I remember remarking to Mark Watson while popping the champagne cork on the Kop car park that the removal of all the decals from the outside of the ground made it feel like a blank canvas. As empty and unloved as it looked, it felt to me like it was symbolic as to how things could quickly be improved.
You don’t need me to tell you just how much has changed in those fifty days.
One of the reasons I wanted to at least take the summer off was to enjoy those changes as a fan; to watch from the sidelines as other fans shared their excitement online to each new development.
It was quite frankly amazing just how much was done before the opening home game of the season and while the issues with Buckingham Group have put a bit of a dampener on things, it’s not made people any less excited for the future of Blues under the direction of Tom Wagner and his colleagues.
For so long we’ve dreamt of the light at the end of the tunnel. Now we’re back under the blue skies of optimism, what’s next?
I have to admit, not even at my most optimistic did I think the Shelby era would begin with this much of a bang. The changes made on and off the pitch in the first seven and a bit weeks have been huge and the apathy that hung around St Andrew’s like a bad smell seems to have been well and truly blown away.
It’s one thing to pack out the ground on the first game back with hope once more in the air; it’s completely another for the pubs around the ground to be absolutely rammed three hours before kick off.
While some had got there early for a chance to see NFL legend Tom Brady soak up the Small Heath ambience, many had got to the pub early out of pure excitement for the season ahead.
The buzz around both the Roost and the George was incredible and for the first time in a long time, it felt exciting to be a Blues fan again.
In some ways it’s incredible how far things have come.
Twelve months ago while on holiday in California I’d picked up a postcard of Alcatraz to mail to Hong Kong in an attempt to helpfully remind the people at BSH that the time had come for them to sell.
I had friends with season ticket seats who couldn’t give their tickets away for free; who would decide not to go to the ground for the slightest of reasons.
The only hopes for a takeover were a guy who called up TalkSPORT to call Simon Jordan a murderer and a local businessman trying to convince journos in a car park that he’d done the deal.
The very idea that the club would be bought out by a reputable multi-billion dollar firm seemed fanciful in the extreme.
The truth is though, that the journey isn’t over; not by a long stretch.
I’m reminded of something Jeremy Dale (of the original Often Partisan consortium) has said to me after that fateful day in July. He said that he’d worked the hardest he’d known for a year to get to that point – only to realise that day was only the start line.
You see, the hard work for Tom Wagner and his team wasn’t getting the deal done; it’s going to be making a success of the club.
Money spent on the club will help make things better. We’ve seen evidence of that from the work that has already been done on the ground and the squad.
However, the club is suffering from years of being run on a shoestring. So many past decisions were made in an effort to reduce outgoings and many will take time to undo.
We’ve already seen new CEO Garry Cook write to Blues fans about the issues the club have with the supply of replica kits. Decisions made last year with regard to how much to order have meant issues with supply now that demand has skyrocketed.
Likewise, the decision to outsource catering has fully bitten Blues on the arse. From where I sit in the Gil Merrick lower it appears that Elior are struggling to cope with the increased demand; unlike Just Sport Group, Elior’s deal with the club is due to continue after the end of this season.
In past times, this is where people would accuse me of being a doom-monger or worse. Thankfully, the change in ownership has brought about a change outlook in these situations.
As exciting as Tom Brady arriving at Blues was, the whole razzmatazz around the first game was not much more than I expected. It’s easy for any owner to look good when they’ve splashed a bit of money and got people hyped up for more down the road.
It might make me sound a loser, but for me the test of any person or company is how they react in a crisis.
Take former CEO Ren Xuandong for example.
The summer of 2017 was all positive stuff. Harry Redknapp had worked his managerial wonders to keep Blues up, and money was being spent on the club to ensure that we wouldn’t be in that situation again.
As the signings rolled in so did the memes on social media. While I’m sure some people posted images of “HMS Piss the League” ironically, I’m also sure many believed the hype. How could you not?
Yet within months it was in tatters as Blues fell apart on the pitch; first under Redknapp and then further still under Steve Cotterill. So many signings couldn’t cut the mustard where it mattered and all of a sudden those huge contracts became a financial noose around the club’s neck.
Ren was no stranger to financial crisis. His football academy company in China had struggled financially too, and he faced criticism there from coaches who went unpaid and from parents whose kids didn’t get the coaching they’d paid for.
Just as he had in China, Ren acted the same in Birmingham.
Rather than facing up to the mess he created, he vacillated between hiding from his problems and throwing others to the wolves. His reign was one of issues turning from molehills into mountains as he refused to accept the responsibility his role demanded.
Now compare that to the way people like Garry Cook have acted.
There’s already been bumps in the road for Blues; often outside of the control of the club.
For example, Buckingham Group filed notice to go into administration, bringing work on the ground to an abrupt halt and ending any hope of a quick completion of repairs.
Within 24 hours Blues had a statement on the website. They communicated the facts of what was happening, what they were doing to try and sort it out and confirmation that they would communicate again when they knew more.
Likewise, in the immediate aftermath of the club’s first triumphant home match, Cook wrote a letter to supporters on the official website to confirm that as proud as they were of the day, they’d read the feedback online of things that weren’t quite right and were working to sort them out.
It’s saying something that within six weeks of taking the position, Cook and Wagner have spoken more to the fans in an official capacity than Ren Xuandong and former Chairman Frank Zhao Wenqing did in their whole tenure.
What Cook and Wagner have done in the face of adversity is worked hard to gain the trust of the fans. By talking to fans both officially via the website and behind the scenes in meetings, Shelby have done everything they can to show fans that they can even when things don’t go to plan, they can work to make the situation better.
For me at least, this building of trust is the most exciting thing. While I’m sure there will be things to talk about and issues to raise, it feels like the days of screaming into the void might just be over.
With all this positive stuff going on behind the scenes, it’s interesting how it’s affected the club on the pitch. The defeat to Cardiff in the Carabao Cup was the first defeat for the men’s squad at 1st team, under-21 or under-18 level.
Here I was thinking that having Undefeated as a sponsor might end up being slightly ironic when instead it’s looking somewhat prophetic.
Of course, we know football is a fickle game and I have no doubt that we will have a sticky patch sooner or later. That being said, I really do think that the buzz in the crowds is having an effect on the team and it’s spurring them on that little bit further.
A lot has been helped by the additions made to the team this summer; many of which have been pleasantly surprising in their value and permanence.
Back in July I’d heard that Blues wanted 12 players – seven permanent and five on loan.
At the time of writing this with transfer deadline day looming Blues have signed 11 players, nine of which have been permanent deals. While I would never profess to being ITK, I’m fairly sure that number will be increased further by the 11pm deadline this evening.
With the backdrop of FFP issues I’ve been impressed that the club have been able to do so much; which is helped by my trust in the current board to act in a manner which isn’t going to see us deducted points down the pike.
The immediate impression I got from Wagner even before the deal was done was that he was the kind of guy to tackle FFP constraints in a positive way and everything I’ve seen since July 13 has proven that.
Rather than try to make further cuts to bring losses down within the required threshold, it’s been apparent that the club are doing everything they can to bring in new money to give them more wiggle room.
The more wiggle room that the club has, the more chance that people like Craig Gardner, Frank McParland and Joe Carnall can find players to help bolster John Eustace’s squad.
Throw in the emphasis on younger players who have potential to improve and become proper assets, and we have what looks like a proper long-term strategy evolving at the club. How long has it been since we’ve been able to say that?
While that strategy may not bring immediate triumph to the squad, my gut feeling is that it will only help build a situation where success becomes more and more achievable.
It is nice to be positive about things at the club again and I’m excited to write about how things are continuing to improve.
That being said, old habits do die hard and I’ll still be keeping an eye on things in Hong Kong as BSH recede further into the distance.
For example, the BSH accounts are due at the end of the month, and while they have no financial control over the club any more they will show how the club fared last season which will help us understand just how much work Shelby has to do.
In the meantime, let’s sit back and see just how exciting transfer deadline can get for Blues – and just how much more business we can do.