How Birmingham City, Tom Brady’s football club, suffered relegation to League One

Birmingham City have been here before, having to fight to stay in the Championship on the final day of a season, but this time, their luck ran out just when there were the green shoots of optimism starting to show after years of neglect.

They needed a victory in Saturday’s final round of regular-season games against promotion play-offs hopefuls Norwich City and got the result required, winning 1-0. The only problem was that for Birmingham to stay up, one of their fellow relegation candidates Plymouth Argyle, Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers also had to lose.

Those teams all won too, most notably a Blackburn side managed by John Eustace, who began this season as Birmingham boss before his shock sacking last October when they were sixth in the 24-team table, occupying the last of the four play-offs positions.

It has been a tale of disruption and disharmony ever since, with former England captain Wayne Rooney, tasked with bringing in a brand of ‘no fear’ football as Eustace’s replacement, lasting just 15 games and a further four more coaches tasked with picking a starting line-up during a season of chaos.

Despite the takeover last summer by new owner Tom Wagner and the investment of his company Knighthead Capital Management, and despite the figurehead stature of seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady as chairman of the advisory board, Birmingham’s 13-year spell in the Championship, English football’s second tier, is over.

Instead of a planned step up to the Premier League, they will have to rebuild again in League One, a division they haven’t been part of for 30 years. Even the presence of serial winner Brady couldn’t stop the rot.

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Birmingham’s Ethan Laird embraces a young fan after his side’s relegation is confirmed (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Over those 13 years, Birmingham had been making no progress under their previous mysterious Chinese owners, treading water and gasping for air as they aimed to keep their chins just above the surface. They were stuck in a cycle of disappointment, with little respite in sight following eight consecutive seasons in which they had failed to finish higher than 17th.

Here we look at what has gone wrong — and continues to go wrong — including:

  • How Birmingham got through six managers in one season
  • The changes made under American owners — and Brady’s role
  • The short tenure of Rooney and the fallout from it
  • The club’s finances and the views of Birmingham supporters

Ironically, as Birmingham finally fell through the trap door into League One for the third time in the club’s 149-year history, relegation has come at a time when, off the pitch, there is some semblance of stability, a huge amount of ambition and investment. 

After a painful decade, Birmingham fans finally have some hope for the long-term future, but they now must take a backward step before they can move forward.

It is perhaps the most Birmingham City thing to do — get relegated at the end of a season that has seen the club finally receive some long-overdue investment from new owners, New York-based investment company Knighthead, led by Wagner, with NFL icon Brady as a minority shareholder.

Brady, who bought beers for fans in the Royal George Hotel before the opening home game of the season against Leeds United and whose image, taken from his Super Bowl-winning days with the NFL’s New England Patriots adorns the wall of the fan store outside the corner of the Tilton Road End at St Andrew’s, the club’s home stadium, has made use of his global profile to spread the word about Birmingham.

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A mural of Tom Brady at St Andrew’s (Rob Tanner/The Athletic)

Most recently, he wore a pin badge bearing the club’s crest as he posed for photos with Real Madrid’s ex-Birmingham midfielder Jude Bellingham in their dressing room after their El Clasico win over Barcelona last month. Brady has also been advising the club on player nutrition, and recovery processes conditioning after the longevity of his career with New England and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady retired from the NFL last year, when he was 45 years old.

The former quarterback wasn’t at St Andrew’s today to see his football club be relegated, with the 46-year-old watching Formula 1 at the Miami Grand Prix instead. Brady addressed Birmingham fans on X, former Twitter, writing: “We have a long way to go but it’s because of all of you that we’ll achieve great things in the future.”

Wagner, who was in local pubs with fans from 8.30am and had put thousands of pounds behind the bars in those establishments to make sure the supporters enjoyed themselves, may have called to those in the ground’s Railway End before the recent 3-0 win over Coventry City that “this is our house” as he sought vociferous backing for their team, but Knighthead has also announced plans for a 62,000-seat stadium and training ground development across Garrison Lane from St Andrew’s at the 48-acre site of the former Wheels motor-racing venue.

There are shades of when David Sullivan bought the club from the Kumar Brothers in 1993 and brought in Barry Fry as manager, as well as announcing a redevelopment of St Andrew’s — providing a rare ray of hope after years of underinvestment only for Birmingham to be relegated to the third tier at the end of that season.

Before Saturday’s ultimately futile win, there was a feeling among many fans that their luck was about to run out once again, although there is a strange combination of impending doom and optimism for the future.

As fans ascended from the bowels of nearby Grand Central metro station, one young fan, who will only have ever known Birmingham as a Championship club, was looking nervous. His father, clutching his hand, bent down to him and said: “Don’t worry, Son, it won’t always be like this.” 

That man’s own dad may have offered him the same vow in one of the many bleak moments that he has experienced as a Birmingham fan but, this time, there is genuine cause for optimism. Wagner has tried hard to mobilise the Birmingham masses and get them onside. It is more than free beer that has whetted the appetites of supporters. It is his overall vision for the future that has won many over. Today’s relegation is an unfortunate setback to those plans.

Even at the final whistle on Saturday, when their fate was sealed, there was only a smattering of boos. Instead of recrimination, there was only resignation.

An impromptu mass game of football broke out among some fans who had run onto the pitch at the final whistle. One supporter scored a long-range goal and was mobbed by a crowd of his peers. Their presence could have been concerning for the authorities, but it never turned unsavoury.

Tom Brady, Birmingham City

Tom Brady greets mascots ahead of the game against Leeds in August (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Birmingham have had some bad luck this season, especially the enforced absence of manager Tony Mowbray through illness just as he had stabilised the team after the chaos of the Rooney reign, but is it all down to misfortune? Or is there an element of mismanagement to a season that has seen six different people pick a starting XI this season? 

The mood in the summer of 2023 couldn’t have been more positive after Knighthead’s takeover via their subsidiary Shelby Companies Ltd — a reference to the family at the heart of hit Birmingham-based period crime drama Peaky Blinders. Supporters were desperate for new ownership after 14 years under Chinese-backed Birmingham Sports Holdings, whose individual identities were never clear, had left St Andrew’s crumbling, with huge parts of its stands in such a poor state they were not open for use.

The stadium was renamed St Andrew’s @ Knighthead Park.

The team on the pitch also required major investment.

Wagner and Knighthead have provided that.  but while they have achieved off the field, mistakes, impatience and ill fortune have hampered progress on the field.

Wagner, a billionaire who co-founded Knighthead in New York in 2008 alongside Ara Cohen, didn’t have things easy when it came to taking over Birmingham given the confusing and secretive nature of the previous ownership structure. Numerous interested parties had looked at the club before and simply decided they could not do business with the Chinese owners, so Wagner’s group achieved something many thought was impossible.

But did that early success go to their heads? Having done the seemingly difficult bit, did they underestimate the eternal challenge of putting a competitive team on the pitch?

The decision to remove popular manager Eustace after just 11 games of the season, immediately after back-to-back wins that had them in the play-offs places, and replace him with the inexperienced former star player Rooney, turned out to be disastrous.

The club’s hierarchy now feel they moved too quickly in replacing Eustace.

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Eustace was sacked 11 Championship games into the season (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

It was an act of self-harm, tarnishing some of the pre-season positivity and damaging attempts to re-engage the club with the fanbase.

Although probably seen as a statement of intent at the time, bringing in a high-profile name as the club’s figurehead ultimately destabilised Birmingham’s season.

Technical director Craig Gardner, empowered under the new regime following his role in facilitating the takeover, felt the team he and head of recruitment Frank McParland had built, with 12 new signings last summer, were capable of playing a more attacking brand of ‘no fear’ football.

Eustace was more cautious about the time scale in which that could be achieved. He knew his days in charge were numbered but didn’t anticipate his removal coming when it did.

New chief executive Garry Cook had a good relationship with Rooney, who he had tried to lure to the Saudi Professional League, had been connected to amid takeover attempts at Derby County and Preston North End, and played a part in bringing about the change that proved unpopular with Birmingham fans.

They were stunned that their club could repeat the same mistake as in the 2016-17 season. Then, Gary Rowett was sacked with the team in a good position at Christmas and Gianfranco Zola appointed, only for Birmingham to spiral towards relegation in the second half of the season, culminating in salvation on the final day after former star player Zola was also sacked and the vastly experienced Harry Redknapp came in with three games to go.

The irony was that Cook even admitted that if it hadn’t been for Eustace saving Birmingham from relegation to League One last season, Wagner wouldn’t have invested in the club in the first place.

“A significant number of fans, probably the majority, viewed that call at the time as a poor one,” says Neil Cottrell, chairman of supporters’ group Blues Trust. “Partly because of the echoes of the disastrous Rowett sacking and Zola appointment, and partly due to Rooney’s unimpressive managerial record at Derby and DC United.” 

Rooney bore the brunt of the fan discontent at the decision. After relegation was confirmed, a photo of the former England captain in the corridors of St Andrew’s when he was in charge, cheeks puffed out and looking fatigued and dejected, did the rounds again on social media — the internet’s epitaph of his reign.

“The Birmingham fans didn’t accept me from day one,” Rooney recently said on The Overlap’s Stick to Football podcast. “John Eustace had done a good job, to be fair to him. Birmingham made the change and asked me to go in, but I knew straight away I wasn’t accepted by the fans.”

Rooney tried to transform Birmingham immediately but he quickly realised the players he’d inherited weren’t fit enough to execute a high-tempo, high-pressing brand of ‘no fear’ football. Eustace had set them up to play a less impactful style. To try to improve fitness levels, Rooney and his staff had conducted intense training sessions — like a mini pre-season. The players, also playing games of course, couldn’t cope.

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Rooney was in charge of Birmingham for 15 games (Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

There was even a moment, after Rooney left, when it seemed the club would ask Eustace to come back to his former job, as they were still paying him at the time. But Eustace’s relationship with Gardner had broken down.

Following Rooney’s sacking on January 2, after just 15 games which brought 10 points from a possible 45 and left Birmingham in 20th position, Steve Spooner stepped into a caretaker role from his position on the coaching staff, before Mowbray’s popular appointment.

Mowbray stabilised the team with four wins in 10 games but had to take a leave of absence due to illness after just over a month. Then when his assistant Mark Venus looked uncomfortable as the number one, and with Mowbray’s absence for the rest of the season confirmed, Birmingham almost went full circle, returning to former boss Rowett to keep them in the Championship. 



Gone in 15 games: Why Wayne Rooney was sacked by Birmingham

The constant disruption was reflected in the results, with many inexperienced players seemingly unable to deal with the constant change of manager and message.

Recruitment should also be scrutinised.

Rooney may have tried to change too much too quickly but he soon realised what Eustace had been saying was true — the squad didn’t have the right characteristics to play the football the club’s hierarchy now wished them to. Then, in the winter transfer window, the influx of new players Rooney had been expecting before his sacking didn’t happen.

Although Paik Seung-ho, Alex Pritchard and Andre Dozzell did come in, experienced defender Kevin Long was allowed to leave for MLS outfit Toronto FC without being replaced and Birmingham also failed to bring in the striker the squad desperately needed.

The club were still working under tight financial restrictions, having posted a pre-tax loss of £23.8m for the season 2021-22, in which their estimated wage bill of £32m was the sixth-highest in the Championship. They would have also posted a £30m loss the season before that, but for the sale of Bellingham to Borussia Dortmund for £26m.

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Birmingham’s win over Norwich ultimately proved in vain (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Their 2022-23 accounts showed revenue was up nine per cent to £19.7million and wages were down 10 per cent to £28.9m, but they were still spending £147 for every £100 of revenue coming in, with an operating loss of £26.5m when EFL rules allow only a £13m loss per season. It was early days in the Knighthead era, but Birmingham still needed to reduce their budget.

“We were operating under tight profit and sustainability rules, but the debate seems to be quality over quantity,” Cottrell says. “Perhaps if we had focused on a smaller number, perhaps we could have afforded a striker.

“Another imponderable is whether the recruitment was focused on a Eustace style of play at the time. The recruitment in January also needs questioning, as we added three midfielders, two of whom can’t get into Rowett’s starting line-up. Other teams, like Sheffield Wednesday, were able to address their striking issues. The decision to allow Long, who was a regular under Eustace, to leave also seemed odd.”

So, where does the accountability lie?

The new owners seem beyond reproach for their work off the field but the senior management style and football strategy seem muddled at best, and chaotic at worst. 

“They need to do what we did after relegation (two years ago) and evaluate everything, and make good decisions,” Norwich coach David Wagner said in sympathy for Birmingham’s drop to the third tier. “Then, they can hopefully come back up quickly.”

Birmingham’s top brass point to their plans to invest up to £3billion in a new ‘Sports Quarter’ in Birmingham, the UK’s second biggest city after London, billed as a “globally recognisable sporting and entertainment location”, and planned improvements to their current stadium, to restore its capacity, and training ground as ways in which they plan to push their club forward off the pitch.

They also have plans to push for category one academy status, with the club’s men’s under-18s and under-21s side are also both enjoying successful seasons in the Professional Development League. They also highlight the backing they have given to Birmingham City Women, who ply their trade in the Women’s Championship.

Yet a lack of a stable strategy led to destabilisation in the coaching and resulted in poor displays from a group of players who looked drained of confidence by the end.

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Birmingham chairman Wagner (middle, in blue) watches on after relegation is confirmed (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Knighthead may have big plans but after the years of neglect under the club’s previous regime, they tried to run in their first season in charge when Birmingham needed to learn to walk again, and tripped themselves up as a result. They have now taken a terrible spill and landed in League One. 

“It’s not a time to point fingers or apportion blame,” Rowett said afterwards. “You can look back and I think some people will be critical of certain moments in the season; but there were other moments that were unforeseen, like Tony’s illness.

“I know it is disappointing and it feels like the club has hit ground zero, but there are exciting plans off the pitch and if they can get it right on the pitch, they can be positive for the future.”

As Birmingham were getting relegated, Ipswich Town reached the Premier League after winning back-to-back promotions.

That has to be the goal at St Andrew’s too, but they need a cohesive plan and consistent decision-making to achieve it.

Additional reporting: Adam Leventhal and Matt Slater

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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