Editorial: The Challenge

After multiple years of circling the plughole, on Saturday afternoon it finally came. Despite winning against Norwich, Blues found themselves relegated after every one of their rivals also pulled a last day win out of the bag. What should have been a summer of excitement for the future ahead has for now become one of suffering brickbats in the media.

St Andrew's packed

It’s been kind of a weird weekend for me.

As painful as it was seeing relegation become reality, outside the ground I had a really enjoyable afternoon and evening with fellow Birmingham City fans.

Rather than feeling mournful about what transpired on the pitch, I got to celebrate one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the season just gone, the reconnection with fellow fans.

And as much shit as we’re taking from rival fans and football pundits, I’m still confident of what the future holds because of that reconnection. I’ve seen so many lapsed fans declare their interest in buying a season ticket simply because they feel it too.

Last summer was about release from the hold BSHL had on the club and repairing the damage the last few years had caused off the pitch.

This summer will be about revival of fortunes on the pitch and represents another challenge for both Knighthead and staff at the club.

The Revenue Challenge

I’ve alluded to it before, but in my opinion this is a huge summer for Garry Cook and his appointees.

Not only have the commercial staff got to improve on revenues from last year, they’ve got to do it from a more handicapped starting point than last year.

Relegation means not only a reduction in broadcast revenue, but a devaluation in how much commercial sponsorships with the club will be worth.

While next year should be all about promotion, sadly relegation means that it’s about promotion back to the point we started at which isn’t a great selling point.

On top of that shit sandwich, Cook is going to have to deal with a lot of negative energy from sections of Blues fans who will remind him that he was intrinsically involved with the disasterous appointment of Wayne Rooney.

The calls for Cook’s head are not going to go anywhere and many of those people unhappy with him are going to look for any opportunity to jump on him further.

Yet while there were many mistakes last year, I think there was also some positive stuff that the club could use to build a solid base for the future.

For me, the best marketing ploy the club used all season was the cheap tickets via season ticket holder references.

What that promotion did was not only offered tickets at an attractively reduced price, but also ensured that it was fans who did the job of promoting the tickets.

So many season ticket holders rose to the challenge and brought friends and family along to games who probably wouldn’t have come otherwise.

This meant that not only did new and lapsed fans come to the games, they came with people they probably already knew and thus helped to rebuild the fan community a little.

I’m not daft enough to think that every ticket promotion would work in a similar way, but I do think that the club need to use the positive momentum of those games and build upon it.

This would then go to affect other revenue streams positively.

While many people understand what is on the pitch is the product that the commercial team are selling, I’m not sure how many people understand just how much the fans are part of that product.

If you’ve got an engaged fanbase attending the club regularly, it’s easier then for commercial partners to market and engage with those supporters.

Equally, the more positive the vibes are around the club, the more other commercial entities will want to get involved.

We’ve seen all the talk of how Blues have done big partnership deals with companies like Levy and Nike.

For me, this summer is a good time for Cook and co to show how they can continue to build relationships with fans because more than anything else, that will be the positive force for the future.

On the Pitch

Garry Cook isn’t the only person to take the brickbats online regarding relegation. While the chopping and changing of managers has come in for a lot of criticism, the Blues recruitment strategy has also come under fire.

Last summer was a bit of a tough one for Blues, with Profit and Sustainability regulations making for a constrained approach to the transfer market.

Throw in some questionable contracts from the previous administration and a lopsided squad and it’s not hard to understand why the squad struggled so much at times.

All this has meant that Technical Director Craig Gardner has found himself in the firing line from many people online with some offering the view that maybe Gardner should be moved on this summer.

There is no denial that this summer will be a challenge, despite the easing of financial restrictions.

Instead of profit and sustainability, Blues will be under the “Salary Cap Management Protocol” in League One, which constrains the club to keeping the club within a strict wage : revenue ratio.

However, there are loopholes and caveats which make things much easier for Blues.

Some contracts signed last season won’t count towards the salary cap, while money put into the club as a gift by Knighthead will count towards revenue.

This backs up what Tom Wagner said at the Open House; that while relegation is bad, it merely just makes it a bit more expensive for Knighthead in the short term.

The bigger problem Blues will face is that they will need to not only sign players to get them out of League One, but that will grow with the club so that we don’t need to rip up the squad again on promotion.

This means that Gardner and the recruitment team will need to find players who will be willing to sign for the club now in League One but who have the wherewithal to potentially cut it in the Championship.

Ipswich showed that promotion in back-to-back seasons is doable with players like Conor Chaplin making the step up from League One to excel in the Championship with the club.

The appointment of Kieran McKenna has also been crucial to the success at Portman Road and I think this speaks to the other challenge that Blues must resolve quickly this summer.

I don’t know if Tony Mowbray will return to management duties or not, but I think a decision needs to be made quickly one way or another so that the recruitment drive of new players can start quickly.

My preferred choice would be Mowbray to come back to lead the charge but from a human perspective I would completely understand if Mowbray decided that his health dictated that he couldn’t return.

The one plus side from relegation for me is that next season represents the best chance the current u21 and u18 squads have of pushing into the first team.

Both age groups have had incredibly successful seasons and I would like to see the best players given opportunities to push into the first team, particularly in the Bristol Street Motors trophy.

There is no guarantee that any of them will succeed but I think it would be great for the club players got an opportunity as it will not only help resolve some recruitment issues but will also show future academy players that there can be a pathway to the top.

That again would lead into building a more secure future for the club.

The Fans

Relegation is a tough thing for fans to take. I get how angry or frustrated fans can be that a season which should have been full of promise has ended so sourly.

Worse, I know the feeling of dread of the shit we’re going to take from rival fans in group chats, workplaces and social media websites. With the mob across the expressway likely to finish in the Champions League places it’s going to suck, big time.

Yet the biggest issue Blues fans could potentially face are internal.

I’m not going to give any credence to some of the more extreme voices online because online trolls don’t need to be given any oxygen whatsoever.

However, there have been some things which seem to have made Blues fans angry with each other towards the end of the season which could be more difficult this year.

One of the biggest beefs has been about away tickets.

In the Championship this is only really a problem for a couple of games a season where either the rivalry with the opposition or the amount riding on the game makes it more in demand.

League One is going to be a different story.

While some clubs will happily sell Blues a huge allocation of away tickets, other grounds are so small that away tickets are going to be like rocking horse shit.

This means that demand for tickets could easily outstrip supply in some games, which is going to potentially make life difficult for the club.

The loyalty tiers fans are placed in has worked pretty well, but there have been instances where tickets allocated via commercial and other routes have caused controversy.

In my mind Blues need to learn from the mistakes made last year to try to limit that controversy as much as possible.

Equally, as fans I think we have to accept that sometimes there are commercial reasons among others for some of an away allocation not to be sold directly to fans in those tiers.

This summer is also huge for the Official Supporters Clubs.

While the launch appears to have gone well, there have been some teething problems with the OSC idea.

Although I am not and never will be a member of an OSC, I do believe in the concept and I think it’s important that the club aligns properly with fans on how they are run.

It’s felt at times from my perspective that the cart has led the horse and it’s massively important both fans and the club learn from mistakes.

I’m a believer of the Tuckman model of team development where groups “form”, “storm”, “norm” before finally “perform”.

Under this model I believe that the OSC concept is now in the “storming” phase, where ideas and members shift rapidly and consensus is still being built.

This summer is going to be tough because it’s the first point where OSCs are going to take membership fees and I think there will come a point that some may fail to meet the required size.

My hope is that most OSC groups work their way though this process and get to a point whereby the end of 2024 they are “performing” in a successful way for everyone.

Perspective is the most important thing in all this.

Had Blues been relegated in May 2023, things would have been terrible. Knighthead would probably have pulled out of purchasing and the change of ownership would have been traumatic if it happened at all.

And while mistakes have been made, the future remains bright. Relegation sets things back a little bit but also allows for a reset that the club maybe needs.

Relegation also presents a challenge which people are going to have to step up to. The time for excuses is really over now; only a winning mentality and success will do next season.

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