Middling ways

The West Midlands has a rich heritage of football but, as Steve Field finds out, the desperation to beat the local rivals has sometimes been substituted for success

When Aston Villa’s opponents failed to show up one Saturday in the 1880s, Joe Tillotson (so legend has it) threw down the bloater he was frying in his Summer Lane coffee shop and went next door to the draper’s owned by fellow director William MacGregor. Both men were indignant and declared angrily that some­thing should be done to ensure fixtures were hon­oured. It was a first faltering step towards modern professionalism and it was to lead to the creation of a Football League for the most prosperous and am­b­itious clubs in the north and midlands.

Villa, Wolves and West Brom were founder mem­bers and, perhaps as a result, are dogged to this day by high expectations and perceived underachievement. Birmingham, Coventry and Walsall seem to have been prepared by their Second Division origins for a more realistic attitude to life. Take Walsall this season. If ever a club were on a mission, it’s the Saddlers, with their slow start enlivened by three wins in derbies – at home to Birmingham, away at Molineux and The Hawthorns.

Coventry might sometimes hanker after European football and domestic silverware, but they’re not going to sulk if they don’t get them. As for the Blues, when the Premiership beckoned last spring and TV cameras were straw-polling around south Birmingham pubs, the consensus among fans was clear. Playing Man­chester United would be all well and good, but what really mattered was beating the Villa.

Fascination with the neighbours is all-consuming round here. It sometimes seems we care more about our rivals’ failure than our own success. Paul Tait, scoring the Auto Windscreens winner for Birmingham at Wembley in 1995, lifts his shirt to reveal an unpleasant message about Villa; Wolves are forced to change their warm-up music when most of the crowd insist on inventing mischevious lyrics about West Brom. A few years back, after Albion’s last home game of a disappointing season, the manager and players came back out to make impromptu speech­es to the fans. Brian Talbot apologised for recent performances, promising “We’ll do better next year”. A gruff Black Country voice from the crowd retorted: “Just beat the fucking Wolves.”

Why such passion? Well, although den­s­ely populated, the west midlands isn’t a large area. Villa Park, St Andrews and The Hawthorns are virtually within walking distance of each other, and Molineux and the Bescot Stadium are within ten miles of all three. While broad neighbourhood divides apply, it’s common to find yourself working with supporters of any or all of the other local sides, and ribbing after a derby defeat can be vicious. Add an obsessive and provocative media and the narrowness of outlook becomes intolerable. Whether or not you regularly play your local rivals, it’s hard to ignore them when they are so frequently push­ed down your throat.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge in the past 100 years. When Albion and Wolves scrapped their way through a typically fractious encounter ear­lier this season, they were adding another chapter of real and imagined grudges to a catalogue of conflict which began in those first uncertain days of the League; when the Baggies went to Villa Park in the Cup two years ago, they were replaying the finals of 1887 and 1892. If Wolves fans talk of the championship side of 1954, Albion supporters remind them that their team was denied the double that year by a horrific injury crisis. Birmingham’s first Cup final appearance in 1931? Defeated by West Brom. Villa’s 1963 League Cup campaign? Lost in the final to Birmingham.

Each club has its favourite memories which get a regular pol­­ish. There’s Wal­sall, knocking Her­bert Chapman’s Arsenal out of the Cup in the Fellows Park mud in 1932; Coventry, swinging to Jimmy Hill’s rhythm in the Sixties; Birmingham City losing

in successive Fairs Cup finals in 1960 and 1961. There’s Fred Rinder’s Villa team who won the double in 1897, and that of Ron Saunders, grinding their way to the title in 1981 and the unlikeliest of European Cup wins the following year.

There are the Wolves sides created by Major Buck­ley, desperately close to titles in three seasons, and Stan Cullis, the “kick and rush” team which won three championships and two FA Cups, came agonisingly near to the Double in 1960 and pushed back the frontiers of Euro­pean football with prestigious, if over-hyped, friendlies. West Brom have won four Cups and one title this century, but which team promised (and failed to deliver) the most – Vic Buckingham’s in the Fifties or Ron Atkinson’s in the Seventies?

However, the record books tell a more balanced story than folk memory. For every WG Richardson, there’s been a Colin West; for every Derek Parkin a Rob Hindmarch, for every “Pongo” Waring a Tony Cas­carino. Analysis of league placings confirms a suspicion that the story of west midlands football has been less a glorious procession than a series of highs punc­tuating years of struggle and mediocrity.

Why this should be so is not easy to pin down. Ex­pectations breed pressure – just ask John Gregory or Graham Taylor – and that goes some way towards explaining the region’s inability to sustain a realistic claim to any sort of dominance in the past 30 years. Logically, it is un­likely that five or six similarly sized clubs in the same area can be suc­cessful at once – their very equality may work against the consistent success of any one.

Economics, though, probably provide the biggest clue. It was once said of the motor trade that Birmingham caught a cold whenever Longbridge sneezed. Villa’s nosedive in the Seventies and the years of decay at St Andrews in the Eighties were not unconnected with a similar decline in circumstances of the city’s traditional fan base. At the same time, Wolves and West Brom were scarcely helped by the demise of the Black Country as a centre of heavy industry. Fortunes in the depressed Twenties and Thirties were equally indifferent, while the boom years of the Fifties and Sixties were something of a heyday for local clubs.    

A more realistic view of the past at least allows us to put the current ordinariness in context. Coventry and Villa seem to be fast learning the art of modern marketing, aided on the one hand by a new ground development and on the other by the talents of Doug Ellis. Superficially at least, the others are trying to catch up, with Blues in the lead, Albion slowly shaking off the legacy of a feudal share structure and Wolves insular, but with fans so vehement no one dares tell them.

For their part, Walsall are simply trying to establish local credibility and most people would wish them well – though not, perhaps, if they carry on saving their best for derby days.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month