At the end of last year I interviewed three generations of Birmingham City supporters from a single family about why they support an under-performing, unfashionable football club. On the day a Hong Kong court found the the club’s owner, Carson Yeung, guilty of money laundering, it seems fitting to ask: Who would be a Birmingham City supporter? Here is what the Price family had to say
Eddie Price was seven or eight when he made the mistake of a lifetime. Of course he didn’t know it then; he reckoned he was placing a bet that could only win. He wasn’t, and the error has informed almost every aspect of his being during the five-and-a-bit decades since, delivering a gleeless misery that Eddie just cannot shake.
Remarkably, unbelievably, inexplicably, his two adult sons made the very same flawed choice (although the younger – Neal – made a thwarted attempted to escape its grasp when he glimpsed the chance). Now their children in turn, finding themselves at that very same fork in the road, have aped their seniors, Eddie’s single lapse holding sway over a third generation. Yet another cohort drawn to an apparently hopeless future.
The initial wayward judgement is understandable; Eddie was just a child, after all. Moreover, it was logical. Unfortunately – and this is the nub of it - that logic rested on false information. He can see that now, a successful businessman sitting in his comfortable dining room in the well-to-do Birmingham suburb of Solihull, in a way that eluded 1950s Eddie. On the day that changed everything, that Eddie had ducked out of his family’s small terraced house in the working class streets of Small Heath, Birmingham proper, and headed for the local shop.
‘We didn’t have a TV,’ explains businessman Eddie. ‘But the family who lived in the corner shop, they did. And their lad was my friend so I went round there.’
Which is where it happened.
‘On their black and white TV, I saw the football results coming up. And I saw [the names] Aston Villa and Birmingham City. It was the first of my many fundamental mistakes in life because I thought: Aston’s a little district in Birmingham, Birmingham must be the bigger club. So I decided then and there to become a Birmingham City fan, simply because of that. No family history or anything like that.’
Eddie had miscalculated. Aston Villa was both the larger club and by far the more successful of the pair. And so it remains today, comfortably mid-table in England’s top flight Premiership league, to Birmingham City’s edging-towards-the-drop-zone 17th in the lesser Championship. Villa’s professed fans include the prime minister and the Duke of Cambridge. Blues have faded comedian Jasper Carrot. ‘I have to smile when people talk about football as the beautiful game, because they’ve obviously never followed The Blues,’ rues Eddie, Bovril-thick Brummie accent wrapping itself around his vowels to wistfully deliver the club’s nickname.
‘It’s rarely an enjoyment,’ concurs Matt, at 37 the elder of the two Price boys by four years. He pauses, bites into the 4 o’clock sandwich which constitutes lunch for a busy consultant, runs his thoughts over the 33 years he’s been attending games.
‘Blues are probably one of the most underachieving clubs of all time. During the eighties there was a table produced where we were 91 out of 92 clubs or something ridiculous like that. We were rubbish, hooliganism was rife, it was a horrible place to go. There weren’t any redeeming features.’ Another bite, and the observation that while violence is now pretty rare, poor results are not. ‘You do get to the point where you think why do I go?’
The question is hardly unique to the Price family. Fans, pundits, academics – all have pondered the contradictions and complexities inherent in devotion to a football team. Yet the evolution of the Price family into a Blues-supporting dynasty presents an interesting case. Eddie made a mistake: what explains how it took hold, quickened and has sustained itself across three generations and greatly altered circumstances?
It was a few years after his fateful visit to the corner shop that Eddie attended his first game. He had persuaded his uncle and his father, who worked for the gas board, to accompany him – an event in itself since neither, recalls Eddie, were much interested in football or ‘in what their sons were doing’. The trio covered the short distance from home to St Andrews, Birmingham City’s ground, on foot.
Today that journey takes you through a predominantly Muslim area, past the redbrick and terracotta Green Lane Mosque (built by the Victorians as a library and public baths) and a greying retail park. Eddie describes a different scene: ‘There was this big open space and it was absolutely jam packed with men walking purposefully towards the ground. I can remember as a little lad thinking, “all this is great”. I can always remember looking up and there was this haze of cigarette smoke two or three feet above [me]. It was amazing. You felt part of an army.’
It was January 1962, and Blues were playing Tottenham Hotspur in the third round of the FA Cup, a contest which Spurs would go on to win that season. For 12-year-old Eddie it was a corporeal experience which mirrored uncannily the fortunes of his team. ‘[Blues] were losing 3:1,’ he says. ‘I must have caught a chill and was taken to the Red Cross station during the game. And then a great roar went up, so that made it feel a bit better. Apparently at 3:2 I jumped up off the stretcher and ran back outside to see us equalise at 3:3.’
The game proceeded to provide a first taste of the righteous indignation which would prove a recurring feature throughout the ensuing half century. Shortly after Eddie’s return to the terraces, a fourth Birmingham goal was disallowed. The final whistle sounded a 3:3 tie, Spurs winning a replay held four days later.
‘As so often with The Blues, the neutral reports of that game were that the fourth goal was disallowed unfairly. That was the neutral reports,’ he spits. The pain has subsided, but not abated. ‘The thing that disappoints us most is the number of times critical decisions have gone against us,’ Eddie says later of an alleged ‘in-built bias’ among referees.
Nevertheless the experience was such that Eddie determined it would be repeated – unlike his father and uncle. From then on the grammar school lad would cadge sixpence from his mother and watch the weekly games alone, very occasionally accompanied by a friend (‘It might sound silly, but few of them could afford it.’) Searching for a more precise explanation for his precocious enthusiasm, he shrugs: ‘I don’t know, it just seemed natural.’
By the age of 20, he had better reason to go. After securing backing from a Financial Times reader who, as Eddie tells it, had written to the paper to complain that young people lacked the gumption to approach willing investors, he had started a company manufacturing conveyor belts. The young entrepreneur ‘immediately went into the corporate side of supporting Blues’, inviting customers to join him at St Andrews games. ‘Football and work became my major preoccupations, rightly or wrongly, and they sit very well together… Even today football is a major connecting point with men.’
Little wonder that following Matt’s birth in 1976 (Eddie had married Shirley, the daughter of a Blues fan, in 1971), Birmingham City became the ordering principle of family life. Eddie picks up a photo Shirley has fished out; the new baby, swaddled in Birmingham City colours. There’s laughter and cooing and comparisons to the three Price grandchildren – Matt’s six-year-old daughter Rosie, four-year-old son Leighton and Neal’s baby son Michael – who received similar treatment upon their arrivals.
Eddie maintains there was no pressure on the children to support Birmingham, offering up his willingness to decorate his second son’s bedroom in Liverpool colours. (Neal blames the aberration on his being ‘very young’, hastening to add that by the age of 10 or so he was itching to join the others at his first match: ‘A Leyland Daf Cup game against Swansea – not exactly a glamour tie.’)
Though Matt reckons that following Birmingham ‘was probably expected’, there were practical reasons for wanting to pitch up at St Andrews and, as he and Neal got older, to away games every week. Shirley was a housewife, among the 40% or so of women whose unpaid efforts in the home freed the male breadwinners to go out and earn a living during the 1970s and 80s. ‘Dad worked all the hours that God gave, including Saturday mornings. Still does,’ explains Matt, who recently quit his job as a business advisor at Barclays to join his father’s consultancy firm. ‘Football was the one time you really got to see him I suppose.’
But like Eddie before him, Matt’s early memories needle at something deeper; a nostalgia-seeped draw, distorted by the banter and stories laid down during the intervening years, which remains profoundly alluring. ‘What you remember most is the smell,’ he says now. ‘That’s the one thing you remember. It was those small cigarillos, the little cigars that people smoked – because obviously back then you could smoke in the stands.’
Matt, himself a talented sportsman, was awed by the spectacle. ‘They used to have a spion kop and then next to that was the Tilton Road [stand]. That used to be huge when you were a kid looking at that, because you couldn’t see over the top of it from where we used to sit. It looked like it went on forever.’
No matter that this was the early 1980s and there was little inspirational football to wow the fans or fill the 29,000-capacity ground – more seasons than not Birmingham’s players could be observed tormenting fans with careless lurches towards relegation. ‘Blues were rubbish. But although the crowds may only have been 10,000 at times… when you were a young kid that was the most people you’d ever seen in one place.’
‘There’s pride in your loyalty. It’s not easy being a Blues fan. I think loyalty has its own rewards and they’re not necessarily measured in terms of success or anything. It’s just you’re always there [at the game], you know.’
- Eddie, November 2013
The Prices are a close family. Matt works with Eddie while Neal, now a teacher, used to; Shirley supervises the older grandchildren after school; they often take holidays together. It is easy to assume that following Birmingham City is an extension of this culture. Even non-supporter Shirley has been known to get ‘quite excited’ on the very few occasions that Blues have excelled themselves, according to Neal. And yet supporting an unreliable, unfashionable football team has created a complex shared identity among the Prices which goes beyond reinforcing familial bonds.
Full and frank acknowledgement of the club’s poor performances is key to this sense of self. The notion of being the underdog is hard to avoid, so tightly is it woven into the club’s fabric. ‘Birmingham City – The Complete Record’ is a fanatic’s dream: a hefty encyclopaedic volume detailing every game played by Birmingham City between 1881 and 2010. The dust jacket blurb begins on a downer, highlighting the club’s failure to win any more than ‘one trophy in its 130-year history’.
Now Eddie stitches in a potted account of the club’s proprietors: ‘[Among] the first people to own it were the Coombs family [founders of finance company S&U]. To be fair to those they were genuine Birmingham fans…. Then we were bought by a chap called Wheldon who was a scrap metal dealer. A scrap metal dealer! Then we were bought by the Kumar brothers – rag traders. Then, praise the Lord, we were brought out of receivership by porn barons! Now we’ve got a convicted fraudster. If you trace that out, that’s quite a lineage. Absolutely it tells you all about The Blues.’
Feeling hard done by has proved powerful, if personally constraining. ‘You feel a responsibility that actually Blues aren’t a massive franchise club. If people like me don’t go any more then there is no club left. So you feel some kind of crazy responsibility that actually if I wasn’t there, it wouldn’t exist any more,’ explains Matt. He extends this onus to Birmingham itself as a means of defending its status as the UK’s second city, a billing often wrongly awarded to Manchester – home of two global football brands – in the public imagination. ‘It’s a tribal thing. There are very few people who actually care about Birmingham [the city]. And for most Blues fans that’s our channel for promoting the city and standing up for it.’
In sharpening the Prices’ definition of themselves as ‘true Brummies’, backing The Blues also characterises who they are not. Most notably this fuels the aspect of their identity that Birmingham fans revel in more than any other (and to which those who have heard a rendition of the chant ‘Shit on the Villa’ sung to the tune of ‘Roll out the Barrel’ can attest).
Matt is categorical: ‘Aston Villa are nothing to do with Birmingham.’ Whether or not Villa fans agree, there is something in what he says, and not simply because the formers’ scatological riposte of ‘Shit on the City’ is ambiguous. Located in north Birmingham, Villa Park attracts support from the wider region. Neal argues that this is what makes ‘the other team’ a politically astute choice for Cameron: while stepping out in a Liverpool strip, for example, could prove controversial, donning the claret and blue colours of Villa ‘might win him a few swing votes in Lichfield or Tamworth’.
The genesis of the Prices’ allegiance adds irony to Eddie’s admission that his happiest memory of a football game, ‘if I’m honest, was beating the Villa in the premiership’. Birmingham City has won just 37 of 116 derby encounters during its 138-year existence. Recent chances to achieve this feat have proved rare since Birmingham have joined their rival in the top flight for just seven seasons since 1986. Thus it is the memory of a thunderous meeting on a cold Monday night in September 2002 that still electrifies fans.
‘The atmosphere that night affected the players,’ believes Eddie.
Blues were leading one-nil when a routine throw-in by Villa defender Olof Mellberg found its way into the away team’s net following an infamous error by goalkeeper Peter Enckelman. Birmingham went on to win three-nil and its fans were rapturous – as is Eddie, even now marveling at the memory.
‘When an experienced, Swedish cool head [effectively] throws the ball in the back of his net you know the fans have done their job that night. It was an atmosphere like no other. I couldn’t describe it… It was a perfect night. Part of it was seeing the Villa fans unbelievably miserable. That’s important. That’s very important.’
The following morning Eddie bought a copy of every newspaper on the stand, overjoyed to see the unexpected result, dosed in schadenfreude, recorded in print. ‘Every time you meet a Villa fan of my generation, nine and half days out of ten they are in a superior position. In terms of the league, their club they’re bigger, better. There’s nothing, other than the toughness of our fans, that comes close to the Villa.’
Surely he’s had to do business with so-called ‘vilers’, over the years? Not a problem, he contends. ‘I know our trust is based on [football-related] abrasion, paradoxically. Because I wouldn’t say nice things about Villa to please them, to get their account. I will tell them what I think of them.’
He doesn’t necessarily stop there. ‘I’ve an important client who has a box down Villa Park,’ begins Eddie, cheerfully warming to his theme. ‘On one occasion he was going to go to Blackburn for an away game and it was snowing. News reports said the game was cancelled. So I rang up to tell him the reports were false, cooked up by Blackburn fans to deter Aston Villa supporters from going north. When he called me from a snow drift on the M6 his words weren’t complimentary.’ Remarkably the client has remained loyal. ‘Villa fans aren’t that bright,’ twinkles Eddie.
Humour runs through the Prices’ accounts and provides perhaps the ultimate sustaining force for what can prove a painful undertaking. Certainly it operates adroitly as a binding agent in any given Blues v Other scenario. A waggish Birmingham fan chanting ‘Where’s your chocolate factory, London?’ caused collective mirth in the Blues end when a giant screen displayed the Bourneville confectionery plant before the 2011 Carling Cup final against London club Arsenal, for example.
But more than this it has offered emotional support in difficult times. Matt’s recollection of that same cup final, in which Birmingham toiled to a remarkable victory, is sweet for reasons beyond the obvious: ‘My [maternal] granddad had died the month before. It was always his joke, “Oh, they’ll never win anything when I’m alive”. So finally, when he died, when he was 90 bloody odd, we finally won something. You always had a bit of a tear in you eye, laughing, thinking thank God you died when you did!’
The ecstasy of that win was perfunctory. After bringing home the silverware, the team frittered their way to relegation the very same season. At which point manager Alex McLeish quit – for a job at Aston Villa. A cynic might consider this merely returned Blues fans to their preferred state of gloom. The less glib response is to note the club’s shrinking presence since – average home game attendances down from 25,000 to 14,000, its best players sold and, just today, its owner convicted by a Hong Kong court for money laundering.
Matt’s daughter Rosie arrives at the dining room table, winding herself into the crook of her dad’s arm. She says she likes spectating at St Andrews, especially the singing part. She’ll definitely go when she’s a grown up, ‘With daddy and granddad and Uncle Neal.’
Her cousin Michael, currently aged one, will join them, says Neal. ‘There’s no real debate about it. He’s already got his Blues kit. You’d love your son no matter what but I’d feel we’d missed out on a lot if he was totally anti-football.’ He is sanguine about his team’s prospects. ‘It’s not about the quality of the football; if it was, everybody would support Man United. The football is incidental. It’s about enjoying yourself despite the quality of play.’
‘Despite’ is the leitmotif of the Birmingham City fan. They are what they are because of what they are not. Even Rosie, at six, is clear on this: ‘[Aston Villa] are a disgusting team, I don’t like them. Eww.’
Suddenly Leighton is jostling for attention at Matt’s elbow and jabbering enthusiastically: ‘Go on you Blues!’ His grandfather looks on indulgently. Quite the result for someone who made the mistake of a lifetime.