Sean Cole looks back on that eventful double winning season, which also saw Blues clinch the Division Two championship, with the help of some of the main figures that made it happen…
“Twenty years. B***** hell, time flies.” Jonathan Hunt’s sense of disbelief is shared by his former team-mates. Two decades have passed since they were part of something truly special – the double-winning season of 1994/95, one of the most eventful in Birmingham City’s history. But more than that, it marked the rebirth of optimism at St. Andrew’s.
Still, progress was far from straightforward, Blues succeeding against a backdrop of uncertainty. Under Barry Fry, a man who veered from court jester antics to fearsome tirades, chaos reigned. Across 63 games, 41 players made first-team appearances. “He’d have used double that if he’d been allowed,” says Steve Claridge. It was a marathon effort all round.
After being relegated from Division One (now the Championship) the previous season, an immediate return to the second tier was the minimum requirement. With only one automatic promotion spot, nothing less than the league title would suffice. Yet even the financial backing of David Sullivan and the Gold brothers, unmatched at that level, was no guarantee of success.
Blues, expected to dominate from the start, lost two of their first four games. Off the field there was a culture clash between the impetuous Fry and his ultra-professional managing director Karren Brady. They came from two seemingly irreconcilable worlds. Each week grievances were aired in the press.
“Barry loved that,” says club captain Liam Daish. “He knew how to manage Karren, who was very strong-willed. You had two very strong characters who’d clash every now and then. Karren was coming into that first role as a woman in football – which couldn’t have been easy for her. There were a lot of big characters in the dressing room and behind the scenes. You had to be strong to survive.
“I think Barry was clever in a way. He created a little bit of a siege mentality in the dressing room, where it was us against them. If Karren or David (Sullivan) had slaughtered one of the players, Barry would use that. You shouldn’t underestimate him. He’s very in your face, bullish, brash and all that, but he’s quite a clever old fox.”
Despite the simmering tension Fry hung on and, suddenly, his team started winning. Hunt and Gary Poole arrived from Southend United, making their debuts in a 4-0 win over Peterborough United, and things fell into place. Club records tumbled. Twenty league games unbeaten, seven without conceding a goal, a 7-1 thumping of Blackpool. Blues went from also-rans to league leaders by January.
“I think we had a very good side who could play but could mix it too. If you wanted to make it a physical game, we could stand up for ourselves,” recalls Claridge. “We were big and strong but we had players who wanted to get the ball down and play. There was a real togetherness about the team too. There was a lot of pressure and some players haven’t got the character to handle that, whereas we did. We had big characters who thrived in that environment.”
The mental and physical demands were particularly great given that Blues continued to compete on three fronts, in the league, the FA Cup and the Auto Windscreens Shield. Postponements added to an already hectic schedule. Fry, ever the market trader, brought in Ricky Otto and Kevin Francis for £800,000 each. The splurge coincided with a post-New Year hangover, particularly away from home, where Blues won just once in ten attempts as they fell off the pace.
Having edged past Leyton Orient over two legs, a trip to Wembley was booked in too. It formed part of a pivotal run of five games in 11 days that would define Blues’ season. A last minute win over Cardiff City was followed by meek surrender to Cambridge United. Fry hammered his players for that lifeless display and they responded, beating Plymouth 3-1. Next up was the Auto Windscreens Shield final.
Like much at Blues, the build-up didn’t go entirely to plan. There were disagreements about accommodation and ties, Daish having to buy some from Marks and Spencer in bulk. Suited up for the big occasion, the squad arrived at the old Wembley, the spiritual home of English football, to see that Birmingham City supporters had taken over. Out of a crowd of 76,633, even higher than the attendance for that year’s League Cup final between Liverpool and Bolton, 50,000 were there for Blues.
“I don’t think I ever quite played in front of that many again,” says midfielder Hunt. “It was an amazing day, it really was. There were a lot of Birmingham fans there. I remember the drive in through Wembley Way and it was just a sea of blue. You could see that they’d been starved a little bit of success, hence how many people went down there. Again it came with added pressure because there was big expectation for us to beat Carlisle, who were the underdogs.”
“It showed the potential of the club was just incredible. There was a real feel good factor around the place at that stage; it felt like everyone was in it together,” adds Claridge. “I think it was one of the most significant spells of my career but also Birmingham City’s history. It was the start of the club’s rise and I feel really proud to have been part of that.”
Daish led the team out. Despite a few players nursing injuries, including Claridge, who wore a cricket pad across his chest to protect ribs broken in the midweek win at Home Park, Blues were virtually at full strength. Peter Shearer was in from the start, having proved his fitness in a hastily arranged reserve match, while Paul Tait shook off an illness to take his place on the bench.
The game itself was a rather drab affair until the blockbuster finish. Blues were comfortably the best side across 90 minutes but couldn’t find a way past Tony Caig in the Carlisle goal. Substitute Louie Donowa missed the best chances, twice heading over when he should have scored. As the full-time whistle blew, the players regrouped for one last push.
It proved decisive. Claridge could have been the hero, flicking the ball onto the crossbar from Hunt’s knockdown, but instead the honour went to boyhood Blues fan Tait. He arrived late in the box to glance home Ricky Otto’s cross, leapt over the hoardings and lifted up his shirt to reveal an infamous slogan – securing a permanent spot in club folklore in the process.
“To score the winner at Wembley and send 50,000 Bluenoses home happy was an amazing feeling,” confirms Tait. “I’ll never forget that. My most treasured item is the t-shirt that I wore at Wembley. I’ve still got it and I’ve had it framed, along with all the press cuttings.”
“I remember Taity scoring the goal, lifting the t-shirt up and everything after that’s just a blur,” says goalkeeper Ian Bennett, who played in all but one game that season. “We stayed at a London hotel with everyone and had a really good night. One of those nights that don’t come round very often – a proper knees-up as Baz called it.”
Although memories had been made and a trophy safely stowed in the cabinet, the job wasn’t done just yet. When the celebrations subsided, focus was called for. League leaders Brentford came to town three days later for a virtual title decider. Whoever won would be top, with momentum on their side heading into the final two weeks of the season. It was another great occasion with the ground rocking.
“The atmosphere inside St. Andrew’s after we’d won the cup and then faced Brentford, who really fancied themselves to pip us to the title, was incredible,” says Daish. “I’ll always remember in the first five or 10 minutes there was a 50-50 ball between Gary Poole and Martin Grainger and Pooley came out on top. That just set the tone for the game. It was a proper humdinger. We were flying high then. We were confident and when you’re on that roll you don’t feel tired.”
Second-half strikes from Francis and Daish did the business, sending Blues clear on goals scored. It was a position they clung doggedly onto despite two disappointing home draws. So it was do or die at the McAlpine Stadium, the brand new home of play-off chasing Huddersfield Town.
Blues were out in force once more to witness another dramatic win. Goals from Tait and leading scorer Claridge, who notched his 26th of the season, confirmed promotion and only the fifth title win of Blues’ history. There were euphoric scenes on the pitch and in the stands. When it mattered most, they’d delivered.
“We couldn’t do any more that year. The club was in a big transition. There was a lot of pressure on the team to do well. Everyone treated us as the big club in that league and everybody wanted to take points off us,” says Daish. “We had to perform, especially with the size of the crowds we were getting, at that level, at St. Andrew’s. There was a lot of expectation and a lot of pressure. We stood up to it and scored and achieved everything we set out to.”
The Division Two title and the Auto Windscreens Shield, a record points total and more than 100 goals scored in all competitions – it was a case of mission accomplished in emphatic fashion. Blues never wanted to be in the third tier to begin with but they made the most of it. It would prove a launch pad on to bigger and better things.
It was the end of an era in many senses. With the influx of money that accompanied the Premier League, the mid-90s brought about a new professionalism, a standardised and increasingly cosmopolitan football experience. Back then all of the Blues squad, except for Jose Dominguez, were English-born.
A holdover from less moneyed days, there was also something endearingly shambolic about the way the club was still run. No training ground to call their own, no in-depth tactical discussions, players who enjoyed a night out and a flutter – even on their own team – it was jumpers for goalposts on a grand scale. Everyone speaks with fondness of that time, a unique atmosphere engendered by Fry, the like of which, for better or worse, will probably never be seen again.
“Barry was great,” says Bennett. “He’d sell you for £10 million or get rid of you for 50 pence, he was that type of character. It was the revolution that he started. He got bums on seats and he just lived and breathed football. Along with the Golds, David Sullivan and Karren, he was the one that got Birmingham going. It was what was needed at the club given the poor times that went before. He got people enjoying their football again.”
This article was first published in the Blues News matchday programme. This weekend's final issue of Blues News includes an exclusive interview with goalkeeper Darren Randolph, a Q&A with Jonathan Spector, a column written by club director Panos Pavlakis, the end-of-season thoughts of boss Gary Rowett, along with plenty of historical features and much, much more. Pick up your copy (priced at £3) ahead of kick-off against Charlton Athletic.