When Birmingham achieved their goal and gained promotion to the Premier League at the end of last season, the next target was obvious. It was all about survival on their return to the Promised Land.
Relegation to the Championship in 2008 was a painful blow but the club handled the setback admirably, keeping faith in manager Alex McLeish and retaining key players like Sebastian Larsson and Cameron Jerome, and were rewarded with a swift return to the top flight. All the same, the pundits did not have high expectations for Birmingham as this season began in August.
Tipped by many to be relegation candidates enduring a campaign-long struggle to adapt to life back in the Premier League, McLeish’s side will have found no comfort in the pre-season predictions. But, if anything, those negative assessments have fuelled the Birmingham players thus far. They have been bold, spirited and resilient. Their reward? Eighth spot at the time of writing.
Their success has been founded on a number of factors from work ethic to fine goalkeeping to shrewd tactics. But the biggest reason for Birmingham’s unlikely rise – and a run of 11 games unbeaten – has been the inspired partnerships that McLeish has formed down the team’s spine. Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson have rolled back the years as a feisty and effective midfield duo, earning headlines for the right reasons, while even more impressive has been the central defensive pairing of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann.
Johnson, in particular, has caught the eye. Dominant in the air and strong in tackle, he has given the league’s best strikers an afternoon to forget and he continues to develop his game. Just 26 years of age, he is far from a finished product and that is hardly good news for the rest of the league.

After beginning his career at Wycombe, where he spent six formative years, Johnson gave indications of his promise at Cardiff under Dave Jones. He was pivotal in the club’s charge towards the 2008 FA Cup final – even scoring in the quarter-final against Middlesbrough – and established himself as one of the most complete defenders in the Championship.
Plenty of teams took note but Birmingham moved fastest after securing promotion. McLeish knew his back four needed serious rebuilding to withstand Premier League attacks and he wisely scoured the Championship – where he had cast his eye over players all season – in his search for defenders. He viewed Johnson and Dann as two of the best and the lure of the top flight was enough to prize them away.
But a hefty volume could be produced containing the names of promising Championship defenders who have been hopelessly out of their depth against the big boys in the Premier League. With better movement and quicker attacks, the step up has left many exposed. Therefore, McLeish was undoubtedly taking a gamble.
It has worked a treat, though, with Johnson, in particular, proving an inspired choice. After a steady but unspectacular start, Birmingham are on a hot streak and McLeish has relied on his defence time and time again. League leaders Chelsea arrived at St Andrew’s on Boxing Day with Didier Drogba in prolific form and Frank Lampard providing further menace – yet Johnson and company shut the door on Drogba and earned a gutsy 0-0 draw.
Then Birmingham travelled to the Britannia Stadium to face Stoke. It is never an easy place to go but, on a roll, McLeish’s side overcame the odds again in this latest test. Another clean sheet was the platform on which to build and Jerome was on target to grab a 1-0 victory. Johnson, keeper Joe Hart, who has been in sensational form himself, and the rest of the back four have recorded nine Premier League clean sheets already from 20 games.
The results have just kept coming over the past two months, leading some to ponder how far Birmingham might go. Certainly, few supporters could have envisioned vying with Liverpool for a place in the top six. McLeish has indicated from the beginning that safety is the priority but, with the 40-point target well and truly in sight, the true aims must be higher.
Barring a major miracle, Birmingham will not earn a European spot but a top half finish would represent a mighty achievement in today’s game, where newly-promoted clubs are expected to falter. McLeish has done a hugely impressive job of lifting his players after the heartbreak of relegation and bringing back a stronger and hungrier group.
No one epitomises the new look Birmingham better than the fearless Johnson and the way things are going, there could be bigger things ahead.


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