20 February ~ In 2008, the Football Pools conducted a survey to establish the most passionate derby in England. West Bromwich Albion v Wolverhampton Wanderers came out on top. Today sees the first Premier League Black Country derby and the first top-flight meeting between the two teams in over a quarter of a century. That's too long for one of English football's oldest and fiercest derbies. Back in 1888 when the Football League was founded there was no north London derby, no Manchester nor Merseyside. The major derbies that survive from that first season are Blackburn v Burnley and Albion v Wolves – with the Black Country variety the only one set to be contested more than 120 years later.
The rivalry between the two clubs has certainly been conducted in more glorious times than these. In the 1950s it was Stan Cullis's Wolves side that moved British papers to label them the "Champions of the World". The boast inspired Gabriel Hanot to launch the European Cup, but domestically the challenge came from the other side of the Black Country. In fact, in 1954 Albion came close to becoming the first team of the 20th century to complete the double – only to be denied by Wolves' late charge to their first of three League titles that decade. In footballing terms at least, the rivalry hit its undoubted peak with a pulsating 4-4 draw in the 1954 Charity Shield.
Since the 1950s drew to a close, it could be argued that neither team has hit such heights again. Ron Atkinson's Albion team did challenge for the title in 1978-79, but – as Albion legend has it – a brutal cold snap caused a fixture pile-up which ruined the team's chances. The contrast between Wolves' famous Cullis side and Atkinson's Baggies is one not lost on supporters of both sides. Indeed, this sense of identity continues to resonate to this day: Albion the free-flowing passing side with the entertainers; Wolves the direct powerhouses with the wonderful wing play.
While the different styles are a factor in the strength of the rivalry, it was the disappearance of the two clubs from the top flight – with Wolves slipping all the way down to division four – that caused a real change in atmosphere. From being an eyecatching part of the season, for many fans it started to be seen as the season, a distraction from the relentless mediocrity played out amid rising tension between the fans. This tension was not helped by the relentless goalscoring exploits of Steve Bull. Discarded by Albion amid talk of a poor first touch, the striker would go on to score 306 goals for Wolves – including late winners against his former club both home and away in the 1989-90 season.
The acrimony peaked in the 2001-02 season as the Baggies enjoyed every fan's dream as Wolves' collapse saw them surrender a staggering 11-point lead over their rivals in the closing stages. Despite the millions of Sir Jack Hayward and against all the odds, Albion reached the promised land of the Premier League before their big-spending rivals.
In recent times, Albion have retained the edge and they beat Wolves four times in one season as the sides met in a play-off semi-final in 2007. But all this seems like a mere aperitif in comparison to what lies in store this season. An early kick-off will not prevent a barnstorming atmosphere at The Hawthorns with the home side determined to ensure Wolves' struggles continue in Roy Hodgson's first game in charge. Come the rematch in May, who knows what could be on the line. Adam Bate