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Aston Villa v Birmingham: Anatomy of a Derby

Sunday 25th November 2018

Every season tells a new story. Sometimes it's the same tale with different characters, a bit like Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet with a gangsta culture backdrop. People remember when Rafael Benitez took the reins at Chelsea, outraging the Blues fanbase. Even though he delivered a Europa League title, no supporter wanted the former Liverpool boss at the club. Never mind Rafa was more than two full seasons removed from his time at Anfield when he came to Stamford Bridge. Benitez's audacity overwrote memories [for some] that Alex McLeish went directly from bossing Birmingham City to assuming command at Aston Villa in 2011. What he was thinking?

If there's one story in football that remains essentially the same over decades, even centuries of re-enactments, it's a derby. Chelsea/Liverpool isn't a derby in the truest sense. One team resides in London, the other in Lancashire. Until Roman Abramovich's money lifted Chelsea to the Premier League summit, there was little passion between the two fanbases when the sides met. Once they were both title contenders, the situation changed. Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez waged a war of words in the press just as the Portuguese did with Arsene Wenger and the Spaniard with Sir Alex Ferguson. Wenger and Fergie went at it, too. It was a fatal four way of football managers but there wasn't the history between the Reds and Blues that there was between the Merseysiders and Manchester United. It was a rivalry, not a derby.

Aston Villa is 36 years removed from their 1981/82 European Cup triumph, 37 from their last top-flight league title. Birmingham has never won the top flight, much less achieved European glory. Nevertheless, the Second City Derby is probably the most heated in England. In 2010, when the notion of safe standing was just gaining momentum, when England thought it had a grip on hooliganism everywhere except perhaps Millwall, Birmingham fans revived the mass pitch invasion.

On 2nd December 2010, the Blues defeated Villa 2-1 in the League Cup. At the match's conclusion, Birmingham fans invaded the pitch from the Tilton Road Stand behind the visitor's goal. They marched forward towards the Gil Merrick Stand where Villa fans were seated in the lower tier. Their way was blocked at the top of the eighteen-yard box by a cordon of riot police. From that distance, the two fan groups shouted insults at one another. Then someone in the Blues brigade lit and launched a flare into the Gil Merrick Stand. Villa fans hurled it back. More pyrotechnics ensued. Villa faithful diversified the fusillade by ripping apart seats and tossing the pieces onto the pitch. Naturally, Birmingham fans sent the less aerodynamic missiles back whence they'd come.

In the end, arrests were made. The FA fined Birmingham City £40,000 for its inability to control its fans. The notion that a hundreds-strong mob can be controlled by anyone when they have it in their collective head to make mischief is laughable. The voice on the public address system barely containing his hysteria is high comedy. He might as well be shouting, "If you don't eat yer meat, you can't have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat?"

These days, Birmingham police have a better handle on the situation. Separately, they herd both groups of fans towards whichever ground hosts the match [St Andrew's and Villa Park are roughly five kilometres apart] like cattle to slaughter. The difference, of course, is that slaughter is exactly what they are trying to prevent.

Rather than just cordons of officers in riot gear, the police erect temporary walls using vans. As they pass each vehicle Villa and Birmingham fans can see each other through the gaps. They hurl insults back and forth, with Villa fans often calling the Blues "Small Heath" after their original club name. Formed in 1875 as Small Heath Alliance, they lopped the Alliance off the name 13 years later, rebranded themselves as Birmingham in 1905 and Birmingham City in 1943. Given Villa has consistently dominated matches between the two, holding a 55-33-38 record according to 11v11, you can understand they may feel aggrieved the other team attempted to co-opt the Birmingham Derby by changing their name. "F- off Small Heath, the city is ours," isn't the usual nonsensical chant. It's political protest if you will.

Everton, the elder Merseyside club, once held a similar grudge against Liverpool until the Reds backed their political play with more on the pitch. Of course, it took the Anfield mob much longer than Aston Villa to establish their superiority. Everton won nine First Division titles, the last in 1986/87. Liverpool won their 16th the year before under Kenny Dalglish, their 17th and 18th immediately after. They'd surpassed the Toffees for good with their eighth in 1972/73, in Bill Shankly's penultimate season.

Later today, Aston Villa host Birmingham City for the 127th competitive Second City Derby. Early season troubles after falling just short of promotion last term, led to manager Steve Bruce's departure. Dean Smith is now in charge and mentoring the ambitious John Terry


Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC-by-SA 4.0

The former Walsall and Brentford boss revealed a sense of timing, marshalling his new squad to lift them just above the Blues coming into this tilt. Both are on 24 points, Villa 11th on goal difference. Recent history is on Smith's side. His new team won both matches in the current Championship chapter in the derby, keeping clean sheets on each occasion. 

Robert Jones is the referee for the match. It's his 18th appearance in the Football League and he hopes not his unlucky 13th in the Championship. A derby this intense is a difficult assignment for any referee, let alone one so inexperienced. Take Mike Dean, for instance. A top-flight official since 2000, he earned a dubious distinction early this year by issuing more red cards in his career than any club has been assessed in the Premier League era. One must wonder if being the match official for that League Cup match at St Andrew's on 2 December 2010 has anything to with it?

Today's Football Fixtures
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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