I’ve recently become Twitter buddies … with a Brummie girl. Turns out she’s alright for a Birmingham supporter (it’s like a 21st century Romeo and Juliet – for the digital age). I’ve been following her blog and despite her gender and allegiances, she’s a surprisingly decent writer! Anyway, she asked me to write as a guest for her site on my favourite recent derby match; and with another 3 points in the bag last night, I turned my attention to the small matter of Aston Villa v Birmingham on Sunday, and some of the heated clashes through the years – below is my entry which will posted on her Brummie blog today.
When asked to write a guest blog on my favourite recent derby match, I automatically began scanning the archives of my brain for all the classic Villa-West Brom encounters. It is well documented that The Albion pose the biggest threat to Villa’s Black Country dominance so when I realised I had to discuss a Villa-Birmingham clash, I had to scratch my head and think long and hard to recall such an irrelevant fixture in the Aston Villa calendar.
Aston Villa 3 – 1 Birmingham City
David O’Leary’s 3rd year in charge of Aston Villa was somewhat of an apathetic affair. Having had a gallant fight for Europe come up agonisingly short in his first season in charge, the Irish man ultimately contributed to the eventual downfall of the biggest club in the Midlands (that’s Villa by the way!). After scraping a miserly two more points than the Blues the previous season, a humiliating 4-0 drubbing at Upton Park in just the 5th game of the new campaign set the tone for DOL’s final spell – as the Villains stumbled out of the blocks with just 9 points from their opening 12 games.
Fast forward to the 5th last match and the two Birmingham clubs were still rubbing shoulders; but this time, found themselves in the heat of a very real relegation battle.
Derby-day Sunday somehow never fails to produce a high, glorious sunshine; but with the Brummies lingering above relegation, desperately hanging on to our flailing coattails, an away victory at Villa Park would promise nothing more than eternal darkness over the plains of Bodymoor Heath (at least for a year anyway).
With an abysmal attendance record all year at Villa Park, over 40’000 people (for just the second time) made their way to Trinity Road to witness the home side secure all 6 possible points in the second city derby. But I was less optimistic.
With the team sheets in front of me (and a disastrous season behind), I had this sinking feeling of defeat prior to kick off (similar to what Blue-noses must feel every Saturday). I looked at the partnership of Nicky Butt and our transfer target David Dunn and dabbled on the idea of having them instead of McCann and Davis. I then feared for the ridiculously inexperienced centre back pairing of Liam Ridgewell and previous week debutant, Gary Cahill coming up against the international standard Heskey and Sutton and I concluded that we were in trouble; big trouble.
Birmingham had put together an admirable revival and had lifted themselves out of the bottom three. I was frightened of this game. But then again, O’Leary had majestically guided Villa on a fantastic FA Cup journey, only to be dumped out in the 5th round. And lest we forget that we had won 4 of our 15 home games prior to that derby… and I was worrying there for a second!
The lunchtime kick off started frantically (and I don’t recall it ever slowing up). It was honest, end to end action, with the atmosphere spurring the players to take a giant step up from rest of the season’s performances. I remember analyzing the game and thinking that Villa were having endless joy down the right wing, with loanee Milner and Aaron Hughes in devastating form. And in the 10th minute, that right side attacking paid early dividends with a squared ball slotted to the net by the erratic Milan Baros. It was more a rush of relief than delight as we looked to be steering clear of the red.
But then, once we went a goal to the good, we were already looking for the final whistle. And although the pace of the game didn’t drop, our defensive line certainly did and we were pinned in our half, stalled in the headlights of one way, oncoming traffic.
And despite conceding an early equaliser at the hands of soon-to-be Villa forward, Chris Sutton, we struggled to get ourselves back in contention and I was certainly one fan who was happy to see half time.
Fortunately, Villa came back out punching in the second half in what promised to be yet another electrifying 45 minutes. Young Cahill had already proved he could do a solid job for the team at the back but what he was about to do 10 minutes into the new half will forever be remembered in Aston Villa folklore. An inswinging corner was poorly cleared and the new-boy turned his back to goal before lifting his hole body parallel with the ground, 6ft in the air, to spectacularly bring the ball back towards goal with an acrobatic scissor kick that he couldn’t execute if he tried 99 more times. Villa Park was bouncing.
For the next 20 minutes, we retreated once more. I don’t think the crowd cared because of the scenes that had preceded; but within this quarter of the game, Birmingham were banging down the Villa defensive wall. However, rather fittingly, now at the foundation of this barricade was 20 year old Gary Cahill who looked like he had been playing Premier League football for 10 years (not 2 appearances). The Brum attack huffed and puffed but Cahill was there time and time again to ensure the Villa back line showed nothing but relentless contempt to their rivals’ attempts to take points in front of the Doug Ellis Stand. And with 13 minutes remaining, a Milner-Baros breakaway ensured the Villains would stride home to victory in a cracking derby clash. More importantly though, the 3 points gained would take us clear of the drop zone, secure a 100% record over our rivals and condemn the Brum-scum to eventual relegation.
They say that you can’t write this stuff. Archrivals, local enemies competing in a fight to stay up, a fight to survive. A 20 year old central defender making his second ever start, standing tall and suffocating his adversary’s assaults; scoring not just his first ever goal, but the goal which crucially broke the deadlock, the goal of his career, the best finish I’ve ever seen at Villa Park; and scoring the goal which ultimately secured Aston Villa Premier League status, and the goal which condemned the blue half of Birmingham to deplorable demotion. They say that you can’t write this stuff, but I disagree. This stuff is too easy to write, it is the stuff of fairytale. The difference is, when I read a fairytale, I don’t believe it.