Chief Sports Writer Hyder Jawad says lack of creativity is the source of problem at St Andrew's...
Reports that Jermaine Pennant was ordered home after turning up drunk to training on Sunday was the last thing that Birmingham City needed. It was a public relations own goal at a time when disillusionment is rife among supporters.
It is bad enough sitting in the bottom two of the Premiership table. It is bad enough that the team are being mercilessly jeered off the pitch after each defeat. It is bad enough that Steve Bruce is the victim of much criticism from fans.
Pennant is no stranger to problems in his personal life. He was jailed earlier this year for a driving offence but he appeared to have been rehabilitated under Bruce. But Pennant has not been as effective this season as he was towards the end of last.
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That is part of Birmingham's problem. Creativity is lacking and the strikers - Emile Heskey, Mikael Forssell, and Walter Pandiani - are barely scoring goals.
It is, alas, a sorry story. No longer are Birmingham feared as they were two seasons ago. They no longer resemble a coherent team. The problems run deep.
Of course, bad luck has not helped. Birmingham deserved at least a draw against Everton last Saturday - they lost 1-0 - and were equally unfortunate not to secure a point at home to Aston Villa last month.
Injury problems have not helped and a lack of confidence has turned into a disease. St Andrew's is not an edifying place these days.
After the defeat to Everton, as the players walked towards their cars, a handful of supporters gathered outside a nearby gate and shouted abuse at Pandiani.
True, these fans were drunk, and Pandiani either did not notice or did not understand. But it still seemed to sum up how difficult life has become at St Andrew's. This certainly would not have happened three years ago.
The torture of a bad afternoon was written all over Bruce's face on Saturday. And Karren Brady, usually so cheerful, seemed to visibly age as the day wore on.
The transfer window in January, so often an important time for clubs like Birmingham, has taken on a new significance. Success in the transfer market could be the difference between another season in the Premiership or, dare one suggest it, relegation to the Coca-Cola Championship.
A natural goalscorer is essential, as is the type of midfield player who can personify the passion that made Birmingham so difficult to beat a year or two ago.
Forssell is a shadow of the player who played so well for Birmingham, while on loan, during the 2003-04 season. Heskey is lacking service. Pandiani is not a Birmingham player. Nicky Butt is in decline. David Dunn is in transition after a serious injury.
Most significantly of all, Birmingham miss Robbie Savage. Bruce has put a lot of effort into replacing Savage but has, largely, failed. No player better exemplified Birmingham's spirit. No player did more to wind up the opposition.
Birmingham always seemed to survive in the Premiership because of the inspiration of one man. In 2003, it was Christophe Dugarry; in 2004, it was Forssell. In 2006, they need somebody special, a player with pace and the ability to run down the channels.
It should have been Pennant but the winger has not done his reputation much good if the reports about his drunkenness turn out to be true.
While it would be wrong to suggest that it spells the end of Pennant's career with Birmingham, it would make it difficult for him to play his way into the England reckoning for the World Cup in Germany next year.
How did we get here? What happened to the Birmingham team that ripped Liverpool to pieces in February 2005, when Pennant was at his most creative and Heskey at his most dominant?
That cold Saturday afternoon was the peak of Birmingham's spell in the Premiership. It has been downhill from then on. The players are largely the same but the passion is not. The confidence has disappeared.
Birmingham will probably buy their way out of trouble in January but that would be a shortterm fix for a long-term problem.
What is required is a new tactical emphasis, one that allows Birmingham to be flexible when Plan A goes wrong. It requires the supporters and the players to be at one again.
It also requires risks on the pitch; risks that involve using players like Neil Kilkenny rather than those of lesser ability but with greater reputations. Kilkenny was suplerative against Everton and, amid the jeers, earned his own s t a n d i n g ovation. It was odd.
You can usually tell when life at a football club is bleak: the emails from fans to newspaper offices tend to become more morose and critical.
For the first time, I am reading letters about how some supporters have lost faith in Bruce, how they are calling for a change in manager, how a complete overall of the squad is required.
But these letters, while significant, probably do not reflect the opinions of the majority. Bruce is still popular, is a decent chap, and genuinely loves Birmingham City.
These, in and of themselves, are not reasons to keep him on but he does have attributes that make him one of the best young managers in the Premiership.
I have never been convinced of Bruce's tactical prowess but, generally, he more than makes up for that with his ability to create teams that make virtues of their vices. Bruce is a rich man's Gary Megson, able to make average players perform great feats.
Bruce did well to sign Heskey and, the past two notwithstanding, to get the best out of Pennant.
But the slump in form of Forssell is frightening. He does not look capable of scoring despite his talent. He will bounce back but it must be in November, otherwise Bruce will have to buy a replacement.
There is no longer room for sentiment. Birmingham's immediate future is under threat. Some would say that Bruce's immediate future is also under threat but that cannot be true.
Relegation would be a different matter. Birmingham should not go down because they have a talented squad if not yet a talented team. Then again, other clubs with good players have endured relegation. West Ham United two years ago is a case in point. If it happens, it will be Birmingham's biggest crisis in a generation.
But it will not happen.
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