By Adam Crafton, Laurie Whitwell, Stuart James, Adam Leventhal, Michael Bailey, Gregg Evans and Matt Slater 3h ago￼ 19 ￼
Less than a decade ago, Birmingham City were enjoying life in the Premier League and celebrating a League Cup final win over Arsenal. Now, the club are staring down the barrel of a potential second points deductions in 12 months and stand on the precipice of financial calamity. The club’s chief executive, meanwhile, is facing legal action on behalf of Luis Figo.
Birmingham were docked nine points last season after becoming the first club to receive a Football League points deduction due to breaches of Profitability and Sustainability regulations — English football’s equivalent of Financial Fair Play. EFL clubs are only permitted to lose £39 million over a three-year accounting period but Birmingham incurred losses of £48 million between 2015 and 2018.
Now the Championship club await the outcome of a second investigation. The EFL charged them in January over alleged failures to lower their cost control, as part of a business plan agreed with the governing body to “ensure future spending is within acceptable limits”. The EFL held the disciplinary hearing on February 12 and supporters fear a second consecutive season undermined by points deductions.
Birmingham are owned by Trillion Trophy Asia, who became majority stakeholders in October 2016 after the club went into receivership following the reign of Carson Yeung, a hairdresser-turned-businessman convicted for money laundering in 2014.
Trillion arrived with the promise of a “brighter Blues future” and a “steady, strong, always honest team”. Yet in just over four years, the club have gone through six managers: Gary Rowett, Gianfranco Zola, Harry Redknapp, Steve Cotterill, Garry Monk, and now Pep Clotet. According to the club’s latest set of accounts filed in January, auditors warn of financial turmoil. The club’s liabilities exceed total assets by £56.6 million and auditors reported “material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” The Birmingham Mail posed the front-page question, “What the hell’s going on at Blues?” following a run of nine matches without a win in early January.
Over the past two months, The Athletic has spoken to dozens of current and former employees at Birmingham and a picture has emerged of a faltering and reckless regime. Birmingham say they “are disappointed that many tired and false rumours are likely to have been stirred by individuals with agendas against the club”.
Some stories, such as the CEO’s Xuandong Ren’s legal dispute with Portugal icon Figo and the tales of him letting rip in directors’ boxes border on the absurd. Others, detailing financial loss, a perceived over-dependence on agents and an unexplained “boss man” called “Mr King”, will alarm not only Birmingham City supporters but every football fan across the land.
In September 2017, Birmingham ought to have been riding the crest of a wave. The club had spent more than £23 million that summer, recruited 14 players and made the full-time appointment of Redknapp as manager. Yet inside the directors box at Elland Road, CEO Ren (who goes by the name Dong) grew agitated. Within 17 minutes, Birmingham were a goal down against Leeds United, heading for a fourth defeat in a row and languishing in the relegation zone. Redknapp was sacked within a week.
For those who have spent considerable time in Ren’s presence, volatility is part of the package. One senior Birmingham employee recalled a “furious screaming phone call” after a defeat. In March 2019, it was reported the sound of smashed glasses could be heard from a room used exclusively by Birmingham directors during the 2-0 home defeat by Millwall.
Such outbursts are not entirely unusual in football. Yet, as one source who worked closely with Ren claims: “I thought it was completely toxic as an environment. Nobody can truly advise Dong. It felt like he didn’t listen to anything anybody says.”
Another former coach was invited to find a positive about life under Ren. There was silence for forty seconds before the individual said: “Honestly, I am searching…”
Another former colleague claims: “He is aggressive, he shouts. People are always scared of the boss, but this is another level. I remember seeing people reduced to tears after being broken down by him.
“He is extremely hard-working. He is up all hours and very loyal to his bosses. He is passionate, he can charm you and he can be interesting, such as when talking about feng shui, but he is also the definition of the knee-jerk reaction. If you disagree, you are quickly out.”
Birmingham insist the “culture is one of togetherness, hard work and everyone striving to do the best they can for the good of the club.” The club also stated that no complaint about bullying has been made.
Yet Ren is not the owner of Birmingham City. Paul Suen heads up Trillion Trophy Asia but he is not present in the Midlands. Several senior figures confirmed that they had never met the man at all, although chairman Wenqing Zhao, who the club say Ren reports to, is occasionally in town.
Xuandong Ren watches Birmingham in action in 2018
Curiously, there is the unexplained presence of a third figure, introduced to managers and employees only as “Mr King”. One source recalls being told to call “Mr King” by a different name during a second meeting. His identity is unclear and he has no official legal connection with the club, yet those who spend time in his company are left with the distinct impression he is in control. One Birmingham source said: “Ren is under amazing pressure from someone above. Absolutely immense. Maybe that explains why I found him so volatile.” Birmingham insisted that all allegations surrounding a “Mr King” are untrue.
Managers have been exasperated and bemused in equal measure. On December 9 2017, Cotterill’s Birmingham travelled to face Fulham in the Championship. His side played well but lost 1-0 after youngster Jeremie Boga, on loan from Chelsea, missed a penalty.
Earlier that week, it is believed Cotterill and his backroom staff were informed Ren and “Mr King” would like a social gathering in London after the game. Arrangements were set for a meal and drinks. Yet after the game, having counselled a distraught and tearful Boga in the dressing room, the coaching team discovered that Ren and “Mr King” had left Craven Cottage early due to their disappointment with the result.
For Cotterill, the story did not end there. The manager had rarely been home to Bristol since joining the club in September and, in lieu of a night out, he returned with the team on the snowy journey to Birmingham and then drove on to his family home. He arrived in Bristol shortly after midnight. The next morning, Ren woke Cotterill with an early call and told him to get to Manchester for a meeting in a box at Old Trafford, where Manchester United were hosting Manchester City.
Bristol was under a blanket of snow. The club’s travel manager booked Cotterill on to a train but the lines were soon down. He was ordered to drive through the blizzard to a game that remained, for much of the morning, in doubt due to inclement weather. It is believed the manager felt his job would be on the line should he refuse to attend. When he arrived at Old Trafford, after a five-hour journey, he found “Mr King” with what sources describe as a “face like **** thunder”.
Cotterill was understood to have been shown clips of the Fulham defeat on a mobile phone. “Then the iPad comes out and Mr King had all these profiles and pictures of the players’ faces,” adds a source. “He is (King) trying to put them into a formation for Steve. But they had Jota, a creative player, at right wing-back. Players were all over the place, in terms of their rightful positions.” Birmingham insisted this is untrue.
Daily, the coaching staff at Birmingham have become familiar with Ren, as well as fellow directors Shane Wang Yao and Edward Zheng. An open letter from Birmingham’s disgruntled fans’ website The 1875 (referencing the year the club was founded), addressed to chairman Zhao, recently described the trio as “three Football Manager wannabes”.
Ren has been described by one source as “the only permanent senior Chinese presence at the club”. “He is the club,” the insider added. “He is the only person who has access to Zhao or ‘Mr King’.”
A former Birmingham player lamented: “In my opinion, he’s a non-footballing man who knows nothing about football, unfortunately. He doesn’t know how to run the club but he appears to dictate everything, such as signings and what happens around the training ground.”
One source describes Wang Yao, whose English is the weakest of the trio, as a “stats lover”. He said: “His ears pricked up if you were looking at a player, or getting a basis for a valuation. He had a maths background. Edward (Zheng) seemed to like the commercial environment and he did some schmoozing with sponsors. But, make no mistake, they were all in Dong’s shadow.”
Zheng’s role sometimes becomes more prominent, such as the occasion he was dispatched to inform one manager of his impending sacking.
On matchday, the directors’ lounge can be a challenging affair. A former Birmingham coach recalls entering it after a victory and being asked why the club had failed to win the game 8-0. “Where do you go with that?” the coach said. On another occasion, a recruitment expert suggested a full-back and used England and Manchester City’s Kyle Walker as a comparison. A senior figure explained he had not heard of Walker. Birmingham denied this happened.
The stories keep coming. A Birmingham player pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. A source recalls: “Dong came over and asked why we couldn’t stop that. He said you should see it happening and stop that. I was incredulous. How do I stop someone pulling their hammy?”
In January 2019, four popular senior and experienced members of staff departed: Roger Lloyd (chief financial officer), Gary Moore (financial controller), Julia Shelton (club secretary) and Joanne Allsopp (chief co-ordinating officer). An official statement on the club’s website said they had all decided to leave the club. Several sources suggested the four employees made complaints about Ren’s behaviour and Birmingham did not dispute this but did deny any suggestions of “bullying” when asked by The Athletic.
One source says: “These were four people who really loved the club. All of a sudden, you have no voice of reason as to what the club is all about.”
Ren’s previous chronicled experience in football is minimal. It includes running an academy project in China called Winning League, a programme — part of President Xi Jinping’s aim for China to become a football superpower by 2050 — which provided training for youngsters aged between four and 15.
Ren lured Figo, the former Barcelona and Real Madrid winger, to be the face of the project and his contacts and branding helped attract dozens of Portuguese academy coaches. On several occasions, Figo visited the campuses in China.
At Birmingham, sources say that Ren is prone to bigging up his personal friendship with Figo. One agent recalls: “I remember he used to show me pictures of himself with Figo on the grass. It gave him credibility. He talked about Figo as though they had great success together.”
But the Birmingham supporters’ blog AlMajir has extensively scrutinised the club’s ownership and revealed a LinkedIn post in November 2017, where one Portuguese coach, Mario Pereira, alleged the Winning League company had failed to pay wages and expenses over an extended period of time. The Athletic spoke to several more coaches, on the condition of anonymity, who said payments were received several months late and failed to clear at all in some cases. One coach said: “In 2016, there were delays and from 2017, payments started to fail completely. Several coaches told me they were paid late. The company said that investors did not transfer money on time, that the company was under supervision by the Chinese authorities and was therefore late.”
Another coach said: “We had bills to pay, it was difficult. Twice we had to stop and parents began to understand the company had problems and asked for refunds. Everything went. Some people started to resign. This was shared in newspapers and media in China but it is not accessible information in England. Figo made a group on WhatsApp and he tried to push the company to pay us but we think he also did not receive money. He seemed to be on our side.”
Another source said: “I remember he (Ren) came to tournaments in Mongolia. He said he was upset with the situation, that he wasn’t going out of his home because he was so upset. He seemed to be sad but we knew the situation would not change. This guy has a great house in Beijing and we were wondering why he could not pay in advance to help us.”
The Athletic contacted representatives of Figo. His spokesman, Luis Sa, said that Figo declined to comment but confirmed the legal case is with the former player’s lawyers. Birmingham said: “Such unsubstantiated allegations have no bearing on Ren’s capabilities as CEO of Birmingham City.”
As Birmingham battle transfer embargoes and depend on mounting borrowing, total remuneration for directors rose from around £294,000 up to just under £609,000 between 2018 and 2019. Directors are officially paid by the parent company Birmingham Sports Holdings Ltd (BSHL) but the vast majority of BSHL’s income is derived from the club. The highest-paid director, presumed to be Ren, saw his salary rise from £166,000 to £301,000. In addition, buried within page 40 of the accounts, is a £46,649 advance loan payment made to Ren. When contacted, the club did not provide any explanation for the loan. The club also asked The Athletic for more information about why a County Court Judgement for £1,197 remains outstanding, despite dating back to November 26.
After a defeat by Wigan in January, the club’s supporters took more direct action. Among the damaging allegations, the open letter written by the 1875 group said: “Your directors are happy to chase up corporate clients for any monies that could be possibly owed while looking through the latest range of Gucci handbags to buy for their wives on the Blues credit card.” In addition, The Athletic has been told by several sources that affairs such as Christmas parties would be “lavish” while Ren is often accompanied by a “large, intimidating man” who resembled a security guard. Birmingham denied that Ren has hired a bodyguard and also denied the suggestion the club’s ownership cancelled a company credit card after Ren was caught buying a handbag for his wife.
More pressing, however, is the club’s essential need to pass FFP restrictions. For the 2018-19 period, Birmingham took significant steps. For example, Birmingham’s ownership — who, in the accounts, go under the name BSHL — bought the club’s St Andrew’s stadium for £22.76 million. This produced a profit of £17.2 million, which reduces the club’s losses for the present accounting period.
The club now has a 25-year lease to play at their own stadium, for which they pay £1.25 million per year. Coventry City, who are tenants at the stadium, pay £1 million per annum. The stadium sale is a mechanism previously employed by Derby County, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Reading. Critics, such as Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, believe it is an unfair way to lessen permitted losses as other clubs such as his own have instead been forced to sell star players.
Birmingham also remain highly dependent on player sales and last summer sold striker Che Adams to Southampton for a reported £15 million. Jude Bellingham, a 16-year-old starring in the first team, will almost certainly be sold this summer in a transfer worth more than £25 million as the club seeks to stay within financial regulations. If there is a ray of light, it is that in accounts released last week the parent company showed losses of only £6.5 million for the past six months — which, when multiplied by six, brings the losses to the acceptable, and highly convenient, £39 million figure — the maximum allowed losses over a three-year accounting period.
The parent company BSHL is now £91.4 million down on their investment in the club. As Birmingham are not permitted to have an overdraft, they require £54.2 million to stay afloat over an 18-month period to the end of 2020. BSHL’s borrowing is also now up to £40 million, while interest owed is rising too.
December 14, 2016. Birmingham are two months into the new regime under Trillion Trophy Asia and, under the smart management of Rowett, sit three points short of third-placed Reading in the Championship.
Rowett was popular. He assumed the reins in 2014 and in the game that preceded his appointment, Birmingham lost 8-0 at home against Bournemouth and languished in the Championship relegation zone. Under previous manager Lee Clark, who operated under perilous financial conditions, the club did not win a home league game for an entire year. To the club’s fans and many outsiders, Rowett stabilised Birmingham. When his sacking came shortly before Christmas, it was the first fracture between supporters and the new regime.
In the week before Rowett’s dismissal, Trillion appointed three new directors — Wenqing Zhao, Chun Kong Yiu and Zhu Kai — but relations between the manager and board had already started to rupture. Panos Pavlakis, a Greek former banker, remained the face of the club’s decision-making at the time.
Pavlakis was initially appointed by the disgraced Yeung due to his expertise in finance and knowledge of the Hong Kong stock markets. He helped steady the ship at St Andrew’s when times were tough and steered the club to solvency; instigating the appointment of Ernst & Young as receivers who then helped find an investor — Trillion Trophy Asia — to fill the financial void created by the loss of Blues’ parachute payments.
Birmingham had grown frustrated by Rowett’s apparent flirtation with other clubs and several sources have acknowledged he did hold talks with QPR. Birmingham became convinced their manager had attempted to engineer a move to Fulham. Yet his contract at Birmingham included a release clause and, as such, had he really wished to leave, a rival club simply had to buy him out. Most significantly, Birmingham offered Rowett fresh terms but he turned down an initial offer, and, it is claimed, he was swiftly sacked.
The situation was compounded by Zola’s calamitous reign. The Italian took over a team challenging for promotion but won two of his 22 Championship fixtures as Birmingham slid from 7th place to 20th between December and mid-April. Elements of the season bordered on farcical. One source recalls a director turning up at the training ground and starting to film the session from the sidelines. “Later on,” the source continues, “the session was disturbed by these noises… it turned out they had grabbed balls by the pitch and started a kick-around.”
Zola lasted just 22 games as Birmingham manager (Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Zola struggled to command the respect of players in the dressing room or among his support staff. One former Birmingham player recalls: “The owners decided to sack Gary after winning a game. Madness. When he went, the lads were devastated. We couldn’t believe it. We just wanted answers. Their words were: ‘We want a name.'”
Zola’s lack of control extended beyond the players. Rowett joined Derby in March 2017 and three weeks later, he recruited a senior member of Birmingham’s backroom staff. Birmingham allowed the staff member to leave within three days of the club’s upcoming fixture against Rowett’s Derby and did not impose any notice period upon the employee. Rowett’s Derby side won 2-1 away from home, although the new recruit stayed away from St Andrew’s.
For Zola, who oversaw a period so dreadful he declared “I sacked myself”, it would be his last managerial role to date. For Pavlakis, it would be similarly damaging, as the new ownership lost confidence in his decision-making. Here came Ren’s big break.
In a hired boardroom inside the Intercontinental Hotel on London’s Park Lane, Birmingham’s Chinese hierarchy set about solving the crisis created by Zola’s reign. In doing so, the club turned to the football agent Darren Dein, son of the former Arsenal vice-chairman David.
In April 2017, Zola was sacked following a home defeat against Burton Albion. The club called upon Dein and Jeff Vetere, a former Real Madrid scout and the ex-Newcastle technical director. Vetere, it is understood, was commissioned by Dein to watch Birmingham games and file reports that could then be sent on to the Chinese ownership.
In the Intercontinental, the pair were introduced to three men. Wenqing Zhao, the chairman, held court alongside the mysterious “Mr King”, who Ren called “Boss Man”.
Another senior Birmingham source recalls: “I met him (‘Mr King’) once. I was marched upstairs after a game. I would question if he speaks English. He didn’t even let me shake his hand. The dealings were with Zhao and Dong but it felt like he was more important. Zhao and ‘Mr King’ spoke in Chinese and then Dong would translate.” Birmingham insisted all claims about the so-called King are untrue.
Birmingham bought into the Dein and Vetere vision, hiring Redknapp as their relegation firefighter. Birmingham won two of their final three league games of the season and Dein and Vetere were summoned to thrash out a long-term contract.
By the end of the evening, those present were informed that Ren had been made the club’s CEO and the ownership were now dreaming of a promotion push. Dein was employed as a consultant, on a reported retainer of £25,000 per month. In doing so, Dein squeezed out a different agent, James Featherstone, who previously worked closely in aiding the club’s recruitment.
Birmingham posted a £37.5 million loss in the 12 months until the end of June 2018. The wage bill rose from £22 million to just short of £38 million after the board sanctioned a recruitment splurge that saw Redknapp buy nine players and take five more on loan for a total outlay of £23.7 million. Zola’s sole January window, meanwhile, yielded four players for £7.45 million and wages soared from 120 per cent of turnover in 2016-17 to 195 per cent of turnover in 2017-18. The club’s net debt more than doubled to £71.1 million.
In his submission to the EFL disciplinary commission ahead of the nine-point penalty, Ren accepted that “the signing of new players and the cost of hiring and firing two managers” were responsible for the breach of rules. The EFL report also said Ren claimed: “The owner, Mr Suen, personally took the decision to change the manager in December 2016 and to agree transfer budgets of £10 million for Mr Zola and after he was sacked £22 million for Mr Redknapp, with no controls imposed on the salary terms which could be offered to new players.”
It is unclear, however, how much, if any, involvement Suen has in the running of the club. Many of those who spoke to The Athletic have operated at a senior level at Birmingham in recent times but never met the man at all. There is barely a picture available on the internet. There is, therefore, a degree of buck-passing here. Some point to the involvement of Dein and Redknapp, believing Ren took the wrong advice.
One Birmingham player recalls: “It was typical Harry, loads of players turned up. We had a ridiculous squad and it was just becoming madness. You were just lost for words. But at the end of the day, you’re the manager, you make the decision who’s coming in.”
Sources close to Dein, meanwhile, insist he encouraged loan signings rather than permanent deals. He is understood to have rapidly concluded it would be an “impossible task” to be successful working alongside Ren.
Despite Dein recommending Redknapp for Birmingham, the pair were not as close as many might suspect. Redknapp told the Daily Telegraph: “It’s surely down to the people who run the club, like the chief executive and the chairman, or whoever, to know if we’ve got any money to spend. I didn’t know anything about FFP. I was never warned by anyone at the football club that there was going to be a problem with that.”
Internally, among long-term staff, experienced figures sounded the alarm bells. One figure in recruitment remembers being cautioned by Roger Lloyd, the club’s chief financial officer, that the club were in danger of violating the regulations. The source says: “We were bang in trouble. We needed to move people on or be creative financially. We could not sign players willy-nilly. And then we signed 14 players.
“David Stockdale, a goalkeeper, was the first. I was told he was on £30,000 per week. Some people were saying we could generate the necessary revenue through naming rights on the stadium or training ground. It never came off.”
Having overspent in the transfer market, the club were now in another relegation battle. Cotterill entered as manager but his five-month reign was tortuous. His relationship with director of football Vetere was strained. Despite the internal financial concerns, it is believed that Cotterill was initially promised a January transfer budget of £20 million, only for the club not to end up signing anybody.
Cotterill’s hopes of success were hindered by a spate of hamstring injuries, while players such as David Davies, Jonathan Grounds and Isaac Vassell suffered serious knee problems. Cotterill won only six games out of 24 but his reign was not without its share of absurdities.
“The place was fractious,” one dressing room source recalls. “The club had English physios and masseurs but two Spanish guys came in above them and the English guys did not enjoy being told what to do. There were issues with players, due to the disparity of wages. How would you feel, for instance, if you are a better player than me but earning £5,000 per week, while I earn £50,000 per week?”
Even while Cotterill had his two interviews at London’s Landmark Hotel — the first with Dein and Ren, the second when the trio were joined by chairman Zhao — the farce continued on the training ground. Stockdale was ruled out for two months after suffering an arm injury following a training ground bust-up with on-loan player Cohen Bramall. Cotterill agreed terms and rapidly concluded the dressing room and entire club culture required cleansing. Inside the club, sources describe how Dein and Ren’s relationship appeared to break down shortly after the manager’s arrival.
Cotterill’s reign at Birmingham lasted just five months (Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
In the Birmingham dressing room, they tell a story that typifies the peculiarities of the period. At the turn of 2018, Birmingham were on a losing streak and Ren turned up at the training ground. To celebrate Chinese New Year, the CEO arrived with iPhones, which he proceeded to hand out as gifts. Ren gifted phones to some senior players but most were still on the training field undergoing a warm-down session. The rest were to be handed out by Cotterill, who gave phones to analysts, the kit-man and the assistant kit-man. It is also claimed that some youth-team players received leftover iPhones.
Several more senior players in the development squad were left wondering where their gifts were. The ultimate punchline came for the players and staff on their end-of-year returns, as they discovered the club had arranged for them to be taxed on their presents. Birmingham, when contacted by The Athletic, accepted that first-team players were “given iPhones as Christmas gifts by the board of directors”. They did not respond to the suggestion players were taxed.
Cotterill, like Redknapp and Zola before him, has not managed a club since and, privately, is believed to consider the experience the most chastening of his career. The club’s next manager, Garry Monk, would endure greater, reputation-shredding turmoil.
In the first half of last season, it appeared Birmingham might be approaching a little serenity. Monk arrived with 11 games left of the 2017-18 campaign and five victories staved off a very real relegation threat. His first full season began reasonably, too, as Birmingham vied for the play-off places and lost only five of their first 26 matches. In March, however, came five consecutive defeats and the nine-point deduction. Staff at the club’s training ground noticed Ren’s increasing presence as he observed sessions from the sidelines. Off-the-field, Ren’s scope also grew.
Soon, he was building an office at the club’s Wast Hills training base. This is not the norm in football. Several clubs have executive meeting rooms at training grounds but they are usually in a separate part of the building or a different block. There are exceptions, such as Brighton, but most clubs are uneasy about the arrangement.
Ren’s workmen set to work in the summer months and he now has his own office just a few doors down from those belonging to manager Pep Clotet, analysts and under-23 staff. Previously, Dong based himself at Hampton Manor Hotel, a five-star residence previously owned by former prime minister Sir Robert Peel, which boasts a Michelin-star restaurant.
The official line from Birmingham is that this office, called the chairman’s office, was required for directors to have their own space to entertain guests and that it does not have a view of first-team pitches. Yet chairman Zhao is rarely in Birmingham. Some within football have commented that coaches would find this uncomfortable and insiders have noted, with some disdain, that Ren has his own tactics board in the office. The club confirmed that Ren has three “magnetic boards” in his office; one for the first-team, one for the under-23 team and another for the under-18 side but insisted this was purely for “cosmetic purposes.”
Another source suggested to The Athletic that players who approached Clotet to complain about being omitted from the starting line-up had been advised to take the issue up with Ren, rather than the Spanish head coach.
Should these claims be taken seriously? One former coach recalls: “He often came into my room on a Friday and started to look at the work the coaching staff had done. You can resist but then everything becomes a fight, doesn’t it? It’s not so much actually influencing the team you pick. It felt like he wanted certain players out of the club. He will just turn up, say he hates a player, the owner hates him, the board hates him and you have to get rid of him. **** hell, it is then difficult to play the player.”
Birmingham categorically deny that Ren exerts any influence over picking the team and insist the relationship is strong between Clotet and the board.
Ren has, however, been clear about the style of play that he and the board wish to see implemented at Birmingham. Monk was deemed to have been overly cautious. Yet this was a coach who played under Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers and Monk was not privately against the idea of expressive football. Even before the points deduction came into play, observers felt the set of players were not suited to an expansive system and the club were mostly under a transfer embargo during his period in charge.
One source close to Monk’s coaching staff said: “The truth is that Garry had barely played a 4-4-2 system before being at Birmingham. It is one thing to get out of the Championship, it is another thing to play your way out of it. Garry tried to manage expectations, but they were hard to temper. Dong is constantly talking about getting promoted. Some people think is easy to buy a club and get promoted.”
Monk was manager of Birmingham from March 2018 to June 2019 (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Behind the scenes, cracks appeared. Monk was surprised when the club were deducted points and had been reassured that Birmingham would avoid a transfer embargo. As the season ended, he craved clarity over the financial situation. In the meantime, Featherstone — Monk’s agent and long-time friend — had returned to the club and secured a representation agreement. Featherstone was involved in nine of 18 deals conducted by Birmingham after Monk’s arrival in March 2018 in the role he was contracted to do by the club.
The relationship between Ren, Monk and Featherstone blew up spectacularly last summer when Monk was dismissed. Ren conducted interviews with The Times and Daily Mail newspapers, in which he alleged Monk became “very upset” when informed that Featherstone would not have a major say in future transfer dealings.
The allegations were explosive and both Monk and Featherstone dismissed the claims, privately feeling there was little to be gained from a public to-and-fro. The drama intensified when Monk’s assistant, Clotet, who worked under him at Leeds and Swansea, was promoted to head coach, leaving Monk feeling betrayed. When Monk became Sheffield Wednesday manager, his backroom staff, still at Birmingham, were priced out of a move to Yorkshire.
In the post-Featherstone era, those around Birmingham believe that Ren relies on two figures for advice. One is the academy head Kristjaan Speakman, who is close to Bellingham and the player’s influential father. Another figure has started to appear at Birmingham’s training ground called Andres Manzano, who has a senior role at Spanish third division club Cornella.
Birmingham announced a partnership with Cornella in September 2018. Officially, the club say they see possibilities to develop young players and improve coaching standards. Yet last summer, Birmingham signed a 29-year-old midfielder, Ivan Guzman, from lower-tier Spanish club UE Olot but then immediately loaned him to Cornella. It is a signing with little prospect of resale value and Birmingham did not provide any explanation for the deal when asked by The Athletic.
Ren is understood to have made various trips to Cornella but witnesses describe conditions as basic, with one saying: “There is one astroturf pitch, it feels like a glorified community scheme. A few of their players went on trial at Birmingham last summer but were generally considered to be hopeless.” Manzano, meanwhile, is acting as an “external sporting advisor” for Birmingham and has been seen at matches alongside Ren.
Recent performances do, however, suggest an improvement although cynics have pointed out that Clotet, under pressure, reverted to the more conservative tactics favoured by Monk last season. Birmingham are on 10-match unbeaten run in the Championship, and are up to 15th in the table, 10 points clear of the relegation zone.
The question is whether the EFL will hit the club with another sanction. Birmingham have taken steps to address their financial issues, cutting the wage bill by £6 million and increasing revenue through player exits and the stadium sale. But over a fortnight after the commission first met, it remains to be seen as to whether it may once again be one step forwards, two steps back for this beleaguered regime.
In response to The Athletic’s investigation, a spokesman for Birmingham said: “In the interests of accuracy and transparency the club has responded to numerous questions put to us, in good faith. We are disappointed that many tired and false rumours, likely to have been stirred by individuals with agendas against the club, have constituted part of this investigation.
“Among the positives currently the team is on a thirteen-game unbeaten run and has reached the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time in eight years (Birmingham subsequently lost to Leicester on Wednesday night). We have given professional club debuts to six academy players this season, including making one our youngest ever player who has subsequently received high praise for his performances in the Championship. Off the field, mindful of the financial and associated challenges we have experienced and remain ahead, we have reduced costs, grown income and are developing operational expertise in order that we become more efficient.
“We are building a competitive and more youthful squad in the main and we are determined to better maximise value when it comes to our academy, recruitment and in the transfer market. No club is perfect and we don’t claim to be. We all learn from mistakes that we may make and we strive for improvement and best practice. What we are is a hard-working, passionate and committed group of people all the way through from boardroom to dressing room, wanting what is best for Birmingham City and our supporters."