Behind Enemy Lines: Birmingham City

MILLWALL are aiming for a third consecutive win at St Andrew’s as they try to put some distance between themselves and the relegation zone.

The Lions have lost their last four games, and face a Blues side smarting after Sunday’s 1-0 derby loss against Aston Villa.

Lucas Ball spoke to Nick Xydias this week.

Why do you support Birmingham?

I support Birmingham City because I had no choice! We lived in Small Heath, an area very close to the ground, and when I was a kid and my Dad used to take me on his shoulders to games to watch the likes of Trevor Francis, Kenny Burns and Bob Latchford.

The first game I can recall was a 2-1 win over Liverpool. Hooked ever since and not regretted it for a moment. We have a distinct identity we are very proud of.

What’s been your favourite season following Blues?

I can’t pick a favourite season, but I can narrow it down to two.

The first is the 1994-95 season when Barry Fry guided us to promotion from Division One to the Championship and we won the Auto Windscreen Shield.

We scored for fun, signed players like there was no tomorrow and played some real gung-ho football.

The second was our first season in the Premiership with Steve Bruce at the helm in 2002-03. We had a fantastic siege mentality, did the double over Villa, were enchanted by Christophe Dugarry for half a season and survived with ease.

It was a total breath-taking adventure from start to finish after so many years in the wilderness.

And the worst?

The worst season? Blimey, where do I begin. 1988-89 was very bleak. We got relegated to the third tier for the first time, had a loyal but very limited manager in Garry Pendrey, an owner who wanted rid, virtually no players of any discernible ability and an average crowd of just over 6,200.

Dark days indeed.

I take it fans are happy with Garry Monk at the helm?

The fans quite rightly adore Garry Monk.

He has worked wonders with a small but committed squad of players, the same players Steve Cotterill couldn’t get a tune out of. Players like Che Adams, Wes Harding and Lukas Jutkiewicz have improved no end.

He and his staff have connected with the fanbase very effectively and are fully involved with the club’s charity work and fan engagement activities.

I think the squad is beginning to run on empty somewhat after a long and draining season but he still manages to conjure up big results when it matters.

There is no question that he is pivotal to the club’s future and I’m intrigued to see what he can do when he is given some freedom in the transfer market.

Our best manager for some time.

What are your expectations for the rest of this season?

Barring a freakishly great run-in and the EFL acting with a surprising level of leniency in relation to the outstanding FFP issues, I think the play-offs will be a step too far.

After one too many seasons of having to get a result on the last day of the season in order to avoid relegation, I’d happily settle for mid-table boredom, taking whatever medicine the EFL give us and starting with a clean slate next season.

Looking back at Sunday’s game against Villa, what did you make of Blues’ performance?

I thought we played well in the first half against Villa but, as the game wore on, they grew in strength and we struggled.

We have no real game-changers on the bench and when they brought on John McGinn he managed the rest of the game for them pretty well after they went ahead.

We have a habit of playing the occasion rather than the game when it comes to Villa and need to snap out of that mindset. We are long overdue a win over them to put it mildly and always seem to be left with a sense of “what could have been”.

Obviously, we can’t talk about that game without looking at the incident – does the increase in similar incidents in football recently sum up where society is at as a whole?

The incident involving Jack Grealish needs to be put into context.

It was a mindless act of stupidity by a fan who has been rightly imprisoned and whom the club have banned for life. I’m not exactly sure how you can prevent a fan from invading the pitch if he or she has access to the front few rows of any stand and is committed to acting like a moron.

The club have apologised and have promised to review security measures and yet the furore has been extraordinary, particularly bearing in mind there have been similar incidents over the years.

One so-called pundit even sought to blame Garry Monk for the incident. I expect the furore is partly due to the excessively toxic nature of the derby. The level of toxicity and enmity needs to be reset in that respect.

Blues aren’t a club that are well-loved by the neutral and this won’t change things. A word on Jack Grealish. He showed tremendous strength of character to keep his head and score the winner. Full credit to him.

Monk’s men were 2-0 winners at The Den in November, are you expecting a tougher showing from Millwall this time around?

I think Wednesday’s game will be a tough game for Blues. Millwall never make it easy and will be desperate for points, though your lot may have an eye on the FA Cup game at the weekend.

Monk will face a challenge in lifting our players after Sunday’s deflating defeat.

Which of Monk’s players will the Lions need to pay most attention to?

I’d say Blues’ most dangerous players are Adams and Jutkiewicz. Both have had barnstorming seasons and have dovetailed well up front all season.

Juke is the perfect target-man foil for Adams’ speed, power and finishing. Adams is destined for the Premier League, and rightly so, in the summer.

Jota is also one to watch but you never quite know what to expect from him. He is gifted with great technique and vision but his end product and appetite for the fight are questionable.

Likewise, which Millwall players are you worried about facing?

I rate Shane Ferguson after his spell on loan at Blues and his set-piece delivery is excellent. Lee Gregory has impressed me, too.

What are your thoughts on Neil Harris?

I like Neil Harris. He’s articulate and bright. Seems like a nice guy, Millwall through and through and seems to be well-liked by your fans.

If you could sign one of his players, who would it be and why?

I’d sign Ben Marshall. He adds width and has an eye for goal.

What’s your predicted Blues starting XI and formation?

I suspect Garry Monk will play a 4-4-2 formation, bring back Gary Gardner instead of David Davis and perhaps start Kerim Mbrapti instead of Jota:

Camp; Harding, Dean, Morrison, Pedersen; Maghoma, Kieftenbeld, G Gardner, Mbrapti; Adams, Jutkiewicz.

Finally, what’s your score prediction?

I think and hope Blues will edge a scrappy encounter by the odd goal.

Graphic: @ShedCreative