Aston Villa v West Brom, 4pm
30 September ~ Not so long ago West Bromwich Albion fans would go to Villa Park desperate for a win against the club many fans see as our true local rivals. Yet deep down we knew that it would end in tears. The painful truth was that Villa were a bigger, wealthier club who could afford better players. There are, however, signs that the balance of power in the West Midlands has shifted. Albion's victory at The Hawthorns in April 2011 ended 26 years without a win against the men from Witton. They followed that up six months later by ending a 30-year wait for a win at Villa Park.
A 0-0 draw in the return fixture means that we still wait to do the double, last achieved in the old Division Two in the 1973-74 season, although last season we at least had the satisfaction of finishing above Villa for the first time since 1979.
We go to Villa Park today knowing that Albion have a better squad, players in form and consequently nothing to fear. Under Steve Clarke the Baggies have started well, playing attractive football in the 4-2-3-1 formation best suited to our players. New signing have been seamlessly integrated, notably Argentinian midfielder Claudio Yacob and Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, who has already scored twice.
Three successive home clean sheets show that Clarke is building on Roy Hodgson’s main legacy: defensive solidity and organisation. Villa also have a new manager but Paul Lambert has a rather more difficult job. For them the only positive thing about last season was that they weren’t relegated and Alex McLeish’s departure was unlamented. They won only five games at home which was, until recently, an intimidating place for visiting teams.
Albion chairman Jeremy Peace has had a lot of criticism and even abuse for his cautious financial approach but the long game he set out to play when Albion first reached the Premier League ten years ago – be prudent, accept relegation, invest the parachute money and come back stronger – has been thoroughly vindicated. He has also, with one exception, made shrewd managerial appointments, an area in which Villa owner Randy Lerner has shown spectacularly poor judgement.
It all points to an Albion win but pessimism is the default position of the dyed-in-the-wool Baggie and historically our record at Villa Park is not good. I will get on the number 11 bus to Witton as I do once a season, more in hope than expectation. I’ve been hurt too many times before. Peter Bateman