Birmingham City open the final season at Griffin Park on the back of a busy summer of activity both on and off the pitch.
Off the field, there has been a change in the dugout with one-time reported Brentford target Pep Clotet replacing Garry Monk, who was sacked in the middle of June after 15 months in charge of the club.
On it, their squad is much-changed from the one that finished last season in 17th place, following a nine-point deduction for breaching Football League profitability and sustainability rules.
Signings have included England Under-21 captain and centre-half Jake Clarke-Salter on a season-long loan from Chelsea, goalkeeper Moha Ramos on loan from Real Madrid, Croatian international midfielder Ivan Sunjic from Dinamo Zagreb, Willem II’s English midfielder Dan Crowley and midfielder Gary Gardner from Aston Villa in a swap deal that saw former Brentford winger Jota rejoin ex-Bees manager Dean Smith at Villa Park.
Among other players leaving St Andrew’s were striker Che Adams, who became the Blues’ record sale when he joined Southampton for £15m, and centre-half and former captain Michael Morrison, who moved to Reading.
Morrison’s departure meant a new captain was needed and the job was given to ex-Brentford skipper Harlee Dean, who followed the appointment by signing a new four-year deal with the club.
Dean and Maxime Colin are both still regulars in the side, following their move from Griffin Park, along with Jota, at the end of the 2017 summer transfer window.
This is the Blues’ ninth consecutive season in the Championship – they finished in the play-offs in the first of those, just avoided relegation once and have been in mid to lower mid-table the rest of the time.
They have had seven seasons in the Premier League over three spells with a best place finish of ninth in 2009/10.
They also won the League Cup in 2011, after beating us on penalties in the fourth round, but were relegated from the top flight at the end of that season.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
As mentioned above, Pep Clotet was named as Birmingham’s caretaker head coach in June.
He was assistant to previous boss Garry Monk at St Andrew’s, Swansea and Leeds.
His only previous managerial job in England came at Oxford in the first half of the 2017/18 season, but he was sacked in the middle of January after failing to win nine out of 13 matches.
WE’VE MET BEFORE
Last season’s two games both ended in draws.
The Tuesday night match at Griffin Park was notable for Josh McEachran’s first-ever professional goal in a 1-1 draw. and for also being Dean Smith’s last home game in charge of the Bees.
Both goals came in the first half as Michael Morrison headed City into a 26th minute-lead from a corner, before McEachran equalised direct from a free-kick on the right-hand side of the area shortly before half-time. It was the former Chelsea midfielder’s first goal in 167 games in English football and 188 club matches.
Midway through the second half, Blues midfielder Maikel Kieftenbeld was sent off after an incident involving Neal Maupay.
The point kept us in the play-off zone in fifth place, but ahead of the three teams directly below us only on goal difference, while Birmingham dropped to 18th, five points above the relegation zone.
Both sides’ fortunes had changed dramatically by the time we met again in the first game after Christmas – and what was our last match of 2018 ended in a goalless draw at St Andrews.
The point – our fifth in three games after a run of eight defeats in 10 matches – kept us 18th in the table, while Birmingham remained seventh.
Q – It’s been an interesting summer at St Andrews. What is your view on the managerial change?
A – From a playing point of view it was a real disappointment to see Garry Monk leave. He had carried the club forward and brought a lot of pride back to the supporters, and weathered the nine-point penalty with good grace. However, off-the-field there were issues that the club simply were not able to ignore, and by late June his departure was inevitable. It’s not for me to go into the details here, but I do understand the club’s position.
Q – What does Pep Clotet appear to have altered so far in training or in the pre-season friendlies that you have seen?
A – Pep has been asked to start a transformation of the playing style, as the board are keen to see something more progressive – and a team that actually relishes being in possession. That will take time, but in the meantime that has meant a switch to a 3-4-1-2 system (or versions thereof) and a recruitment policy geared towards players who are more comfortable on the ball. He has also been able to bring in veteran Spanish coach Paco Herrera as an experienced foil for a relatively callow head coach.
Q – What do you make of the summer transfer deals, aside from Jota who we will mention separately?
A – Blues have learned from past indiscretions, and have tackled the market from a position of financial common sense. Youth, value and potential are high on the agenda. The sale of top scorer Che Adams was unavoidable – he was ready for the step-up to the Premier League, chose a sensible destination and drew a good fee. He’ll do well enough at Southampton to bring the add-ons into play too.
In terms of incomings, Dan Crowley is interesting – a number 10 with good vision and quick feet, the likes of which we haven’t seen at St Andrew’s for some time. Jake Clarke-Salter fits the ball-playing vibe at centre-back and new record-signing Ivan Sunjic is a continental-style number six. They need strikers, and that’s very much work in progress as I write this.
Q – What did you make of Jota’s time at the club, how surprised were you at his departure and will he be missed?
A – Enigmatic. Fleeting glimpses of brilliance amongst a large body of work that was otherwise underwhelming. I’m afraid I’m in the camp that feels they did well to get some cash for him and to move an extravagant salary off the wage bill. Unfulfilled promise.
Q – How important will Harlee Dean and Maxime Colin be again to the Blues this season?
A – Hugely. Both have had two very consistent seasons since making the move north and Harlee has now succeeded Michael Morrison as skipper. Max has been one of the best right-backs in the Championship over the last two years – he’ll now have to reprise the wing-back role he often found himself in at Griffin Park.
Q – What are the expectations for Birmingham this season – promotion push, mid-table or relegation battle and why?
A – Personally I suspect it should be an expectation of mid-table and the start of a significant change in playing style. The owners need to be patient having instigated the process this summer. But this is a squad that is going to lean on some younger talent over the next nine months, and the early months may not be easy.
Q – Finally can you give me a possible Blues starting line-up and formation?
A – This has been a work in progress pre-season, and is pending any late signings and international clearance for Sunjic. But here is my guess, in a 3-4-1-2 formation or thereabouts…
Camp; Dean, Roberts, Clarke-Salter; Colin, G Gardner, Sunjic or Davis, Pedersen; Crowley; Mrabti, Jutkiewicz
BEESOTTED SCORE PREDICTIONS
Some of the Beesotted crew have given me their score predictions for Saturday’s game.
2-1 to the Bees, who win thanks to a new found defensive solidity despite an undercooked front three. Greville Waterman
1-0 to Brentford. Solid performance met with a solitary goal from Canos to get the final season at GP of to a great start. Cham de Silva
Convincing 2-0 win. Several players making their debuts but the Bees pick up where they left off at home last season. Damo
1-0 Bees Brentford struggle to accommodate new players, and possibly a new system. It will be a tight game but you never know, a certain defender who shall not be named might make an error. Liberal Nick
2-1 Bees Brentford slow to come out of the traps to a rocking GP but eventually get into the game. Tight match with Blues right up for it as well. Bees quality closer to goal comes through. Edward the Headward
PUBS IN BRENTFORD AND TRAVEL NEWS
For Birmingham fans coming to the game, you are probably aware there plenty of pub options pre-match and all are most welcoming and away-fan-friendly (as it should be).
As you are probably well aware, Brentford is well known for its four pubs – one on each corner of the ground.
The Griffin is closest to the away end (like 30 secs walk) and is very popular with away fans – but also very, very busy. The New Inn is on the other side and is also popular with away fans.
The Princess Royal and the newly-opened and renamed The Brook pub – which has jumped on the craft beer bandwagon – are the other options.
Other pubs slightly further afield for the more creative amongst you include (and this is by no means a definitive list) …. The Globe (Windmill Rd) & The Lord Nelson (Enfield Rd) are both incredibly friendly and cosy away-friendly pubs and about 1 min walk from each other …. frequented by ‘away fans in the know’.
The Plough (Northfields Ave) in Northfields is a decent stop-off if you are coming by tube to Northfields. The ‘Northfields run’ makes a much better pub crawl route than South Ealing – getting off at Northfields station, turning left and stopping off at The Plough (2 min walk), The Lord Nelson (10 min walk from The Plough) & The Globe (1 min walk from The Nelson) en-route before ending up at The Griffin (8 min walk from The Globe) by the away turnstiles.
There’s also a relatively new tiny microbrewery pub in Northfields called The Owl and The Pussycat (Northfields Ave) – right turn out of the station away from the ground as opposed to left.
If you decide to get off at South Ealing station, we’ve heard a few people pop into Roddy’s Bar. Whereas The Ealing Park Tavern (back in the day, the infamous Penny Flyer) is fairly busy now that they seem to have lifted their “no football fan” policy.
If you like your craft beer, another fairly new pub worth checking out is The Black Dog Beer House, formerly The Albany, on Albany Road, which is fairly busy before and after the match.
There is a pub right by Brentford mainline station referred to as … the Pub by Brentford station.
For real ale head to the Magpie and Crown pub on Brentford High Street. The Royal Horseguardsman (Ealing Road) can probably hold 15 of you at a push.
The Brewery Tap (Catherine Wheel Road) is a cosy boozer by the river. And if you are super-adventurous, get off at Kew Bridge and visit One Over the Ait (Kew Bridge Road) – a spacious boozer right next to Kew Bridge, and across from the site of the Bees’ new stadium at Lionel Road. This pub is situated on the location of the now-demolished Oxford & Cambridge pub where Brentford Football Club was founded in 1889.
There is also The Express Tavern (Kew Bridge Road) – an ale pub with a retro feel. If you sit in the garden, you can see Brentford’s new stadium towering over you.
There are a load more pubs in the river in Kew if that takes your fancy – just take a walk down Strand On The Green.
A quick Google search and you’ll find them all. There are many, many more too if you have a look around.
Parking near the stadium is a no no but is pretty easy in the streets north of Griffin Park on the other side of the A4 Great West Rd via Ealing Road or Windmill Road. Make sure you look our for the parking signs which change from area to area.
Getting to Brentford from town – many fans get the tube to Waterloo (Northern, Jubilee lines) or Vauxhall (Victoria Line) then take the Overground train to Brentford.
The reality is the tube is easier and quicker (and cheaper). It’s 35 minutes to South Ealing or Northfields stations from King’s Cross or Euston (even less from Paddington) on the Piccadilly Line and then 15 minutes walk to Griffin Park from there (4 mins on the bus) – more if you take the Northfields to Brentford
If you’re feeling lazy you could take the E2 bus from outside Northfields station (turn LEFT outside the station) to either outside The Globe pub (3 stops – serves The Lord Nelson too) or Brentford FC (4 stops – 5 minutes).
If you get off at South Ealing, you can get the 65 from the bus stop across the road – right outside the station.
You can check out Transport for London’s Easter guide to travel on the Tube and Overground.
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