Discontent among both sets of fans ahead of West Midlands derby
18 September ~ It is usual these days for the build-up to a West Midlands derby to be dominated by talk of crises of confidence and/or identity for at least one of the clubs involved. Six months ago, when West Bromwich Albion last travelled to Aston Villa for a league fixture, their hosts were in serious relegation trouble and had just appointed a manager whose capabilities in such situations were unproven.
In the end a last-minute goal earned the points for Villa, giving the club vital impetus for the battle ahead and getting their fans firmly behind Tim Sherwood. Four days later, Villa beat Albion again, this time in an FA Cup quarter-final, and suddenly Tony Pulis too was facing an uncertain end to the campaign.
Hosts Villa are again among the early season strugglers; a competent performance in a 1-0 opening-day win at Bournemouth has been followed by a run of one point from four games. After witnessing his side’s latest defeat, 3-2 at Leicester after being 2-0 up with 18 minutes left, Sherwood looked to be in a state of utter despair during his media interviews.
Albion’s form looks marginally better. They have conceded goals in just two of their six competitive games – to Manchester City and Chelsea – and, in the entire period since Pulis’s appointment, have registered more clean sheets (15) than any other Premier League team. Their last away fixture even saw them earn a rare win at Stoke. If the team does get into trouble at the wrong end of the table at some point this season, most fans would have confidence in Pulis being canny enough to get them out of it.
Yet Albion supporters are hardly content with their lot. They are not quite in revolt, but they are becoming apathetic. The team’s football has been close to unwatchable recently. The Stoke victory was more a result of Mark Hughes’ side having two men sent off in the first-half than anything Albion produced. The sole highlight of last Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Southampton, meanwhile, was a substitution.
That 55th minute change saw Saido Berahino take the field. It was his first appearance since the collapse of his move to Tottenham and a subsequent tweet that implied he would never play for Albion again while Jeremy Peace is chairman. His reintroduction might yet be an important moment in the club’s season, and it demonstrates an aspect of Pulis’s pragmatism. Like the fans, the coach is well aware that his squad is short of attacking flair and pace. With the England Under-21 international back, Albion will again have a player whose moves opposing defenders find difficult to predict.
Berahino’s return and the prospect of avenging those March defeats should ensure that Albion fans are wide awake on Saturday, though hopefully the fixture will be free of the rancour that spoiled the Cup game. Villa fans were widely condemned for invading the pitch both before and after the final whistle on that occasion. Less noted, though far more serious, were the incidents when seats were hurled from the top tier of the North Stand, occupied by Albion followers, into the home section below.
While it is not anticipated that crowd behaviour will be the main theme of tomorrow’s post-match inquests, it will still be reassuring if the talk is all of the balance between defensive solidity and attacking creativity, or even of another growing crisis for one of the sides. If it’s Villa with most of the problems and Sherwood’s team again give him reason to look as he did after the Leicester game, life will begin to feel a lot less dull for those with Albion sympathies. James Baxter