As widely commented on, Gary Rowett took Birmingham City Football Club from relegation certainty to mid-table safety within a few months with almost no resource. It was a clear example of leadership making all the difference. Just as Headteachers don’t turn a failing school around by going in the classroom, football managers cannot change a club by playing a key role on the pitch (what happened to the player/manager is a subject for another time).
Since the end of last season, Rowett has been busy trying to improve Birmingham City’s squad still with almost no money (what little he has had is down to the work of Pavos Pavalakis who would make another positive case study of leadership under pressure). What the public has gleaned about the close season gives us further insight into Rowett’s leadership. His first priority appears to have been using what little money he has to secure longer term contracts for key current players. Blues fans had assumed that the club’s most sellable asset, Demerai Gray, would go but instead Rowett has persuaded him to stay. This tells us something about Rowett’s ability to inspire current players through a positive view of future prospects. His second priority was to bring back loan players who performed well last season. This has not happened and that maybe as much down to Birmingham City paying the lowest salaries in the division. Rowett will no doubt reflect on why his three targets chose to go elsewhere. What I find more interesting is his strategy of working with players he knows. This is common among managers in football, and beyond, but Rowett does it particularly well. From his first week at the club, he built a small group of players who would play together week-in week-out. They are not players who are “like him” or necessarily like him which is where many leaders go wrong (all those managers who sign their own children and MPs who employ partners). Rowett has a clear understanding of how the team should play and he chose the best eleven players to make that happen and then stuck with them. The benefit of this is that everyone knows their role and the expectations. The downside is that the rest of the playing staff feel left out and can not see any future opportunities to play.
The third priority for Rowett has been getting current players fit. Despite not having money, the club chose not to try and earn additional income in the first part of pre-season as others do but instead invest precious resource in taking the players on a fitness camp. This shows that Rowett insists on sticking to priorities even when the club is strapped for cash. The impact this has on the pitch is yet to be tested but it cannot be a bad thing to start a season with players at close to peak fitness.
A key element next season will be the crowd. Football fans at their supportive best can change the fortunes of players on the pitch. Two years ago, Blues fans kept their team up by a level of support which grew in the crucial run-in at the end of the season despite worsening performances. Two nil down in the second half of the final match, it was the incessant support that had built over weeks that kept the players trying until the dramatic last minute equaliser kept the team up. Football fans can also be fickle and negative. Last season a couple of fans who sit near me on the Tilton Road would berate the players for not “getting stuck in” when it was clear that the team was playing to a counter-attacking system and mentality that was producing the results we needed. There needs to be intelligence in sport and some fans don’t always appreciate it.
Next season will be more of the same but hopefully slightly improved. We will sit back and wait for teams to attack even at home before hitting them on the break. Some teams will fall for this approach but others will be content to play for a draw. At times, fans will need to be patient. The first game is at home to a Reading team whom we trounced last year when we had only 30% possession. I can’t see them repeating their mistakes. There will be times when we will outplay the opposition (because we pass well and key players perform) irrespective of how they play and win and those will be the moments to savour.
So my plea to those around me on the Tilton Road is to be patient, appreciate Donaldson playing tirelessly (and never straying offside – I can’t remember a Blues striker who gives away so few free kicks), Gray beating players on the wings, Davis stifling opposition attackers our box etc. Above all, realise that Rowett’s leadership is helping players perform well above their ability for long periods. Until the club has money, the only credible chance we have of staying up and competing is supporting the team and staying realistic about expectations.