DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, January 25, 2012
At the midpoint of his first season at Birmingham City FC, Jonathan Spector is optimistic about the team's chance to make a quick return to the English Premier League for 2012-13 season.
The relegation of Spector's former club West Ham United at the end of the previous season also signaled his own departure from the top flight after five years as a Hammers' regular.
Rather than bide his time at the London-based club as they restructured and prepared for life outside of the English Premier League, the Chicago native headed northwest, becoming of the major pieces in a similar project at one of the other clubs to suffer the drop, Birmingham City FC.
The front office turmoil and mass squad changes which more often than not accompany relegation can make a quick re-entry to the big dance through immediate promotion a difficult prospect, however Spector feels that the Blues have done well to avoid falling too deeply into such a rut.
"With a new manager and a number of new players in the squad it was always going to be a difficult start to the season," he surmised of their largely inauspicious start in August and September. "With that said, I think the team has come together very quickly and is performing well."
"Our expectation and main goal is to achieve promotion," he continued, clarifying the team's approach throughout the season. "We would love to do that through automatic promotion, but it might be difficult to catch the two top teams at this stage."
"That would mean the teams above us have to drop points, but all we can do is focus on ourselves and pick up as many points as we can. If that leads to a playoff spot we'll be delighted."
After 26 games played, the sixth-place Blues are occupying the final promotion playoff spot, but do have the advantage of having played one fewer games as compared to the rest of the teams currently aiming for a top-six finish.
Adding to the stress and complexity facing a team in the promotion hunt was the relatively rare situation of Birmingham's berth in the Europa League by way of their recent victory in the League Cup.
Between the qualification and group stages, this meant a further eight games were added to their schedule between the months of August and December, four requiring international travel, a potentially exhausting addendum to an already-grueling 44-game league schedule.
This sort of additional stress has often been cited as an antecedent of poor seasons, often relegation, for clubs navigating this particular competition. Spector, however, sees Birmingham's situation differently, citing the additional games early in the season as a way for many of the new players to familiarize themselves with the largely rebuilt squad.
"I think the added games enabled us to gel as a team more quickly," he asserted. "Even though we didn't advance to the knockout stages, I think we surpassed the expectations of a lot of people. We finished group play with ten points, and it's unusual not to advance with that kind of tally."
As for the experience itself, the former Manchester United player and the team as a whole enjoyed the opportunity to test themselves against a range of players and styles that they wouldn't ordinarily face in English League Championship play - as well as the chance to play in locations such as Portugal, Belgium and Slovenia.
"Playing in Europe was definitely a refreshing change from playing in the Championship," he conceded. "The style of play is different, and I think we all enjoyed playing against teams with different tactics as well as the whole experience."
His enjoyment of European play does not dampen his respect for the league where he now competes on a weekly basis, which he does not think constitutes a drastic drop from the level faced in the first eight years of his career in the Premier League.
"The Championship is a very competitive league, and I think how we fared in the Europa League is testament to that," he suggested. "I feel as though the top teams in the Championship could certainly compete with many teams in the Premier League outside of the top ones."
Birmingham will have more than a week break before resuming their attempt to gain promotion back to the Premier League, however they will pay a visit to high-flying League One team Sheffield United in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Saturday.