can be seen in the number of games without offside decisions. The only exception being an FA Cup tie where players from outside Rowett’s settled first team squad played in the pressing style they had been used to under the previous manager and nearly came unstuck. The narrow victory over Blythe Spartans seem to confirm to Rowett that players outside of his first eleven were not going to be able to slot in and contribute to the team. Rowett’s consistent selection policy in the league was rewarded by an excellent run-in as teams unable or unwilling to sit back were picked off on the break. Clayton Donaldson demonstrated his worth with performances of determination and skill ending up with 16 goals. Rowett also showed excellent judgment in bringing a playmaker on loan for the last 5 games.
While writing about Rowett’s leadership, it is also worth reflecting on Blues director Panos Pavlakis. Faced with a team in disarray at the beginning of the season and boardroom battles, he has acted calmly and decisively in a way that compliments Rowett’s approach. At St Andrews, Blues have an excellent set up with well run facilities and a dedicated workforce.
Looking to the future, the fans must keep expectations realistic. Without new owners and large investment, the team remains limited and will need to continue to play on the break. At times that may mean dull football next season but only by people recognising the players’ limitations will Rowett and Pavlakis continue to receive the credit they deserve.