Preview: Birmingham City (v) Aston Villa – Why the second city derby is more than just a game.

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This derby.  It’s not just about bragging rights.

It’s old scores & open wounds.

It’s the senseless anticipation as kick off looms and the anguish suffered over 90 minutes.

This is a big game.  An important local clash, routinely overlooked and diminished in the age of mass media coverage of manufactured “derbies” or faux rivalry.  

Villa versus Blues is a bitter, fierce and often hateful experience.  It’s the first meeting of either side in a league fixture for five years.  Tasty stuff.

Whilst the hatefulness of the game sometimes results in the worst of humanity coming out, it also creates a cauldron of football that is thrilling to watch amidst an atmosphere few can describe once they’ve experienced it first hand.

It’s white knuckle, on and off the pitch.

It was therefore a genuine surprise to read that Villa fans will be held back at the final whistle.  

Whilst the decision was probably taken with the best of intentions, when the tactic was last deployed at St. Andrews it made away supporters stick out like sore thumbs wandering away from the gates of the Coventry Road.  

Fans were also pelted with stones and whatever was to hand whilst waiting behind the gates as the home support drifted by on that occasion. (*This was either the 2005 or 2007)

This is the same West Midlands Police that presumably thought the 2002 derby [that was completely lawless] would be best played at night.  They also thought nothing of placing Blues fans in the tier above the away support, permitting all manner of unsavoury items to rain down upon us for 90 minutes.  Hence the reduced capacity this time round with those seats off limits.

This is a proper derby, where there are no “half and half scarves”, no neutral areas and one where permanent, unerring lines are drawn amongst acquaintances, colleagues and relationships.

The divide is simple enough to interpret.  It is a case of the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ of football in the second city.

We, Aston Villa, have and have had all of the success.  Blues, have forever been in the shadows, the bottom feeder, the envious, ugly sister.  An all consuming obsession.

Equally, the gulf between the stature of two footballing sides within such a narrow geography couldn’t be greater.  Fanbase, ambition, silverware and stadia are tried & tested measures.

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Greatness is something measured over decades & in terms of our historic football club, centuries.  The trophy cabinet & the history books are the trusted barometer.

This isn’t also about [rightly] pointing out to our neighbours that we have pedigree, but as much reminding them of their insignificance.  Insignificant to the extent that even in our darkest and most inept relegation season (2015/2016), Aston Villa still defeated them.

Haunting.

Clinging to singular, brief moments of joy against us or raising individuals such as Robbie Savage to “legend” status, tells it’s own story.  

Savage, as dis-likeable as he remains, amusingly double crossed Blues, jumping ship to join Blackburn Rovers.  He virtually went full Delph on them and yet…he remains an idol?!

We will make do with idolising League & European Cup winners instead, thanks.

And yes, we will mention that we were Champions of Europe as much or as little as we want.  It happened, it is the greatest achievement that any football club can reach, and Aston Villa did it.

Blues fans can polish their Leyland DAF trophy or swill out their Obafemi “What’s my age again?” Martin mug.  That’s as good as it will ever be.  Apart from that rare anomaly where they manage to “beet thu Villuh”.

Our hosts will have us marked on their calendar, for a big team is crossing the city line.  The Blue carpet will be rolled out, the Jasper Carrot record dusted off and we will be made to feel exceptionally welcome.

Given the woeful attendances at St Andrews, the words “You’ve only come to see the Villa” are rarely more appropriate.  

Blues are managing a paltry 57% average turn-out.  Their overall attendance is also broadly 50% less than our own in terms of footfall.  Huddersfield & Fulham get more through their doors than City, for comparison.

By contrast, Villa currently have the highest away attendances of any Championship (or Premier League) club and that’s despite managing just a single victory outside of Villa Park in 14 months.

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There is also the added spice that Steve Bruce has seen sense and walked out into the light having taken the helm at VP.  He knows the fixture well and leads Villa into the temple of doom almost a decade after he departed as City’s coach.

Expect a warm welcome Steve.

Bruce has steadied a B6 ship that had been struggling to find its feet in The Championship under Roberto Di Matteo.  Many would have been worried, The Villa Underground included, had a change in leadership not taken place when it did.

We now arrive at St Andrews armed with a sudden momentum, having won consecutive matches and taken 7 points from 9 under Bruce.  We also appear to be steadily finding a level of organisation so lacking previously & are now hurting teams in the latter stages of games.

Blues come into the game off the back of a 2-0 defeat to the mighty Burton.  Whilst their home form is steady, only one defeat this season, their results against Midlands teams have been poor.

Defeat at home to Wolves is mirrored with a loss to struggling Nottingham Forest and the aforementioned Burton Albion.  For all of Gary Rowett’s successes steering Blues on a minimal budget, there are certainly chinks in the armour.

The game also has further significance as we seek to establish exactly how our season will play out.

Whilst few would predict a meteoric rise to the automatic promotion places, there is an optimism that the play-offs are a reasonable objective.  Beating teams like the Blues will be central to this and/or a measure of what work still needs to be done.  The result will actually be quite telling in some respects.

Villa will be without Tommy Elphick and Micah Richards.  This will see a likely recall for the growing central partnership of Chester & Baker.  Alan Hutton would be expected to retain his place at right back, with Bacuna performing better in a midfield three.

Bruce’s biggest challenge will be selecting the best attacking options for the job at hand.  The predatory Jonathan Kodjia is an obvious pick, but it’s unclear who or what means of supporting him works best.  That’s a work in progress which has seen any number of players swap in and out.

Gestede carries an aerial threat but is limited on the floor.  McCormack has proven goals but is struggling for consistency.  Ayew can bring trickery and wastefulness in equal measure.  And what of the news the Agbonlahor will travel with the squad?  Surely not?

In any event, a victory has to be our aim.  And for Gods sake Villa; do not lose.

Predictions:

Villa to win (2-0)

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