Dunlavy column: Why Zola has a tough task upgrading Rowett’s ‘threshing machine’

By Chris Dunlavy

ONLINE chatter is a notoriously unreliable barometer of fan sentiment. It’s a forum for the extreme minority rather than the moderate majority.

Just ask former Charlton chairman Richard Murray, who deeply regretted letting a handful of misguided keyboard warriors influence his fateful decision to jettison Alan Curbishley.

That’s why I read the tweets and posts of Birmingham fans rallying round Gianfranco Zola with a degree of scepticism. In the broadest strokes, their stance was an argument of style over substance. Gary Rowett had won games, but his methods were ugly. Spectating was grim.

Zola, appointed by the club’s new Chinese owners in December to widespread disbelief, wins less often than Eddie the Eagle, but at least he loses with panache.

As an outsider, this sounded like lunacy. When Rowett was fired, the Blues had 34 points on the board and lay one victory shy of third spot. In the next 15 games, Zola had added just nine more, turning a play-off push into a relegation battle.

The Italian’s comments after Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Wigan belied his mounting panic. “Too many players were hiding,” said the usually affable Zola. “What they did was childish. I feel embarrassed. If we play like this, then how can we say we are safe?”

Yet, when I asked a Brummie mate to canvass the opinion of a couple of Blues regulars, the very same argument bounced back. Yes, Zola was losing. But the football under Rowett was so painful, they didn’t care.

If this really is the feeling around St Andrews, perhaps owners Trillion Trophy Asia knew their fanbase better than any of us acknowledged. Nevertheless, surely it would have been wiser to grin and bear it for six months?

Rowett played functional football because he had a functional team, slung together on a relative shoestring.

Whether you believe those tactics were pragmatic or elective, or whether he could be trusted to spend big bucks on flair players, it is a fact that Birmingham’s squad was honed to graft, tackle and launch it.

Bulldozers like Michael Morrison. Muscular targetmen like Clayton Donaldson. The non-stop legs of Jacques Maghoma.

One January transfer window didn’t give Zola – or anybody, for that matter – enough time to adequately overhaul the threshing machine Rowett constructed.

Nor did the corpulent fixture list over Christmas allow for any serious hours on the training ground, essential if you want to alter the style and ethos of a side.

Ask any manager appointed mid-season – Neil Warnock and Sam Allardyce are the doyens of this particular art – and they will tell you that simplicity is critical. Shape, discipline, defensive basics.

Birmingham players, by contrast, are being asked to turn a brick outhouse into the Sistine Chapel, while somebody shakes the scaffolding. No wonder their brush strokes are going awry.

As someone who grew up watching Newcastle under Kevin Keegan, I sympathise with fans who want to be entertained. Allardyce got short shrift at St James’ Park precisely because he sneered at artistry.

But there is a time and place for a revolution and the middle of a hectic Championship season is not it.

If Zola can battle through to June, sign a set of talented technicians and spend a whole pre-season knocking them into shape, Blues fans may yet get the kind of team they crave.

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