Surreal may be the most suitable word to describe the feelings of Birmingham City fans after an eventful transfer deadline day. An improbable top half finish last season had been strikingly augmented by the signing of Alexander Hleb, Jean Beausejour and Martin Jiranek. Earlier in the summer their manager Alex Mcleish had pulled off a coup by swooping for Serbian international Nikola Zigic and England stopper Ben Foster. Of the previously mentioned trio Hleb has experience in the Premier League with Arsenal but left for Barcelona in 2008. He is on a season’s long loan from that storied club and has already criticised the qualities of his new colleagues. Should Birmingham fans be shocked at the brevity of his comments or admiring of his openness?
Having had a month to acclimatise from life in Barcelona to Brum, the Belarus international said, “I’m not quite happy with the level of the team, but such things do happen. Naturally I miss the combinational and creative football of Arsenal and Barca.” Yet in making this surprising switch he knew that the team would embody a battling spirit based on a combativeness and team spirit. His manager Mcleish has appealed to the midfielder to effectively recalibrate his expectations but has described Hleb as “world class” and similar in style to Michael Laudrup. “He’s one of these Willo’ the Wisp characters. He tends to float over tackles.”
Palpably nostalgic for his time in London, Hleb’s comments may strike a chord with the crowd rather than infuriate. The sound of boos rang around St Andrews earlier this month as Everton ended Birmingham’s club-record equalling run of 18 league games unbeaten at home. For many observers the crowd’s reaction was objectionable, a symbol of the modern era’s pampered football supporter. Yet the fans’ frustrations were centred on the continual use of Cameron Jerome as a lone centre forward. Zigic entered the fray after 70 minutes and Matt Derbyshire only had ten minutes to make an impact. The lack of goals and therefore a corresponding attacking plan was highlighted by the outspoken Hleb. “In the recent Birmingham games there was a lot of struggle – they were constantly hoofing the long ball forward.”
While a dearth of goals may be lamented, the Blues’ extraordinary ninth place finish last term was built on the foundations of a solid, unyielding defence. The droll Mcleish conceded that his team will have to deviate from a predictable formula to guard against the ever-looming second season syndrome. The spine of the team has remained intact but recent signings portray a desire to bolster the creativity and flair of the midfield. Hleb’s comments may be interpreted as provocative but the player is sincerely grateful of the chance to play regularly, restoring his flagging confidence. His opening goal in the League Cup match against the MK Dons would have had that medicinal effect. Two goals followed in the next four minutes from Zigic and Craig Gardener. Beausejour on the wing was instrumental in supplying these goal-scoring opportunities.
Although against League One opposition there was evidence of the combinational style that Hleb craves. Despite being no Barcelona, Birmingham have some excellent players, especially Gardener who was been one of the outstanding performers of this season. The former Stuttgart man and his new club may require a period of readjustment but ambition should not be a dirty word in football. An expectant crowd may have found an ally in Hleb.