MARTIN SAMUEL: Alex McLeish is no Jose Mourinho, but he's too Special for this
Itis an urban myth that Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra wrote Mr Blue Sky about the teenage TrevorFrancis. Lynne, a lifelong supporter of Birmingham City, explained in a radio interview that he composed the song having been locked away in a chalet in Switzerland for two weeks, trying to come up with new material for an album. It was gloomy and misty, but one morningthe clouds disappeared, revealing gorgeous sun-blessed Alps. Lynnewrote Mr Blue Sky that day andthe rest of the Out Of The BlueLP soon after. That humble Birmingham City could be capable of inspiring such an uplifting piece of music is still a lovely thought, however. And if Lynne retains his enthusiasm for the club, now would be the perfect occasion to put this right. Making his point: Alex McLeish is doing a great job at Birmingham These are good times for Birmingham City. The team are the strongest they have been for many years, balanced and well managed by Alex McLeishand are yet to lose a game this season. To confirm Birmingham's increasing confidence as a Premier League club, Alexander Hleb (below right) has been signed on loan from Barcelona. Hleb, once of Arsenal, is a quite brilliant player, always ambitious, always looking to make the most telling pass. He has a calibre few would have imagined Birmingham could attract, one capable of enkindling poetry, let alone pop singles. Indeed, somebody should tell the owners the good news, because they seem increasingly intent on ruining the forecast. Howelse to explain the clumsy intervention of Peter Pannu, the Birmingham vice-chairman, in McLeish's contract negotiations? The talks have dragged on since last season, with the club reluctant to meet the Scot'sdemands. Fair enough. Business is business. Yet in explaining the delay, Pannu, a former Hong Kong police officer, managed to say something deeply insulting about McLeish. 'He deserves a bonus,' Pannu conceded, 'but to suggest he is in the top class like Jose Mourinho, well he is no Mourinho yet.' Pannu later called his manager to clear the air, claiming he drew thecomparison because Mourinho and McLeish share the same agent, Jorge Mendes. McLeish accepted the olive branch and the discussions continue but, even so, what was Pannu playing at? Mourinho probably wouldn't be Mourinho, either, if he was working with Cameron Jerome as his centre forward, not Diego Milito, hero of Inter Milan's Champions League triumph; and McLeish might have found it easier to hold a two-goal lead against Bolton Wanderers last month if his central defenders were Lucio and Walter Samuel. What makes Pannu's dismissive attitude worse is that in recent years Birmingham have quite happily paid substantial sums to advisers, who have contributed considerably less to the project than McLeish. The company accounts to March 31, 2009, show two payments of £66,500 made to Steve McManaman and ChristianKarembeu. McManaman was listed as a director of Birmingham City's parent company, Birmingham International Holdings, Karembeu as a non-executive director. There were 16 board meetings in that time, and neither man attended one. Carson Yeung, the owner, is entitled to spend his money as he sees fit. If he considers McManaman and Karembeu's input to be good value, that is his concern, but it must be galling for McLeish to be publicly belittled, while funds are frittered away on celebrity directors whose roles do not appear to carryresponsibility, or even the need for physical presence. McLeishhas been supported financially, but to nowhere near the extent Yeung predicted when he bought the club last October. Much of Birmingham's improvement has been down to the manager's eye for a bargain or a promising loan, rather than substantial investment. McLeish took Joe Hart from Manchester City last season and helped turn him into the most promising young goalkeeper in the country. When Hart returned north, McLeish invested permanently in Ben Foster, who struggled at Manchester United, but has started the season well. McLeish has played the market impressively and needs to, considering the promise of more than £80m in his first year, announced by Yeung, has failed to materialise. Indeed, an interim financial report from April 1, 2009, to March 31, 2010, revealed that Birmingham's liabilities exceed their assets by £31.9m, prompting the Premier League to request aguarantee that Yeung would underwrite this shortfall (standard policy since the crisis at Portsmouth). It looks as if McLeish will have to cut his cloth for a while yet. That is another aspect of management that will have been foreign to Mourinho - since arriving at Chelsea in 2004 at least - and another reason why McLeish deserves greater credit than he is receiving. He may not get his own song, but he merits more than to be lumbered with aspirations that wouldbe beyond any Birmingham City manager from any era; even Mr Blue Sky orthe Special One. No more Mr Nice Guy, Randy, or it really is journey's end for Aston Villa Aston Villa really do need to talk about Kevin. Good coach, sound with the reserves, great with the kids, highly respected by the first team, but Kevin MacDonald must be made to face a harsh reality if Villa are to move swiftly on from the mess of Martin O'Neill's departure. He is not going to be the manager; Gerard Houllier is. And, as the manager, Houllier must be allowed to select his assistant. If his choice lies beyond Villa Park as expected - Gary McAllister and Didi Hamann are the new favourites now Phil Thompson has turned down the position - MacDonald must then accept being relegated to third in command, or worse. More importantly, Villa's executive management should be prepared to make this ruthless call, no matter the consequences. The delay over Houllier's appointment while Randy Lerner, Villa's owner, attempts to extract the club from the complications of MacDonald's brief tenure cannot continue. If Lerner thinks MacDonald is so talented that keeping him happy is the top priority in the decision-making process, he should forget Houllier and give MacDonald the job. Time to turn shady: Randy Lerner has some tough decisions to make at Villa Park If the 6-0 defeat at Newcastle United and the Europa League exit to Rapid Vienna has shaken his confidence in promotion from within, then he must back Houllier all the way, even at the risk of alienating MacDonald. This fudge, this halfway house, in which Houllier is employed but MacDonald is accommodated, can only end in confusion. Houllier must pick his staff and if MacDonald is part of it, so much the better as he had an excellent reputation as part of O'Neill's backroom team. If, however, MacDonald cannot accept dropping down the bill after a brief spell as the leading man, there can be no compromise. Players need to have a clear idea of who is in charge. A pacification, in which MacDonald is bolted on to Houllier's group, particularly when it is known that he wanted his job, would dilute the power of the manager. And Villa's new boss has an uphill struggle as it is. More from Martin Samuel... Martin Samuel: Sorry Frank Lampard, you've lost centre stage08/09/10 Martin Samuel: From kiss and tell to all is well (until he gets home, anyway)08/09/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: No one likes Ashley Cole, but you have to admit: He's good06/09/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: What HAS Capello got to learn from Wenger and co05/09/10 Martin Samuel: At last a team that looks like England... what's changed?04/09/10 Martin Samuel: Storm is raging, but all Taunton wants is cold ale and sun02/09/10 MARTIN SAMUEL: A poor excuse for this descent into corruption 02/09/10 Martin Samuel: Show respect - Fabio Capello is no clown31/08/10 VIEW FULL ARCHIVE The difficulty for Villa this season is that the last two summers have revealed the extent of their ambition. Losing Gareth Barry to ManchesterCity was a warning sign, but the departure of James Milner to the same club provided confirmation that Villa had reached their limit. Lerner had consistently backed O'Neill, his manager, in the transfer market and the club had risen to sixth place. The next step, from EuropaLeague qualification to the top-four finish required to enter the Champions League, was going to take even heavier investment and Lerner balked. O'Neill thought it would require another £40million, but this was a conservative estimate considering the spending power of Manchester City,the fine job done by Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur, and the possibility of a new investor, and investment, at Liverpool. It may havetaken as much as £100m for Villa to muscle in, with no guarantee of success. This was too rich for Lerner, understandably so. Yet not only did he not invest what was needed to progress at Villa, he solved a problem for Manchester City, their main rivals, with the sale of Milner. O'Neill left, because he could, and the players remained in the knowledge that they were playing for a club that had found its limit. As Lerner is prepared to settle, he may find his players are, too. The ambitious ones will angle to leave and the remainder will coast. Lerner will not admit that Villa have reached journey's end because the dream of every football club owner is to move forward by cheaper means, through investment in the youth team, but few pull it off. Arsene Wenger has been trying for several years to build from scratch at Arsenal, without success. Manchester United supplemented a fine batch of youth-team players with major signings and won the Treble; but West Ham United sold a similar harvest off piecemeal and were relegated. Trouble ahead? It remains to be seen how Gerard Houllier (left) and Kevin MacDonald will work together at Villa It is going to be devilishly difficult to maintain O'Neill's success, let alone outstrip it, if Villa's strategy relies on finding another five like Marc Albrighton; particularly as recent evidence suggests that, even if Villa struck gold, they would struggle to keep their best young talent. To complicate the issue further with a bodged management team could be fatal to what remains of Villa's ambitions. Lerner has made his vision of the future perfectly clear and his manager must be afforded the same opportunity. Carlo Ancelotti inherited his backroom staff at Chelsea, but with them came an exceptional group of players. Houllier will have no such luxury at Villa. If he is to invigorate this squad, he must be allowed to do so his way, and not become bogged down in club politics. To those who are familiar with MacDonald's low-key achievements at Villa, it will seem further evidence of football's madness that the loyalty of such a highly regarded employee be risked. Yet, more than ever, Villa's owner must be single-minded and pragmatic if his club are to recover from the loss of O'Neill. In short, no more Mr Nice Guy. Ahsan Ali Syed is expected to complete due diligence on his proposed £300m takeover of Blackburn Rovers this week, amid allegations that he has outstanding debts of more than £70,000 in Britain, dating as far back as 2001. This follows on from reports that his Western Gulf Advisory company, trading in Bahrain, had been asked to close down for 'violating the laws and regulations of Bahrain'. Welcome to the Premier League, Mr Syed. The Potless Millionaires Club meets every second Thursday. The Thriller in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle, it is not just boxing's greatest fights that are legendary, even the sales pitches have passed into sporting folklore. Yet, when asked about the forthcoming defence of his WBA heavyweight title against Audley Harrison, David Haye could only come up with the lamest of tag lines by way of explanation. 'It's no worse than Shannon Briggs,' he said, citing the journeyman opponent, sometime actor and kickboxer, who is next up for Vitali Klitschko, the WBC champion. Vitali's brother, Wladimir, the WBO, IBF and IBO champion, fights the equally uninspiring Samuel Peter on Saturday. Opportunity knocked for British boxing the night Haye defeated Nikolai Valuev in a fight that captured the imagination of the public. Opportunity is lost with the announcement of a second defence, not with a Klitschko brother, but with Harrison in Manchester on November 13. The event will be available through Sky Box Office, although 'It's no worse than Shannon Briggs' is hardly one for the billboards. Particularly as, considering what might have been for Haye, it is worse; a damn sight worse, in fact.
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