'We haven’t really grown out of disliking each other'. Andy Mitten speaks to fans and former players about the rivalry in Britain's so-called second city
'There’s a sheer, unhealthy hatred': Enmity between Birmingham City and Aston Villa still burns whether in the Premier League or the Championship
Fifty minutes to kick off before the 117th derby between Birmingham City and Aston Villa and the entrance to the away end is heavily policed as thousands of fans walk up Coventry Road with the impressive skyline of Birmingham, a city of 1.1 million, behind.
It’s a pleasant autumn morning, but there’s a tense atmosphere and Villa fans, who will be outnumbered 10 to one on enemy territory, are not wearing colours. Many have travelled by coach across the city, while others quietly peel away from the crowd and into the away section. This continues until police split the road using a line of police vans.
“Blues to the left, Villa to the right,” instructs the policeman in charge outside St Andrew’s, Bordesley, an inner city working class area where ethnic minorities make up 71 per cent of the poipulation. The football fans walking are almost all white and working class. Many wear expensive jackets from Italian design houses, their Sunday best for the big match.
The simple act from the policeman marks out territory and the atmosphere changes instantly as rivals aggressively goad anyone on the other side of the vans. Set against the taunts, an elderly Lowryesque figure in a thick winter coat walks up the hill alone. He is the only person in the street wearing Villa colours, a claret and blue hat atop a Villa scarf. He looks like the proudest man on earth as he walks to support his team play against their bitterest rivals. Nobody bothers him.
Close to the away end, issue 412 of BRUM, a “bluenose fanzine” is being sold with the words "Our City is Blue" on the cover.
“It is about a city,” writes the acerbic editorial. “Birmingham City, and the thing is that this city is ours, this City is Blues. Today’s game makes or breaks your weekend, your week, even your season. Pundits, when talking about Birmingham City, say it’s ‘a proper club’, a ‘working man’s club’ and we are. We haven’t got a history of winning cups, but we have a history of passion.”
Aston Villa are referred to as Vile and The Vile throughout.
The West Midlands and Greater Manchester, Britain’s second biggest metropolitan areas, have similar populations of around 2.5 million, but Birmingham has long claimed to be England’s second city. Unlike in Manchester, whose teams are one and two in the Premier League, both Birmingham’s leading teams play in the second tier.
It hasn’t always been so. Aston Villa are one of only five English teams to win the European Cup. Even now, they have the best-paid player in the Championship, John Terry.
“John’s brought a professionalism to the changing room and training, with great organisation skills,” explains Tony Coton, a childhood Birmingham City fan who played in goal for that club but now heads Aston Villa’s player recruitment. “Players look up to John.”
“I’m from Tamworth, which is mainly made up of Birmingham and Villa fans,” adds Coton, who had a distinguished career at the highest level representing the Watford, Manchester City and Sunderland.
“I played in the derby for Birmingham, the team I grew up supporting. Villa always had a better team and we were considered paupers. They were the European champions and they came to St Andrews. We had a reputation as being tasty off the pitch. We said: ‘The only way we’re going to win this game is to intimidate and upset them, chase every ball down.’ We beat them 2-1. I looked into the Tilton Road stand at the away fans and saw at least 12 people I knew from Tamworth calling me every name under the sun. Then I went towards the Kop and told the ball boy to leave the ball alone as we were running the clock down. I saw a load more people I knew from Tamworth, all Blues fans.”
Birmingham produces a third of all the cars manufactured in the UK with over 1.7 million built in 2016, employing a good number of Birmingham and Villa fans. “I’ve played in the Manchester and Tyne-Wear derbies, but the most intense is in Birmingham,” adds Coton. “The fans can’t stand each other, yet will stand next to each other on the production line in the working week.”
Because the two teams have been in different divisions for so much of their history, derbies aren’t as frequent as matches between teams from North London, Manchester or Liverpool, though there have been notable cup ties including the 1963 League Cup final, which Birmingham won 3-1 on aggregate to claim their first major trophy. They have won only one since, another League Cup in 2011, when they beat Villa en-route.
The noughties saw Birmingham play five years of Premier League football, with the 2002/03 league derby the first in 15 years. Birmingham won both games that season, partly thanks to errors by Villa goalkeeper Peter Enkleman in each match. Violence marred both games, on and off the field. Dion Dublin saw red for butting Robbie Savage in the 2-0 win at Villa Park.
“I felt like walking away from football,” stated Villa manager Graham Taylor. “It was a horrible, horrible day.”
In 2011, Birmingham manager Alex McCleish moved to Villa, infuriating both sets of fans. He had just presided over a relegation with Birmingham. McLeish received death threats. He lasted only a season in Aston. In 1982, Ron Saunders, who had led Villa to the 1975 and 1977 League Cup plus the 1981 Division One title, Villa’s first in 70 years, moved to Birmingham months after winning the European Cup.
Birmingham, the first English club to compete in European football and whose greatest ever player, Trevor Francis, was Britain’s first £1 million footballer, have not played in the English top flight since 2011. They were joined in the second-tier Championship by Villa when they were relegated from the Premier League in 2016.
“It’s one of the last proper city derbies,” says Dave Woodhall, editor of the Villa fanzine Heroes & Villains for the past 29 years. “It’s the only big city derby in England where one of the clubs haven’t moved on. We haven’t really grown out of disliking each other so much. There’s a sheer, unhealthy hatred.”
Woodhall is adjusting to life outside the Premier League.
“It’s ridiculous that neither of us are in the Premier League, but I’m quite enjoying being away from the hype,” he says. “The Premier League might have an Uber Alles mentality where they don’t think you exist outside it, but I’m enjoying going to football again, enjoying being top of the bill again.”
“We’re getting away allocations of five, six or seven thousand,” adds Villa fan James Hunt, 51, who is standing by the away end. “We like that, but we know if we’re out of the Premier League for more than a couple of years then we’re going to fall behind. But there’s still a novelty and lots of local games like Derby, Nottingham, Wolves, Sheffield, Burton.” His voice trails off. “And here.”
“We try not to adopt an air of superiority,” Woodhall says, “but I can’t get past the fact that they seem to hate us more than they support their own team. They have fans who’d rather beat us than get promoted. The game means more to them than it does to us. They accuse us of being middle class from shires outside Birmingham and in arguing back we’re reduced to their level.”
Neil Moxley, chief football writer for The People, has missed only one derby in 37 years.
“I was playing football and it coincided with Birmingham’s biggest ever victory at Villa Park in 1986, which I was annoyed about,” explains the Birmingham fan.
“I feel envious when I watch the derbies in Manchester and Liverpool. I can see that these cities have been transformed, but their football teams have helped with that.
“Birmingham, as a city, has been transformed, too. Everyone here rubs along pretty well, there’s so many good things happening here like the forthcoming HS2 train line. Shopping is second to none; the nightlife is fantastic, yet people have a downer on the place. They have a stereotype where people think we talk with really thick accents, but it’s not accurate. I’m proud of being from here, but I do get envious, football-wise, when I look north and even at Leicester. I’d love something like that at Birmingham City.”
Birmingham and Villa have both had ostensibly wealthy foreign owners, yet neither has really worked out.
“I don’t think they realised what an opportunity they had in the last decade,” Moxley says.
“Randy Lerner [Villa’s former American owner] had all the gear but the wrong ideas. That has cost him £300 million and Villa have still not fully recovered from Martin O’Neill walking out on them in 2010. Villa would be getting 40,000 if they were playing well.”
“At Blues, there was a lack of transparency from the Chinese owners and Carsen Yeung’s empire appeared to be built on sand right from the start. It was hellish to watch for five years and people are still unsure of the provenance of the new owners, but people are so tired of the situation that they’ve stopped asking questions.
"The solution would probably be a wealthy owner with a blank cheque book, but even if that doesn’t happen, it doesn't change that there’s huge support for that football club.”
The enmity is real.
“It’s a derby where the supporters have a hatred of each other,” adds Moxley. “Kevan Broadhurst, our captain in the 1980s summed it up as ‘Villa are the haves, we are the have nots. They’re the Lord Snootys and we’re The Back Street kids.’
“Birmingham tend have a more working class support but Villa, undoubtedly, have the greater pull, the prestige and the better attendances. Villa Park has always been a big, prestigious ground. It can lack atmosphere but it’s a formidable place when the hosts are roused.”
Woodhall begs to disagree. “The reality is that most of Villa’s support is the same class as most of their [Birmingham] support. We do get more support from the outlying areas.”
It’s hard to find fans with a positive word about their rivals, but they do exist.
“The Blues support still turns up, even though they’ve been betrayed by successive owners,” Woodhall says. “There are a million other ways to spend your time than support a team which doesn’t have success, yet they still support their team. I have more respect for a match-going Birmingham fan than for an armchair Man United fan from Birmingham. Whatever the opposition, we have more in common with the people in the away end than not.”
Both sides share the same issues.
“There’s a lack of local players in the game when we had players like Lee Hendrie and Gabriel Agbonlahor, so the players need to understand the passion, but they will because our manager Steve Bruce managed them [Birmingham],” says Villa fan James Hunt, from Solihull, who is from a family whose allegiances are split 50/50. Hunt is proud of Birmingham as a city, though, like many Mancunians, he doesn’t consider Birmingham England’s second city. “That’s because I consider it the first city,” he laughs.
Birmingham is at the heart of the West Midlands, but there are other teams.
“There’s a strain of Villa fans who regard West Brom as a more traditional rival because their ground was just as close, depending how you measure it, to Villa Park,” Woodhall explains. “West Brom [currently the only top-flight team from the West Midlands] now declare themselves as a Black Country club and would consider Wolverhampton Wanders a rivals.”
Still half an hour to kick off and a fight breaks out by a car park behind the main stand. Men in their 40s and 50s watch as punches are thrown between fellow Blues fans; a nose gets bloodied after a verbal disagreement. Children cower behind their parents.
Walking towards the ground is Lee Cheatle originally from Sheldon, “a proper working class Bluenose area in South Birmingham.”
“We’ve had a poor start to the season, especially as we spent money in the close season which we hadn’t done recently,” he says. “We had Harry Redknapp as manager, who kept us up last season on the final day. He wasn’t given time this season and was sacked. We had Gianfranco Zola in charge last season, but he didn't work out.”
“There’s a lot of mystery about our owners now, but it’s better than it was a few years ago. We’ve often been a yo-yo team between the divisions.”
Cheatle’s nervous about the game.
“We hate each other and they still think they’re big time, but they’re actually in the Championship,” he says. “It's just them who we’re like this with. We don’t mind [West Bromwich] Albion.”
Is there anything that Cheatle could begrudgingly respect Villa for? He shakes his head.
“I’ve been brought up not to like them,” he says. “My dad wouldn't have it any other way, but I do have a few mates who are Villa fans. They just chose to go the wrong way in life.”
The game is viewed from the back of the main stand, providing a letter box view of the whole affair.
As Mr Blue Sky, a favourite by Birmingham band ELO is played, this writer asked the man to his right how he thinks the game will play out.
“I played in a few of these,” replies none other than Gary Shaw, once a blond-haired young forward who part of Villa’s ’82 European Cup winning squad.
“They hammered us here 3-0 when we were European champions, but we beat them at our place and I scored a couple of years later.”
And then, quite magnificently, 22,000 people in a stadium sing Birmingham’s anthem Keep Right On To The End Of The Road.
“As you go through life, It’s a long long road.
"There’ll be joys and sorrows too.
“Though the way be long, Let your heart beat strong, Keep right on to the end.
"Though you’re tired and weary, still journey on, ’til you come to your happy abode.
"Where all the love, you’ve been dreaming of will be there, Where? At the end of the road, Birmingham! Birmingham!”
St Andrews, which is three quarters new build, has handrails that bear the club’s initials, forged in the local foundries. The main stand is a squat drab 1955 structure, opposite which used to stand Britain’s biggest Kop, a single terrace alongside the side of the pitch capable of holding 48,000.
The stadium was allegedly cursed for 100 years by Romany travellers who had been moved to make way for its construction in 1906. The curse seemed real. The ground was hit by 20 German bombs in the Second World War and the main stand was burned down in 1942, not by the German bombers, but a fireman who tried to put out a brazier with what he thought was water but turned out to be petrol. Villa were on hand to let their rivals play home matches at Villa Park, two miles away and a grander, bigger stadium which was long used as a venue for FA Cup semi-finals.
For this modern day derby between two mid-table second-division sides, St Andrews isn’t quite full, with the top tier above the away end empty, limiting the crowd to 24,408. Over 40,000 could watch the return game at Villa Park in February.
A garish inflatable in the centre of the pitch announces that "Our City is blue", attracting ridicule from the 3,000 Villa fans in the lower tier of the Railway End, some of who are holding up a "Small Heath forever in our shadow" flag. Small Heath is the original name of Birmingham City.
The enmity between rival fans flows back and forth, with Birmingham supporters affecting a high-pitched "Villa" chant in jest. A game of football breaks out, where heavy tackles raise the loudest cheers and eyes are frequently strained as the ball flies in the air in the autumnal sun and Villa players who venture near the side of the pitch are showered with paper clappers that have been handed out to home fans and folded up to create handy missiles.
For reasons best known to himself, a man runs bare chested onto the playing field. A chant of "Blues! Blues!" sounds like a Zulu chant, while there is applause after 21 minutes to remember the 21 people killed by the bombing of two Birmingham pubs by the IRA in 1974.
“I’ve never felt more like singing the blues,” sing the home fans. “City win, Villa lose.” But there are no winners and losers today in a game that will not go down as a classic. Birmingham had failed to win in their last 10 derbies against Villa. They wanted to avoid defeat, but in Jota they had the game’s best player.
Hundreds congregate at half time behind the main stand, where wily casuals stood huddled, the football club they support at the heart of their community of like-minded individuals.
“It’s the prospect of losing that does this to me,” explains one as he drags nervously on a cigarette.
Villa’s substitutes are greeted with amusing cries of "Who?", while the away fans find their voices chanting "Come on, Villa!"
Villa finish the stronger of the teams, though their goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, is called into action late on, making a string of fine saves. The game ends goalless and the visiting supporters are kept behind for 70 minutes by police and the home fans are cleared away from the area.
Villa are firmly in the play-off picture, while Birmingham hover precariously above the relegation places. Another local team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, are top.
“I’m still optimistic about the future,” Woodhall says. “We read that the top end of the Premier League is a set top six, but it changes. Manchester City and Chelsea have moved up into it in the last 10 to 15 years. Newcastle were second a few times.”
“Both teams should be in the Premier League and Villa should be a top-end Premier League club,” says Coton.
“It’s such a shame for the city that Birmingham against Aston Villa is not a Premier League fixture,” concludes Moxley. “There is nothing like a successful football team to put a gloss on the setting of a city. It gets overlooked as a city because it hasn’t got two successful football teams, yet the passion remains high.”
There has been plenty of passion evident, but, on the pitch, little of the quality needed for a return to past glories.