Colin Peel searches in vain for a long history of exciting derbies in the Second City, as Aston Villa and Birmingham City prepare to resume hostilities
Blues v Villa is the derby that football forgot. No other big city rivalry has had to wait as long for its protagonists to renew the duel for league supremacy. December 12, 1987, was the date of the last clash, in the Second Division, which saw Villa triumph 2-1 in front of 28,000 at St Andrews. Both Villa and their manager that day, an enterprising chap called Graham Taylor, were bound for promotion. For Blues, things got much worse before the current owners began the transformation which has the put the club where it is today.
Yet there are many who question if Birmingham City are the true rivals of Aston Villa at all. Just three miles west of Villa Park is the home of West Bromwich Albion, described by Villa historian Peter Morris as “their oldest and most respected rivals”. Albion and Villa have contested three FA Cup finals, though they were all in the 19th century – 1887, 1892 and 1895. As a footballing contest, this derby has indeed been the more frequent as well as the more significant, but off the pitch its intensity does not compare to Blues v Villa.
That’s the point about this rivalry – beyond the confines of the city it isn’t remembered for the football, and even those in the respective camps would acknowledge a dearth of sporting memories. Blues v Villa is best known as a public order problem. Meetings in the early 1980s would see an average of around 50 arrests for violence and a couple of pubs routinely destroyed. This season’s matches may well follow the same pattern – inside the ground, a hectic battle on the pitch with little relevance to the outcome of the division (except perhaps at the bottom); outside, well, even a spokesman for West Midlands Police said: “We fully recognise that there is a potential for disorder.”
Understandably, the police are playing down fears of a major riot on September 16. “We are optimistic that there will be a good atmosphere between the two sets of fans,” their spokesman said with a straight face, “but we will proactively tackle anyone who causes or gets involved in trouble. Our policing policy will be firm but fair.”
The tendency of Birmingham’s teams to under-achieve is behind the derby’s lack of a genuine sporting tradition. Birmingham City are famous for never having won anything of value, while Aston Villa’s following grew fed up of living off past glories around the time that Graham Taylor left for Lancaster Gate. But a hint of success for one club or the other does not improve the atmosphere. One of the tastiest derbies took place at St Andrews in December 1982, when Villa were reigning European champions. At the start of that year, the legendary title-winning Villa manager Ron Saunders suddenly resigned, only to resurface at Birmingham City to replace the sacked Jim Smith. The Christmas fixture was his first derby as a Bluenose, and he had already raided Villa reserves for Noel Blake and Robert Hopkins.
David Gough, a Blues fan for over 30 years, recalls: “Nearly 44,000 supporters were crammed into St Andrews that day and it was an impressive sight, one I have never forgotten. The noise was unbelievable – I was at the back of the Spion Kop and you could not hear the Villa fans singing. You could see their arms move and point towards the Blues fans, so they were singing, but the noise in the Spion just drowned it out.” It got even noisier during the first half when Blake put Blues one up with a rare goal, and a rattled Villa conceded two more during the second period to put the seal on a thoroughly humiliating afternoon.
However, the odd crushing defeat aside, the rivalry hasn’t thrown up anywhere near as many stories or incidents as, say, the Liverpool or Manchester confrontations. Those that have occurred are sometimes slight- ly pathetic, such as the time when Blues’ Paul Tait (who was sent off in the last competitive meeting of the two clubs, a League Cup tie in 1993) removed his jersey after the 1995 Auto Windscreens Shield final at Wembley to brandish a “Shit on the Villa” T-shirt in front of gleeful cameramen. The stunt went down well with Blues fans, but for Villans it merely confirmed a lot of prejudices held about Bluenoses.
For one Villa fan, Craig Simmons, the prejudices were extreme. “Having seen many examples of Blues fans misbehaving first hand, I used to think that all Bluenoses were yobs or nihilists,” he admits. “I hated them so much that whenever I saw any of the petty annoyances we put up with in this country – throwing litter, vandalism, bad driving – I automatically thought that Blues fans were responsible. Looking back, it was a form of madness. When I met Bluenoses who didn’t fit my views – academics, business managers, computer experts – I got confused.”
What creates the allegiance to one or other team is little understood by outsiders. Many share the belief that City fans tend to be more working-class and are more likely to live in the city itself, while Villa attract a more well-heeled and more widely spread crowd. A superficial examination of the respective clubs’ celebrity fans appears to support this view – Birmingham City have Jasper Carrott, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and two Brummie Big Brother contestants; Villa have Nigel Kennedy, Prince William and the deputy governor of the Bank of England.
The truth is probably that each club’s support is drawn from a very similar social background, although Villa’s long-standing Premiership status, not to mention the ease of getting tickets at Villa Park, has certainly pulled in fans from further afield, especially in the “M5 corridor”. Within Birmingham itself, the general rule is that allegiance is inherited, but in broad terms the north of the city wears claret while the east is mainly blue. One of the more curious aspects of this season’s matches is that Villa, seen as the richer outfit with a typical Premiership club’s contingent of foreign players, are likely to have more Brummies on the pitch (with Darius Vassell, Ian Taylor and Lee Hendrie in contention) than Blues (Paul Devlin and Darren Carter).
Another common view of the renewed rivalry is that the outcome is more important to Blues fans than Villa’s. September 16 should disprove that. A bit of competition on the doorstep could be the kick up the backside that Villa need, and Blues ought to have their sights set higher than getting one over on the neighbours. Just don’t expect the football to be any good.
From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month