In January 2003, Birmingham City were back in the top tier of English football. After missing out on promotion via the play-offs on a couple of occasions, promotion had finally returned them to the Premier League. After the glory of achievement comes the reality of the task ahead though, and keeping their heads above water would initially prove to be a tricky task. Fortunately, help from an unexpected source would arrive and lift the club in so many ways.
A three-goal triumph over cross-city rivals Aston Villa fed a rapacious appetite starved of glory over recent years, but such one-off victories are only worth three points, no matter how sweet the taste and, with the New Year, came fears about securing the hard-won status. Their promotion winning squad was worthy enough, but largely workaday rather than developing. The higher standard had been a difficult adjustment to make, and the lower reaches of the league were beginning to suck at Birmingham’s coat-tails like a whirlpool locked onto its prey. The January transfer window offered a hope of salvation, but only if the money was spent wisely.
Manager Steve Bruce ushered in half-a-dozen new recruits. They would range from the hardy professional safe buys Matthew Upson, Stephen Clemence and Jamie Clapham, through the more extravagant gambles, fated to fall into regret, with Ferdinand Coly and Piotr Świerczewski, to the man who would stay but a brief time at St Andrews, but cut an elegant dash as with the swish of a rapier blade. He would save the club with an elan only granted to the most extravagant of skills. Christophe Dugarry would be the D’Artagnan of England’s second city, and become a hero, before disappearing off into the night with a Gallic shrug.
The second World Cup winner to join the Blues, following the fruitless arrival of Argentine defender Alberto Tarantini in 1978, who left the club in less than pleasant circumstances. For a time at least, this would be a much happier and productive liaison. Reports suggest that Bruce convinced Dugarry to join on a loan deal from Bourdeaux over tea and biscuits in his office. It seems a strange environment for the former Milan, Barcelona and Marseille to conclude an agreement in, but whatever the truth of that apparent conversation, the deal was done.
A four-goal spanking in his debut against Arsenal may have put doubts into Dugarry’s mind, as Birmingham slid further towards the plug-hole leading back to the Championship. A defeat to Aston Villa inevitably darkened the vista even more. The club needed a hero. Fortunately, they had signed one, and as April was entered, the French striker would flourish with the spring flowers. Providing the elegant counterpoint to the rumbustious endeavours of Geoff Horsfield, once the French forward had found his feet, the goals would flow.
A run of five goals in four games for Dugarry, each one a victory would propel Birmingham City back out of trouble and whet the appetite of every Blues fan who now had the unexpected and oh-so-rare opportunity to celebrate a world class talent playing in their team’s colours. A narrow headband and gloves were hardly haute couture, but this was football of a fashion that would countenance no criticism of a hero.
There was a backheel flick as he dragged the ball back through his legs to score against Charlton. A calm control and volley home with Middlesbrough as the victims. A stooping header powered past the goalkeeper. Blues fans celebrated. The game against Southampton that virtually guaranteed Birmingham’s safety from relegation is particularly celebrated. A curling free-kick to put Birmingham ahead was followed by a late far post header to win the game, and whilst Bruce stood, arms raised in exaltation on the sidelines, Dugarry blew kisses to the St Andrews faithful.
Not only was Dugarry comfortable in the role as a star on the pitch, but he was also fully aware of his status off the field. Once arriving for a fitness programme in the club’s gym, he was directed towards the rowing machine. With Gallic nonchalance, he shrugged and walked away declaring that he as a footballer, not a rower. Bruce was canny enough though to know his star player should be allowed some latitude.
His impact on the club would persuade Birmingham to secure his full transfer with an on-field contract signing ceremony before the last game of the 2002-03 season. There was a promise of greater success and entertainment for the fans, but unlike them, Dugarry wouldn’t ‘keep right on to the end of the road.’ Before the next term was up, he was gone.
After scoring those five goals in 16 appearances during his loan period, the new term would be very much an anti-climax. There’s often said to be a self-destruct button lurking close to players with such ability. Emotion feeds the desire to perform; it needs a perfect balance to fire, and when that slips, the downward slope can be very steep indeed.
The 2003-04 season would see just one more Dugarry goal for the Blues in 14 appearances. When a maverick player is delivering, coaches and team-mates alike will tolerate a lot. Latitude is easy to justify as a reward for success. When the goals dry up though, that tolerance can disappear so quickly. In a game against Aston Villa, Birmingham were trailing 2-0 and looking bereft of hope as the French striker appeared listless and almost disinterested. Angry exchanges with team-mates hardly helped and the tie was surely cast when Bruce substituted him off. Birmingham would recover to force a draw in the game, but there would be no recovery in the relationship with the hero of the previous season. He would not appear for the club again. In fact, he would never play professionally again, at all.
Eventually, his contract was terminated ‘by mutual consent.’ His family’s difficulty settling into life in the Midlands was offered up as the reason both for the fall-off in performance and the exit. It’s an entirely understandable thing to happen for a young family. Such issues are often quoted when it’s perhaps more diplomatic to quote the convenient, although there’s little to suggest this wasn’t the case. Whatever the case, after 30 games and six goals, Dugarry left to join Qatar SC on a one-year contract. He would never play for them though and retired from football in 2005.
It’s perhaps an essential part of the enigma that Dugarry was a mere fleeting visitor to St Andrews, and six goals is hardly sufficient to warrant hero status. There was more to his stay though, than merely putting the ball into the net. Christophe Dugarry gave Birmingham City fans, seemingly perpetual poor relations in a city that bears the club’s name, a chance to dream. A sprinkle of stardust can go a long way and in his short time in the Midlands, Dugarry lifted a club from relegation worries, a team to new heights and the aspirations of the fans. The flashing blade of the Musketeer carved a place in the heart of Birmingham City’s fans.