WORDS: JAMES DALE
Mavericks stand out, but players so clearly head and shoulders above their team-mates can single-handedly change a club’s fortunes. Christophe Dugarry may not have enjoyed prolonged success at Birmingham City but his goals and grace may well have kept them in the Premier League in 2003…
“I can honestly say in the last 20 years – and this might be a strong statement – me and Christophe Dugarry probably had the biggest impact on Birmingham since Trevor Francis.”
- Robbie Savage
Every January transfer window there is a knowing, fleeting smile etched across the faces of Birmingham City fans as the inevitable ‘five best January deals’ articles flash their clickbait allure down the side panel of our screens.
In a path untrodden since Argentine Alberto Tarantini in 1978, a World Cup winner journeyed into the heart of Bordesley, Birmingham 25 years later. Christophe Dugarry arrived at Premier League newcomers Birmingham City on January 2, 2003 in a second-city steal with the air of some Peaky intervention – such was the coup for Steve Bruce’s battling Blues.
“I spoke with Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Laurent Blanc and Fabien Barthez and they told me to sign as quickly as possible,” said then 30-year-old Dugarry on his decision to join a club making their first top-flight appearance in 16 years. It almost seemed a cruel prank on a player who had previously only played at Barcelona, AC Milan, Marseille and Bordeaux.
Four-and-a-half years earlier Dugarry was introduced to the Stade de France in the 66th minute of France’s 3-0 World Cup final win over Brazil in favour of a 20-year-old Thierry Henry. Now, assuming the same No21 shirt he donned for ‘Les Bleus’ at ‘The Blues’, the forward was pairing up with Stern John on his debut against Arsenal. However, it was international teammates Henry and Pires who shone in a 4-0 routine win at St Andrews. The French have a wicked sense of humour.
Despite the defeat, a few touches of grace, some signs of his aerial prowess and eliciting yellow cards from Martin Keown and Lauren were enough to earn Dugarry a rousing ovation as he was brought off on 85 minutes in his first introduction to English football. However, while his deft flicks, expert chest control and hairband demonstrated a liberal frontline the 21st century Birmingham crowd were embracing with the same feign acquiescence as the gastropubs eking into the St Andrews culinary scene, nine further games without a goal left Bruce’s side fourth from bottom with only six games remaining.
Dugarry was never a prolific goalscorer, managing a ratio of one in five at his most lethal, but for all his guile the prospect of sinking back to Division One at the first attempt was wearing at fans’ patience. A swan song in English football was beginning to look more like the trite exposure of a classy player not up for a relegation dogfight.
Cue Sunderland. The Black Cats sat bottom of the table, 16 points behind Birmingham as they made the trip to the West Midlands with only a win capable of preventing them from their already ominous fate. Mick McCarthy had 11 absent first-team players to add to his woes, and the home side seized their opportunity, punishing their opposition with impunity. Bryan Hughes’ 30-yard lob put the Blues ahead, before Dugarry rose to meet a close range header on the hour mark to open his account at the 11th time of asking.
A 2-0 win not only filled one of the three Football League vacancies, but also opened up a six-point gap between Birmingham and the drop with just five games to play. Most significantly though, Dugarry had found an end product, a tangible vindication of his baggy-shirted swagger.
Confidence should not be a valid excuse for a player of Dugarry’s calibre, but footballers are human, and a back heeled-flick to open the scoring against ninth-placed Charlton at the Valley was evidence of the tide turning. Mavericks stand out, but players so clearly head and shoulders above their team-mates can single-handedly change a club’s fortunes. Those fighting not only for the team’s Premier League survival, but to prove their own top-flight worth, were visibly lifted by the striker’s presence, feeding off his quality with effective egotism.
Another 2-0 win against the top-half Addicks was followed by victories over Southampton and Middlesbrough, games in which Dugarry’s fire-power provided only the third and fourth occasions the Blues had mustered three goals in individual league games that season. Dugarry’s double against the Saints featured a stunning 25-yard free-kick, before a match winning 83rd minute strike gifted Bruce’s Birmingham a 3-2 win.
A point against Boro would guarantee safety. Unfazed, Dugarry eased the nerves after just 18 minutes, cushioning a cross on his knee before volleying past Mark Schwarzer to set the home side onto a 3-0 win – their fourth in a row – which sealed their top-flight status.
“I can honestly say in the last 20 years – and this might be a strong statement – me and Christophe Dugarry probably had the biggest impact on Birmingham since Trevor Francis,” said a 34-year-old Robbie Savage upon his return to St Andrews with Derby County.
It would take a nonpartisan Birmingham supporter to agree with Savage’s typically outlandish claim, such was their ignominious view of his exit, but the Welshman may not be too far from the truth. While Savage was the bruising, flailing, vexatious heartbeat of Bruce’s plucky play-off beneficiaries, keeping them with at least a chance at safety for around 32 fixtures, Dugarry’s arrival brought the delayed impetus which saw Birmingham seal another season in the Premier League, initiating a four-year stay that has proved the longest in the club’s recent history.
Still revelling in his God-like appreciation, Dugarry signed a two-year contract with the Blues, but only saw out the first in what seemed doomed to be an overstayed welcome. The Frenchman managed just one further goal despite the side finishing tenth in the 2003-04 season, leading many outsiders to question his status as a cult hero based, essentially, on a four-game spell. However, Birmingham are a club that embody hardship, favour the struggle over the summit. Perhaps it is embedded in their industrial working-class roots; fans sing of “tired and weary” troubles as they “keep right on”. By name, their “second-city” status almost caps achievement as forever insufficient.
Dugarry represented a rare moment where a club wholly realise their star is destined for heights beyond their sphere. Francis was the last player to receive such acceptance, and in just 360 minutes of football, Dugarry’s almost sympathetic, duty-bound revival has etched an unlikely hero into Birmingham history.
Read more from the Swan Songs series:
Jari Litmanen at Liverpool by Rich Nelson
George Weah at Chelsea by Dominic Bliss
Henrik Larsson at Man United by Wayne Farry
Diego Tristan at West Ham by Tom Victor
Lothar Matthaus at Metrostars by Chris Nee