Second city blues: Fancy another relegation battle?

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Iconic Liverpool Manager Bill Shankly’s assertion that, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death; I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that” is oft-quoted, but it remains accurate, and amidst the focus on glory, it’s easy to forget that Shankly’s words are true even for the less successful sides.

The rivalry between Birmingham and Aston Villa exemplifies this: it is close, personal and passionate – a tribal war which straddles families and stretches right across the second city. It was wrought in the fire of working class passion; back when the Football League was in its infancy, massed armies of workers poured out of the then ‘workshop of the world’
in search of entertainment and a bit of aggression when the neighbours came to visit.

It has been three years since Alex McLeish’s Birmingham team exited the Premier League. This season, a 93rd minute equaliser from Paul Caddis saw the side hold onto their Championship status by the very tips of their fingers – a huge sigh of relief was exhaled by the blue side of Birmingham.

In the other half of the city, that sigh was replicated. Surviving a third successive relegation battle for Aston Villa – which would have seemed a remarkable fact during the club’s moderately successful period under Martin O’Neil – has become an accomplishment, although something that has caused fans to lose faith in both manager, Paul Lambert and chairman, Randy Lerner, who’s now openly looking to sell the club.

It’s beginning to seem a long time since hostilities were renewed between these two ‘second city’ sides. A rivalry renowned for being intense, spirited and occasionally violent, is a distant memory, a boring one-all draw at St. Andrews in January 2011 being the last time the two rivals locked horns.

When was it, then, that this derby started? The first meeting between the two teams took place on 27th September 1879. With City then going by the name of ‘Small Heath Alliance’, this noncompetitive match ended 1-0 to Aston Villa. Fast-forward eight years, and in the 1887 FA Cup, Villa won the first competetive game between the two 4-0. 135 years after their first meeting, the claret-and-blue half of Birmingham are undoubtedly top dogs, with Villa winning 51 of the 117 matches (City win- ning 37, and 29 draws).

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However, a recent meeting in December 2010 showed why it is that this rivalry is one that is feared by those emotionally invested in either team. In the campaign that finished with the Blues beating Arsenal in the Carling Cup final, the two teams were drawn against each other in the quarter-finals. Nikola Zigic’s late winner sealed a 2-1 victory against Gerard Houllier’s Villa side which thus prompted a mass pitch invasion at the end of the match by City fans. Villa supporters were locked in the away end, and flares and missiles were thrown between the two sets of fans.

This match represents, unfortunately, the turbulent history between the two sides. Violence has marred many derbies and it is not only the fans that get emotionally involved, but the players too. A moment to remember was when Villa striker, Dion Dublin, landed a rather startling headbutt on City stalwart Robbie Savage. At the same time that Paul Caddis equalised, I, with a large proportion of other fans, was eagerly awaiting the news of whether our hated rivals had gone down. Indeed, this kind of schadenfreude has been the only fun available to Villa fans in recent years . This feeling, experienced by long-suffer- ing Birmingham City fans too, shows just why fans of clubs like the two in Birmingham relish having two derby matches a season.

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