English Football

When will the Midlands really challenge for honours?

Albion Ground (2)This week’s loosely tagged “Brummie” derby, West Bromwich Albion v Aston Villa, created more interest than usual, largely thanks to comments made in the press by Villa manager Lambert. He claimed Villa is a bigger club than Albion, a viewpoint that was bound to inflame Baggies’ fans who have invariably lived in the shadow of their claret and blue friends.

Lambert is right. Villa are a bigger club than Albion, but the future currently looks a little brighter at the Hawthorns than it does at Villa Park. Lambert should count his lucky stars that he is still in a job after the way his team started 2013. But in media interviews, Lambert said the experience of, for example, an eight-goal drubbing at Chelsea has hardened his team in 2013-14. As for Albion, their manager Steve Clarke is something of a media favourite, although his admission that referee Mike Riley apologised to him about the recent dubious Chelsea penalty will do him no favours.

Both Albion and Villa are entrenched in lower mid-table territory, so it’s very much business as usual for the Midlands. The meeting between the two, dubbed the battle to decide “the Kings of the Midlands” – a dubious title given the region’s recent footballing history, was the 161st in a series that dates back to 1885. It was also the fourth consecutive draw, but it was a rousing game that demonstrated that you don’t need to watch the Premier heavyweights to see a good game of football.

But what can West Brom and Villa hope for this season? Survival is one thing, but there is little danger they will contest for anything higher, unless it is a FA Cup run.

The whole region is in the doldrums and to be honest, it hasn’t had much to shout about in the Premier League era. The last Midlands club to win the title was….yes, Aston Villa in 1981. Villa are the only constant since the Premier was founded in 1992 – 21 seasons, nine of which have seen them finish in the top six. On reflection, that doesn’t seem so bad, but the last two have seen them finish 16th and 15th respectively. Villa, in that timeframe, have won two Football League Cups (1993-94 and 1995-96), finished runners-up in another (2009-10) and reached the FA Cup final in 1999-00. No other Midlands club can compare with that record.

Ironically, given their recent calamitous record, Coventry are next when it comes to Premier League presence – nine seasons up until 2000-01 when they were relegated. Leicester have seen eight seasons, while Derby, Birmingham and WBA have seven Premier campaigns to their credit.

Midlands clubs have become the proverbial yo-yo outfits and would do well to employ Bobby Darin’s song, Rubber Ball (bouncing back to you) as their theme tunes. Nottingham Forest have suffered the drop three times, coming back twice; Leicester two, with one promotion; Derby two; Birmingham three; WBA and Wolves two apiece. In 21 seasons, 12 have seen a Midlands club (or two) go down.

What does this tell us? More than anything, it demonstrates that the region has not had the type of investment seen in Manchester and London, who have dominated Premier football. Most of the clubs have good support, but it cannot compare to the sort of crowds United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea can draw each week. They have their moments, but essentially, the Midlands is Championship territory. Since 1992, the Midlands presence in the Premier has fluctuated from one club to five. Today, there are three: Villa, WBA and Stoke. Go back 21 years and it was pretty much the same story.

Can a Midlands club win the Premier? The short-term answer is obviously no. English football is a three-speed economy: those that have the resources and can aspire to Champions League football and a crack at the prizes; those that can sustain Premier football and spring the odd surprise; and those that have no chance to compete. Villa and Albion can at least claim they are in the second category – at the moment. It will require kindly gentlemen [or indeed, ladies] from the Far or Middle East, or even former Soviet provinces to elevate them to a higher stage. Being “Kings of the Midlands” may not get on their honours board, but it may count for something at the end of a hard season.

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