The Black Country Derby

The premiership, weekend over, bears witness to big games. Slick passing, the individual brilliance, the odd showboat and of course the stars on display, keep millions glued around the world. Yes it’s all about the Manchester United’s and Chelsea’s- the giants of the English game. Not many would disagree would they?

Well, this Sunday an odd 50,000 or more would. The West Midlands will be breathing a different aura of optimism this February. Impatience is the word, though anxiety would come close to describing a typical fan and depending on the outcome of the duel, revelry or despair would be apt. Friends and family for once will be divided on opinion as the day to express true loyalty beckons. Yes, such is the love of football. To them the “real” big game is not in cosmopolitan London, to be honest they really don’t care which Goliath wins. The Black Country awaits the clash of their, very own titans, for the first time since the premiership was initiated.

An unspoken rule with derby fixtures is certified grit, passion and aggressive play complimented with a stadium filled with vociferous fans. Manchester United and Liverpool, Inter and AC Milan are historical examples. With local pride at stake, a Hawthorns sell out is a guarantee.

The ‘Black Country Derby’ as it is better known features West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers, two prominent football clubs in the former industrial belt of England. A survey by The Football Pools in 2008 concluded it to be the fiercest rivalry in English football. With both clubs being founder members of the Football League, the rivalry is one of the oldest in world football.

Since the two first met in the FA CUP in 1886, there have been 156 Black Country derbies of which Albion have won 62, Wolves 52, and 42 have ended in a draw. However, February 20, 2010 is set to be a historic date, marking the first face-off between the two in the Premier league and their first in the top flight since 1984.

In recent years both clubs have had their mix of fortunes, bouncing between the top two divisions on a frequent basis. The Baggies have ‘boinged’ up and down as many as four times in the last nine years; Wolves on the other hand are into their second consecutive premier league campaign, narrowly staving of relegation last season.

As celebrity Albion fan Adrian Chiles puts it “It’s not easy, It’s never dull: West Bromwich Albion”

A repeat of the great escape may be on the cards for The Baggies, having thrown away a solid start to their campaign. As Albion look to shed their yo-yo tag, Wolves will be trying their best to undo relegation woes which are doing their rounds at the Molineux.

Albion has a new head coach in Roy Hodgson whose experience may come in handy for their survival pledge. The ex-Liverpool manager watched from the stands as his new team threw away a 3-0 lead at half time courtesy some horrendous defending last weekend. Fellow relegation rivals West Ham capitalized on a shaky back four to grab a point. The result leaves Westbrom tied on points with Wigan for the last relegation spot, ahead only on goal difference. Wolverhampton Wanderers, who are at present bottom of the league, will arrive at the Hawthorns on the back of a 0-2 defeat in the hands of Arsenal.

All was well for The Baggies till dizzy heights took its toll. Poor defending coupled with injury to key players since December and a few refereeing errors which went the other way contributed to the slide and the subsequent sacking of Roberto Di Matteo.

However, one must take note of the relative success enjoyed by the two clubs in the past few years. Financial prudence has been the major reason for so. Both clubs have made wise purchases in the transfer markets, which is evident from the number of players acquired on free transfers or transfers made at miniscule amounts when compared to the bloated fees paid by the more ‘fashionable’ clubs. Youth and experience at bargain deals would be the right way to put things. A leaf to be taken out of their accounting books, for big spending clubs running up astronomical debts, which is rather a norm than an exception in today’s over commercialized football world.

The game having been rescheduled following bad weather in December when it was originally scheduled to be held, has already been dubbed as relegation six pointer.

Roy Hodgson and his adversary Mick McCarthy have their share of dilemmas with respect to squad selection.

The Baggies are likely to miss their talismanic playmaker Yussouf Mulumbu who suffered a hamstring injury last weekend whereas Wolves midfielder Stephen Hunt is still sidelined with a calf injury.

The derby takes mutual dislike in the Midlands to a different level. With a well noted history of crowd trouble, anything similar is unlikely to be ruled out. Though hooliganism in football has been practically rooted out, authorities at the Hawthorns will not be taking any chances. Managers and players at their respective clubs have issued statements requesting fans for a trouble free game, especially after a section of the Birmingham and Villa fans clashed during a Carling Cup quarter-final game last year.

Baggies legend Cyrille Regis, who has also donned the black and gold strip, has a different view regarding derbies. In an interactive session with BBC West Midlands Fans Forum, Regis expresses his disappointment of how indifferent today’s footballers are to modern day derbies.

“You don’t get players staying at football clubs for eight to 10 years these days and they’re not as close to the fans as we used to be,” he said.

“We used to drink with them and we understood how the fans felt but because of the way football is now you don’t get close and you don’t really get the energy and the passion the fans feel.”

Either set of fans eagerly await Sunday noon, for the much anticipated inaugural Black Country Derby in Premier league history. The entertaining aspect of derbies is that, no team is a clear favorite based on past performances. With hard tackles and momentary flare ups to be expected, topped with local banter flying around, the Hawthorns is sure to be packed with an engrossed set of fans. No matter what the result is, each fan of either team will insidiously wish that there will be many more such top-flight encounters to follow.

Paul Merson predicts Man City vs Liverpool and other Premier League GW 29 fixtures! Click here

Edited by Staff Editor
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