Gary Rowett celebrated a year in charge of Birmingham this week, an anniversary rightly marked with much acclaim by the local media. In Rowett’s first 45 league matches at the helm, Blues have accumulated 76 points, extraordinary when you consider the condition in which he found them - second from bottom of the Championship, on the back of an 8-0 home defeat.
Ironically, his second year in charge starts against the same opposition as the first. Last season, Birmingham made the short trip to Molineux, a goalless draw underlining Rowett’s remarkable ability to get a tactical message across swiftly and decisively. He made just three changes from the team that had been annihilated by Bournemouth a week earlier.
Now it’s Wolves who travel a few junctions along the M6 for a lunchtime appointment and the long-term prospects of the two teams appear to have flip-flopped also. Kenny Jackett’s men were sitting pretty in third 12 months ago but now languish in the bottom half on the back of three straight defeats. Moreover, uncertainty prevails following Steve Morgan’s decision to put the club up for sale.
That last point isn’t trivial because it promotes apathy from the top down, which would be enough of a problem in a dressing room brimming with seasoned pros and charismatic leaders willing to speak up and rally themselves, never mind one inhabited almost exclusively by youngsters. And Jackett, for all his many qualities, isn’t the sort of manager to issue battle cries.
With Wolves already nine points adrift of the play-offs and a genuine promotion push looking like a forlorn hope, who is going to inject the sense of purpose as the winter slog looms? With the new Premier League TV deal on the table, it’s never been so imperative to keep the paymasters happy, yet that’s a powerful source of unspoken motivation no longer relevant to Wanderers.
So Birmingham have to be the bet here. In terms of shot data, these two teams are virtually identical - the hosts boast a 48.6 per cent ratio, the visitors 48.4 - all of which means my 24-match and season-to-date ratings both make the home win about six per cent more likely than the market. What should be trading as a 13/10 shot is currently available at 17/10.
And none of this takes into account the simple fact that Rowett squeezes more out of less. Whatever the numbers say, they don’t factor in the importance of consistently scoring the first goal and the head-start of having one of English football’s sharpest minds in the editing suite. If there’s a weakness in the opposition set-up, Rowett will often find it and exploit it, quickly.
Wolves head into this game in the midst of a defensive injury crisis and though the capture of Mike Williamson on loan from Newcastle eases the situation somewhat, his lack of first-team action under Steve McClaren might make vulnerable in adjusting to the pace of a local derby early doors, thus justifying an additional wager on the Birmingham/Birmingham half-time/full-time outcome at 17/5.