It is finally here. Sunday afternoon sees Birmingham City travel to Villa Park for an eagerly anticipated derby match. This time round, there is a realistic expectation that Birmingham will be able to beat Aston Villa and claim bragging rights for some months in the future.
In recent years, Villa have dominated the local derby. All Birmingham fans will have attempted to banish the 5-1 defeat to their adversaries in 2008, as well as a disappointing loss at St.Andrew’s earlier this season. Villa became the first team to beat Birmingham at home (since then, Birmingham have only lost once more). Alex McLeish later spoke of the match, saying: “The defeat was very harsh. I didn’t think there was a huge gulf between the teams in terms of quality.” The manager’s words showed how Birmingham had closed the gap on their Midland rivals. In the intervening months, said gap has fluctuated from closing to widening in a matter of days. Whilst all fans – except the fantasists – will accept Birmingham are still some way behind competing with Villa in the league for a sustained period, there are some that will point to Birmingham’s changing fortunes, barring a few events (namely the row with Seymour Pierce over funds), which will give them the platform to launch an attack on Villa’s status as the best in the Midlands.
Currently, Birmingham sit in 9th place with a total 47 points whilst Aston Villa, in 6th have 61. At the turn of the year, some fans still harboured hopes of reaching Europe and catching Villa by the end of the season. Unfortunately for Birmingham, the second half to their season has not been as fruitful as the, first as they have only picked up a paltry 14 points from a possible 45. Villa on the other hand, have added 26. In that time, Martin O’Neill’s men have also made two trips to Wembley so with all things considered, Birmingham are still lagging behind Villa. However, in the footballing world, and in particular in Birmingham and the surrounding areas, there is a feeling that a changing of the guard may be imminent. Whilst Villa are anything but stagnant, Birmingham’s transformation from a ‘yo-yo’ Premier League/Championship club to a good, soon-to-be-established Premier League outfit has been drastic. So drastic, in fact, that it could result in Birmingham challenging Villa for European spots next season. In a more myopic Midlands view, it will also make for some fascinating derbies in the near future – if Birmingham can prove on Sunday, at Villa Park, they can truly compete against Aston Villa regardless of the result, the game will be more than a footnote in their evolution as a club. Of course the result is important. No club wants to lose to their rivals but in the long-term, it would be just as good for Birmingham if they could prove to themselves, to Aston Villa and their fans they are soon going to be up there in a position that leaves them more inclined to compete. Indeed, Aston Villa fans and players will already be taking note of Birmingham’s swift ascension to the periphery of the league’s elite.
In recent years, Birmingham fans have directed much of their abuse and singing towards Aston Villa striker and local boy Gabriel Agbonlahor. Agbonlahor, who scored the winning goal earlier this season, said of said taunts: “I know there’s going to be a load of chants that are going to come but it doesn’t really bother me, like it doesn’t bother any player. I just laugh. I find it funny. If I was a fan, I’d be doing the same thing, so I don’t mind.” Whilst Agbonlahor accepts that it is part of the culture and fabric of a derby game, Birmingham fans may want to think twice before launching in to a symphony. Agbonlahor has been ruthless against the Blues, scoring a goal in each of the last three games – two of which were match winners. The striker himself has pointed to the chants directed at him as an influence on his performance – they appear to make him more determined. Birmingham boss McLeish will be wary of Agbonlahor’s presence and whilst he will hope the fans do not aggravate him to the point of scoring, he will want Birmingham’s defence to contain the Villa man.
Post mortems will abound come Sunday night with fans around the Midlands sharing their thoughts and dissecting the game. For Birmingham, the game’s importance cannot be undermined – this is a massive opportunity to show the Midlands that finally, Villa have a challenger.
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