Birmingham City fans have experienced their fair share of false dawns — bold statements of intent from the club hierarchy that soon fell flat and promises that were quickly broken.
But for many, this “new era”, as chief executive officer Garry Cook declared it at the unveiling of new manager Wayne Rooney inside St Andrew’s on Thursday afternoon, feels different.
There is renewed hope that this time, the rhetoric will be backed up by action.
Rooney will be hoping the same. His first job in management was at Derby County, a club that has made even the shenanigans at Birmingham under Hong Kong hairdresser Carson Yeung and then the mysterious, absent ownership of Trillion Trophy Asia look sane.
Then there was Rooney’s stint in the U.S. with DC United, which had its problems too. It has been difficult to accurately judge his credentials.
Rooney’s qualities as one of the best English players of his generation are undeniable. But just how good he is as a manager? We are all about to finally find out.
“It’d be nice to actually be able to focus on the training sessions and the games, and having a team above me I can trust to make sure everything is OK,” said Rooney, who had to deal with administration and points deductions at cash-crippled Derby and even slept in his office at the training ground at times.
“At my two previous clubs, maybe that wasn’t the case.”
That wasn’t always the case at Birmingham either for predecessor John Eustace, who, despite the problems with the previous owners, managed to keep the club in the Championship. New chairman Tom Wagner admitted after Eustace’s departure earlier this week that Knighthead Capital Management wouldn’t have tried to buy the club had they gone down to League One, but Eustace was sacked after back-to-back home wins had lifted Birmingham into sixth position.
A club statement said the board and Eustace were not “fully aligned on the importance of implementing a winning mentality and a culture of ambition across the entire football club”.
Cook went further.
“I don’t want to make it sound as if John didn’t have ambition,” he says. “But we started to look at our own ambition and decide what we wanted to do.
“As we go through the organisation, we have to share the ambition and that alignment means that perhaps our ambition was a little higher.”
They want promotion to the Premier League — that is Rooney’s remit. Finishing higher than sixth, or even remaining there, may be difficult for now. Comparisons have been made to the decision to sack Gary Rowett in 2016 when he had led Birmingham to a similar position, only to see his successor Gianfranco Zola win just two of 24 games, but there is a different level of ambition at Birmingham these days and a more considered structure being put in place.
Seven years ago, the club’s new owners wanted a big-name manager. The latest owners see the value in a big name too, bringing NFL legend Tom Brady on board as a minority owner and chairman of the advisory board. Both Brady’s and Rooney’s standing in world sport will certainly help the club attract sponsors and interest as they look to grow their revenue streams.
But as Rooney — who was at the training ground at 7am to meet all the staff and who conducted his first training session before his unveiling — says, Brady is more than a figurehead.
“We spoke about the Super Bowl in February,” Rooney revealed as he confirmed he held talks with Brady before joining the club. “I went to it.
“Maybe 10 years ago, I was watching a Super Bowl and I put out a tweet saying how much I was looking forward to the half-time show because the game wasn’t great.
“Since then, I’ve been to a few games and I went to the Super Bowl in Phoenix in February and it completely changed my view.
“I visited the Washington Commanders and sat down with their manager and the owners, and got a feel of a different sport and how different sports operate.
“But speaking to Tom, it was obviously about the football club and his role and how he has been really involved in the club. His enthusiasm is refreshing.
“We’re both on the same page when we say we’re excited for what this club can achieve in the future.
“He’s one of, if not the, greatest athletes of all time, so I’m sure he’s got a lot of advice and a lot of things which worked for him throughout his career to pass on.”
Rooney spoke to the press in the newly refurbished media suite, decked out in a club tracksuit and baseball cap, and still looking slightly jet-lagged. Outside, work was continuing on restoring seating that had become unusable in the Tilton Road and Kop stands when corrosion was discovered in 2020.
Rooney will try to ingratiate himself to the Birmingham fanbase, some of whom may have retained a certain amount of cynicism after so many false dawns.
The new manager admitted he had been given a Peaky Blinders cap and would wear it someday — he even thought long and hard about imitating the Brummie accent when one journalist asked him. But he knows it will be on the pitch where he will dispel any scepticism and the club has promised “no fear football”.
“In terms of how I want my team to play, I want them to be brave,” Rooney said. “I want them to take risks.
“They’re going to make mistakes, that’s normal in a game of football. Players make mistakes. But you have to be willing to take that risk. How many times do you see the crowd get on players’ backs because they play backwards or sideways?
“I want the players to play forward. We’ve got really good attacking players in this squad, so we have to use them, we have to get them the ball to get crosses in the box. We have to back that up.”
The appointment of Rooney could be seen as a calculated risk by the club’s owners, but, as Cook added: “Playing safe is mediocrity.”
Finally, he was asked for a message for those fans who will return when the stadium work is completed. He had a simple reply.
“Just enjoy it.”
It has been difficult for Birmingham fans to do that in recent years, but the club is now looking to the future with huge ambition. And hope.
(Top photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)