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

Comments (7)
Comment by jameswba 2011-02-20 12:15:06

Good write-up. I just hope Albion's ticket-prices don't have too much of an effect on that atmosphere. 40 quid is seriously steep, in this region especially so.

I'll be wishing Wolves nothing but ill today, the more so since it's looking more and more likely that one, at most, of the two sides is likely to stay up. But, given the history, the similarities in our fan-bases, that Wolves have a likeable manager and play decent football, I feel little real animosity towards them.

I agree up to a point about the off-field tensions during the 90s and early 2000s ; the atmosphere at some of those matches was pure poison. But Albion fans took no pleasure at all from Wolves' Bhatti era. Once that was over, we were glad to have them back at an equal level again.

Once they were back, as you say, it seemed to be all about Steve Bull. I know I wasn't alone in cringing at the Bull baiting from our supporters. He seemed to have the last laugh on us every single time. I hear he's predicted a 2-1 win for Wolves today - hopefully he at least gets that wrong.

Comment by donedmundo 2011-02-20 20:53:26

Interesting that the Wolves Baggies game is regarded as "the" local derby for the region when Molineux is almost nine miles from The Hawthorns but it is only just over three miles from The Hawthorns to Villa Park. In fact St Andrews is further from Villa Park than The Hawthorns but Villa Blues is a much bigger game for the fans than Villa Albion.

Comment by English Republic 2011-02-20 23:13:33

I think the answer is quite simple donedmundo, Blues and Villa are both Birmingham clubs but West Brom are not. West Brom and Wolves are however both located in that part of south-east Staffordshire known as The Black Country hence the rivalry between them. That said the rivalry between all four can be pretty intense at times.

Comment by jameswba 2011-02-21 06:40:02

To be pedantic, according to many people's definition, Wolverhampton is not in the Black Country ; so some still insist on calling Albion-Wolves a Staffordshire derby. To the purists, the real Black Country is Albion-Walsall, though of course these teams don't meet often.

It's true that games between any of the four can be pretty intense, though there seems to be little real dislike these days between Albion and Birmingham. Being close together in the league table, as this season, can, of course, change all that.

Comment by bearlion 2011-02-21 10:34:30

Some would say Villa v Albion is a bigger derby than Villa v Blues. I'm not one of them, however, and much as it pains me I shall be a massive gooner (as I believe they say) this coming Sunday.

The Hawthorns has a Birmingham postcode and a Birmingham dialling code. There are various myths about how parts of the ground are in Birmingham and parts aren't. There was a fascinating Birmingham/West Mids geographical history thread on Heroes & Villains a while back

Comment by bangsection 2011-02-22 00:26:54

Walsall were crowned Black Country champions when they beat Stourbridge in the FA Cup last season (or "sayson" as we locals would have it).

Wolverhampton versus West Bromwich may be a "Midlands Derby" but it is most certainly not a "Black Country Derby" never mind "The" Black Country Derby.

Footage of Walsall's 4-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion in the opening game of the 2003/04 season is available here:

And, to counter accusations of bias, you may watch Wolverhampton capitulating to Ray Graydon's boys (with obligatory "you've let us done again" after-match protest) here:

Comment by stereojet 2011-02-22 11:52:27

There are a couple of general rules about the Albion's 'true' rivals. If you hail from south or east of the Hawthorns you tend to elevate Villa above Wolves (those from the north and west of the ground tend to focus on Wolves). Younger Albion fans tend towards hating the Wolves more, largely because of the period between 1985 and 2002 when we rarely played Villa; older ones see the Villa derby as the most important.

Simpletons like me just detest them both.

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