Why fans still back Zola,even on slide

The Football League Paper - - CHRIS DUNLAVY -

ON­LINE chat­ter is a no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able barom­e­ter of fan sen­ti­ment. It’s a fo­rum for the ex­treme mi­nor­ity rather than the mod­er­ate ma­jor­ity. Just ask for­mer Charl­ton chair­man Richard Mur­ray, who deeply re­gret­ted let­ting a hand­ful of mis­guided key­board war­riors in­flu­ence his fate­ful de­ci­sion to jet­ti­son Alan Cur­bish­ley. That’s why I read the tweets and posts of Birm­ing­ham fans ral­ly­ing round Gianfranco Zola with a de­gree of scep­ti­cism. In the broad­est strokes, their stance was an ar­gu­ment of style over sub­stance. Gary Rowett had won games, but his meth­ods were ugly. Spec­tat­ing was grim. Zola, ap­pointed by the club’s new Chi­nese own­ers in De­cem­ber to wide­spread dis­be­lief, wins less of­ten than Ed­die the Ea­gle, but at least he loses with panache. As an out­sider, this sounded like lu­nacy. When Rowett was fired, the Blues had 34 points on the board and lay one vic­tory shy of third spot. In the next 15 games, Zola had added just nine more, turn­ing a play-off push into a rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle. The Ital­ian’s com­ments after Tues­day’s 2-1 de­feat to Wi­gan be­lied his mount­ing panic. “Too many play­ers were hid­ing,” said the usu­ally af­fa­ble Zola. “What they did was child­ish. I feel em­bar­rassed. If we play like this, then how can we say we are safe?” Yet, when I asked a Brum­mie mate to can­vass the opin­ion of a cou­ple of Blues reg­u­lars, the very same ar­gu­ment bounced back. Yes, Zola was los­ing. But the football un­der Rowett was so painful, they didn’t care. If this re­ally is the feel­ing around St An­drews, per­haps own­ers Tril­lion Tro­phy Asia knew their fan­base bet­ter than any of us ac­knowl­edged. Nev­er­the­less, surely it would have been wiser to grin and bear it for six months?

Rowett played func­tional football be­cause he had a func­tional team, slung to­gether on a rel­a­tive shoestring.

Whether you believe those tac­tics were prag­matic or elec­tive, or whether he could be trusted to spend big bucks on flair play­ers, it is a fact that Birm­ing­ham’s squad was honed to graft, tackle and launch it.

Bull­doz­ers like Michael Mor­ri­son. Mus­cu­lar tar­get­men like Clay­ton Don­ald­son. The non-stop legs of Jac­ques Maghoma.

One Jan­uary trans­fer win­dow didn’t give Zola – or any­body, for that mat­ter – enough time to ad­e­quately over­haul the thresh­ing ma­chine Rowett con­structed.

Doyens

Nor did the cor­pu­lent fix­ture list over Christ­mas al­low for any se­ri­ous hours on the train­ing ground, es­sen­tial if you want to al­ter the style and ethos of a side.

Ask any man­ager ap­pointed mid­sea­son – Neil Warnock and Sam Al­lardyce are the doyens of this par­tic­u­lar art – and they will tell you that sim­plic­ity is crit­i­cal. Shape, dis­ci­pline, de­fen­sive ba­sics.

Birm­ing­ham play­ers, by con­trast, are be­ing asked to turn a brick out­house into the Sis­tine Chapel, while some­body shakes the scaf­fold­ing. No won­der their brush strokes are go­ing awry.

As some­one who grew up watch­ing New­cas­tle un­der Kevin Kee­gan, I sym­pa­thise with fans who want to be en­ter­tained. Al­lardyce got short shrift at St James’ Park pre­cisely be­cause he sneered at artistry.

But there is a time and place for a rev­o­lu­tion and the mid­dle of a hec­tic Championship sea­son is not it.

If Zola can bat­tle through to June, sign a set of tal­ented tech­ni­cians and spend a whole pre-sea­son knock­ing them into shape, Blues fans may yet get the kind of team they crave.

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