Beware the noisy neighbours
By Dan Wheeler
When Youssouf Mulumbu scored with six minutes to go on at The Hawthorns on Saturday 30 April 2011, he put West Bromwich Albion within touching distance of history. Six minutes or so later, that little piece of history was achieved: The Baggies had beaten Aston Villa for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.
Not since the spring of 1985 had the club’s fans witness such a thing. Admittedly the Baggies’ long absence from the top division had unavoidably elongated the wait but even in the few matches after that result nearly 28 years ago and in the sporadic cup skirmishes in between Albion initially climbing back into the elite in 2002, Villa were kings.
Even when Albion became a Premier League side, the early battles, although close, went Villa’s way. In nine matches up to that famous afternoon 21 months ago, Villa did not lose a single game and all the Baggies could muster was four draws. Villa’s crown as top team in the West Midlands sat as cosily as ever.
Beware the noisy neighbours though.
Albion’s landmark win was followed up by another one when they met Villa again six months later. The Baggies’ 2-1 victory at Villa Park was their first in B6 since New Year’s Day 1982 and their first in the league since the manager was Big and the barnets even bigger when Ron Atkinson’s side won in 1979.
Draws last April and September took Albion’s unbeaten run to four and when the two teams meet at The Hawthorns at the weekend for the 160th time in total, everyone will be expecting that to stretch to five.
The run might not quite be enough for a bit of Bob Dylan to knock The Liquidator off the pre-match turntable, but the sentiments of his work ring loud nevertheless: times, if they have not already done so, are definitely on the change.
Last season was the first time West Brom finished above Villa in the table since 1979. Villa’s reign as top dogs was over. Officially.
This season the differences between the two clubs is even more apparent with Albion flying under Steve Clarke, 14 points clear of Villa who are up to their necks in relegation quick sand with Paul Lambert frantically trying to stop heads from going under.
The turnaround at both clubs has been remarkable. Albion have sorted out their hokey-cokey-ing between the Premier League and Championship and are reaping the rewards of chairman Jeremy Peace’s impressively sapient approach. Peace has shown a canny knack for knowing when to do the right thing at the right time, from determining who coaches the team, to who scouts and signs the players.
He took a lot of stick for sacking Roberto Di Matteo when the club were not part of the relegation issue in 2011 but his appointment of Roy Hodgson took them to another level. When Hodgson left for England he was under pressure to pull it off again. Giving Clarke his chance alone in the big time looks like he has. Finding another Sporting Director as good as Dan Ashworth might be tougher.
Overall though Albion are a truly buffed example of what can be done on a limited budget with the right structure - debt-free and thriving amongst the big boys.
What Villa would give for a bit of that. For any of that.
While Randy Lerner is trying to adopt Peace’s “spend low, sell high” financial mantra (Villa’s losses since Lerner took over in 2006 were last year approaching £150m) things on the pitch have deteriorated at an alarming rate.
Their defeat to Southampton saw Villa drop into the bottom three and although time is still on their side, they looking frighteningly likely candidates for the drop. Shocking enough when you consider their Premier League pedigree, more so when you realize it was only four seasons ago when they lead Stoke City 2-nil and had a nailed-on top four finish in their sights. They messed up that day and have been in a mess pretty much ever since.
Fans of the respective clubs had to wait 16 years for derby rivalries to be resumed. Then it was Albion supporters who longer for slice of the big time, wishing to be like Villa. Now it is Villa’s turn. They are the ones doing the chasing. And the wishing.