The Football League play-offs return this week, but what do you know of their history since they started delighting us in 1987?
Amidst all the spurious middle names and relationship information contained in the annals of Wikipedia sits a wonderful entry, simply entitled 'Doing a Leeds'. Such a phrase, we are told, 'has become synonymous with the potential dire consequences for domestic clubs of financial mismanagement'. Whilst gloriously tongue in cheek, we must be aware that in the Football League, the potential for such eventuality is rife. We all know that Portsmouth have 'done a Leeds', but at the start of the season another club looked in peril. And whilst the league table might suggest otherwise, Birmingham City could easily have been tarred with the same economically unintelligent brush. The avoidance of this is in no small part a testimony to one man.
Upon the appointment of Chris Hughton on June 22 2011, Birmingham's pre-season plans were uncertain at best. After being publicly backed by Acting Chairman Peter Pannu, manager Alex McLeish, who had led the club to a Carling Cup victory before overseeing a slide to relegation, walked out of St Andrew's to join rivals Aston Villa. Birmingham City were still pursuing legal action when Hughton was unveiled, and the Scotsman had already signed two players prior to his departure, Chris Burke and Marlon King, and a deal to sign Morgaro Gomis was in place.
If Hughton had arrived amongst uncertainty, then just a week later his task was made infinitely more difficult. Club president and owner Carson Yeung was arrested whilst in Hong Kong on suspicions of money laundering charges, and was detained in custody. The club stated that the matter 'did not alter the operation of the club', but it became clear that Yeung, who had a 23.3% stake in Birmingham City, had brought embarrassment on the club, and his assets were frozen by the courts pending trial. Shares in the club's holding company Birmingham International Holdings were suspended, and although the bank thankfully did not call in the loan which had been leveraged against the club, it had become impossible for Yeung to attract any new investment for the club. Birmingham City, evidently already facing the loss of Premier League income, were now forced to offload high-profile players in a manner akin to a fire sale.
Before the beginning of the Championship season Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson, Obafemi Martins, Kevin Phillips, Martin Jiranek, Lee Bowyer, Stuart Parnaby, Maik Taylor, Roger Johnson, Barry Ferguson, Scott Dann, Cameron Jerome and Ben Foster left the club (with Jean Beausejour and Liam Ridgewell departing in January). Of the 18-man squad named for the Carling Cup Final, only four remained after the transfer window this January. The club raised £18m in transfer funds in the summer alone, but were able to invest just £1m on Wade Elliott from Burnley.
With such issues both on and off the field at St Andrew's, it is easy to forget how important an appointment this was for Chris Hughton. After 11 years as an Assistant Manager he had been given the chance at Newcastle United and, after regaining the club a place in the Premier League, had been relieved of his duties just three months into his Premier League managerial career by Mike Ashley. Clearly this is a vindicated decision on Mike Ashley's part, but the treatment of Hughton was saddening. However, whilst previous unfortunates Sammy Lee and Ricky Sbragia had vanished from the managerial shop window after setback (although admittedly on a starker level), Hughton had opted to regroup and reload with Birmingham. The events surrounding the ownership and financial insecurity at the club had only made his job tougher and his task harder.
Hughton's performance has been remarkable. Birmingham sit fifth in the Championship, having all but mathematically secured a play-off spot. They have lost only three Championship games since Christmas, and tasted defeat just once at home in the league all season. More impressively still, his side reached the FA Cup fifth round (where they drew at Stamford Bridge before losing a replay) and won four of their eight Europa League games. Sporting Braga, who reached the final of the same competition last season and sit third in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, were the only side to defeat the Blues in Europe.
The Championship is a notoriously tough league, so to combine a promotion assault in tandem with eight Europa League games is some achievement, particularly given the exodus from the club in pre-season. The Europa League has also meant that for much of the season the club were playing catch-up, the pressure racked up due to Birmingham having three or four games in hand on their rivals, and therefore sitting comparatively off the pace. To emphasise the point, if Birmingham qualify for the play-off final then they will walk out at Wembley for their 63rd game of the season, and have so far used just 21 players. Despite their battle on all fronts, Chelsea will pay two games less, and have used six players more. I hope I don't need to hammer home how determined and professional Hughton has made his squad, one of the leanest in the Championship in terms of personnel. Whereas last season under Alex McLeish results and performances tailed off badly, this season they have actually improved as the season has reached the 'business end'.
As the (for now) Aston Villa manager has been mentioned, it is worth making the comparison. Whilst McLeish has been chastised for his lethargic, aimless and often simply dire football, Hughton is a technically and tactically gifted coach, even writing a Tactical Performance column for FourFourTwo magazine. A Villa-supporting friend put it thusly: "We don't dislike McLeish because he was a Bluenose. We dislike him because he is a poor coach, trainer and manager. And I can prove it's not a McLeish witch-hunt on the basis that I would have Hughton at Villa Park in an instant."
Undoubtedly, Hughton's immediate past has helped shape his present. This is his second managerial assignment, and his second assignment at a newly-relegated Championship club with significant ownership issues. The man is philosophical on the issue: "When everything seems to be going against you remember that aeroplanes take off against the wind, not with it." Wise words do little to disguise the result, and Hughton has been significantly successful in both of his Championship projects.
This season's Championship has been littered with success stories, from Brian McDermott's rehabilitation of a Reading side that lost the in the Championship play-off final 12 months ago and Nigel Adkins' possible achievement of successive promotions to Gus Poyet's steady transformation of Brighton from lower league to approaching Premier League quality and Ian Holloway's consistent overachievement at a club low on resources and outlay. All have been impressive through differing characteristics and attributes.
However, the Football League Manager of the Year might not be in charge of a club that even gains promotion, so often the typical barometer of success in the Championship. Birmingham City will take their place in the upcoming play-offs but in terms of the job achieved by Hughton, that merely scratches the surface. It could be considered dangerous to make judgments before the end of the season (one of the arguments against recent award announcements), but Birmingham fans have a new hero. Promotion or no promotion, Chris Hughton has earned a second shot in the Premier League.