It might have been nearly 10 years since John Eustace had seen his former Birmingham City youth team-mate ‘Burnsy’ when we met at The Roost pub, opposite St Andrew’s, but it barely took 10 minutes for an old score to be settled.
“I remember you taking the p— out of my car,” Eustace said, laughing. “It was a blue Peugeot 205 and it was a bit battered, to be fair. I forget what you were driving.”
“I was in a brand new Citroen Saxo,” Burnsy, whose full name is Robert Burns, replied. “Worked out well for me that one, didn’t it? The last time I saw John was in a curry house near my mum and dad’s house, six or seven years ago, probably more.”
Burns now helps to run the pub that, under its old name, The Marquis of Lorne, was mentioned in the Peaky Blinders television series and is a favorite of Birmingham fans, while Eustace is the club’s head coach and regularly receives telephone calls from the show’s writer, Steven Knight.
“Steven’s been on a number of occasions this season,” Eustace said. “He really cares about the club and the city. He’s come into some of the meetings, he’s spoken to the players and he invited us all to the opening of the Peaky Blinders ballet at the Hippodrome theater. He looked after us really well.”
Eustace and Burns briefly played in midfield together and remained in the same social group after Eustace left Birmingham, aged 16, for Coventry City. Burns stayed at St. Andrew’s, where he moved through the age groups with Andrew Johnson, who is godfather to his children, until he was 21.
“I always used this pub, even before I started working here,” Burns, now aged 42, said. “When I was an apprentice at Blues I used to nick the match balls. I’d sign them myself and bring them up here to the manager and he’d raffle them behind the bar, and then we’d split the money. That probably tells you a bit about why I fell out of football.”
Burns, working in the pub and arranging coaches for traveling fans with whom he goes to away games, has seen first-hand how, against all the odds, Eustace has helped to lift the mood around St Andrew’s by securing the club’s best finish since 2016 in his first season in charge. Ahead of the final game against promoted Sheffield United, Birmingham are 17th with 53 points, nine points above third-bottom Reading, who have been relegated.
“The remit was to stay in the Championship and develop younger players,” 43-year-old Eustace, who grew up in Solihull, said. “But one of the most important things for me was to also get the connection between the fans and the players back. I think we’ve done all three of those things and I’m really proud of that.”
When Graham Potter announced that managing Chelsea was the hardest job in football, Eustace would have been well within his rights to ask the former Birmingham defender to hold his beer.
Less than a couple of months after Potter made his claim, Eustace turned into Birmingham’s Wast Hills training ground at 6.30am one Friday morning to find it ablaze.
Never mind trying to find extra space to change for new signings worth £600 million, as Potter had to do at Chelsea, Eustace needed quickly to find a new venue for his Birmingham players to finalize their preparations for the following day’s trip to Wigan Athletic.
“There was smoke everywhere, fire engines, the lot,” Eustace said. “They told me there had been a fire in a kitchen that had burned through the canteen and the dressing rooms, and that the training ground was a write-off.
“But the lads were great, we used Alvechurch, just up the road. The lads didn’t have any boots, so we did a walk through our shape with most of them in flip-flops and some kit that they saved which was very smoky. The kit man took the match kit, which would have been too smoky to use, to Shrewsbury Town to get it all washed again and ready for the game.”
A draw with the club that finished bottom of the Championship might have underwhelmed some fans, but it was an excellent result in the most testing of circumstances and Birmingham beat Rotherham United in the next game following another week of using the facilities of the Southern League Premier Division Central club.
“It was very basic, but without Alvechurch we would have been in a real mess, so we’re so grateful to them,” Eustace said. “We had a training pitch and there was a clubhouse where they would serve us chilli and some tea, and it actually helped foster a real siege mentality for the rest of the season.”
Having since moved into the former home of rugby club Wasps, where Birmingham are likely to start next season before Wast Hills reopens, Eustace did not just keep the team in the Championship, but did so comfortably while giving the most number of minutes to players aged 18 and under of any club in Europe.
Birmingham had their category-one academy status revoked last May, before Eustace was appointed, but continued to blood their own youngsters, the most famous of whom is 17-year-old midfielder Jobe Bellingham, brother of England international Jude.
“Jobe’s a gentleman, very respectful and a fantastic professional,” Eustace said. “He’s still growing and maturing, and he’s going to have a big future, for sure. He’s a lovely player, he’s got a fantastic touch, good vision.
“He’s a great size, he’s taller than his brother already, I think. But it’s very important we don’t rush it because there’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders because of who his brother is and it’s my job to protect him and give him the right minutes at the right time.
“His performances this season have gotten better and better, and I think he’s second or third in Europe for the number of minutes played for a 17-year-old. He’s doing well, but we’ve got to remember he’s 17 and it’s not just him. We’ve got Jordan James, who is 18 and is now a full international for Wales, and George Hall, who just got into the England Under-20s. They all play in the same position as an eight, so I have to develop all three of them and keep them happy.”
The fact Birmingham’s best season in seven years has been played against the backdrop of the training ground burning down, in front of two closed stands at St Andrew’s, non-stop ownership sagas and the threat of English Football League punishments made it all the more miraculous. .
“I’ve tried to bring in a no-excuse culture since I joined,” Eustace said. “I think Birmingham’s been associated with lots of excuses over the years. Being from the area and reading the papers, everyone’s always saying, ‘Oh, it’s Birmingham, it’s what happens at Birmingham’.
“I think Birmingham needs to get the respect it deserves as a football club going forward. We’ve got Aston Villa on the other side of town and we should be aiming to get there. It’s going to take a long time to get there and we’ve got to get this kind of ‘joke club’ mentality out of people’s system. To do that, you’ve got to stop the excuses and build properly.”
Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.