My first taste of an Albion Villa derby came 21 years ago, 1998, in the FA Cup. Managed by Denis Smith, it was a very different time to be an Albion fan compared to what it’s like now. After starting the 97/98 season quite brightly under Ray Harford, the season would eventually peter out after he left to join QPR and Smith could only manage to get to 10th in the league.
I remember when the FA Cup draw was made and we were drawn against Villa my Dad, far more than me, was massively excited. This was the rivalry of his childhood. For my generation we had grown up to despise Wolves, but for my Dad it was all about Villa. This was the first time we’d faced them in 8 years. You could tell that this meant something else.
The day came. I remember that I was kitted out in an Albion tracksuit (the kind of thing an 11 year old can get away with but now, as a 32 year old…not a chance), Dad had his Albion shirt on. Our team had the likes of Alan Miller in goal, Lee Hughes and Andy Hunt up front, Kevin Kilbane and Richard Sneekes in midfield…Shaun Murphy and Shane Nicholson in defence…and we were up against a strong Villa that had Dwight Yorke, Stan Collymore, Gareth Southgate and Ian Taylor in. My Dad and I knew it would be tough to get a result but you’ve always got hope and…
4-0. We were destroyed. Simon Grayson opened the scoring early, Yorke scored two in quick succession and then Collymore (obviously him…it had to be him…) finished it off. A day to forget. We hoped, maybe one day, we could get out revenge. At the time, the play offs were in our sights but it didn’t happen and we wouldn’t see Villa again for a few years.
At that time we used to go to the Midland Red Social Club in Quinton every Saturday (I don’t think it exists anymore). It was populated by Birmingham and Villa fans, few Albion in there and perhaps some silent Wolves. I went still in my Albion tracksuit. I remember my Dad saying to me during the night that he was proud that I was still wearing the colours even though we’d been thrashed to which I replied something along the lines of “well, they need the support more than ever now and I’m still proud to be an Albion fan”.
A full 21 years later and that stance has always remained, albeit tested on several occasions. The tracksuits don’t exist anymore for me, even the shirts have become more “laze around the house” attire, but the love for the club has always been able to fight through and remain, even at the times when I’ve really felt like giving it up.
Since 1998, times at the Albion have changed dramatically. In 98, the thought of sneaking in to the play offs and getting promoted was like a pipe dream. Unimaginable, almost. But we finally got there, and for some time we actually established ourselves as a decent, if unspectacular, Premier League team. A succession of years of bad management, from top to bottom, has seen the club drop back down in to the Championship and now facing the play offs, with Villa being our semi final opponents.
When I think back to how I felt as an 11 year old thinking about Albion, and compare it to now, the difference is huge. I fell out with the club, and refused to go to the Hawthorns at all, during the Tony Pulis years. For me football had always been about the enjoyment, more than anything else really, and I felt we sacrificed that in hiring Pulis just hoping that he’d be able to keep us just afloat in the Premier League. Even thinking to that 1998 team, when we were far from great, we had players that made it entertaining – Hughes, Sneekes, Kilbane, Hunt all had the ability to make you leave a game and feel like you’d witnessed something good. Under Pulis, we had better players, but played a style that nullified them (for an example, look at Rondon at Newcastle and compare to the Rondon that played for Pulis) and just made it so boring.
After Pulis and the shambles that was Alan Pardew, the club went back to one of their icons, Darren Moore. In the space of a year, my connection with the club had grown back. Moore made the club feel like it’s old self again, brought that connection with the fans back and made me care again. Ultimately it never worked out for Moore and he was dismissed. It was a sacking that pained me more than any other, even though I felt it was the right call. I wanted Moore to succeed. I wanted him to be the one to take us up and move the club forward. I wanted him to help turn me back in to that 11 year old kid, excited about the Albion even when we lost. I had missed that feeling…Moore got it back.
Then the frustration. More mismanagement. The sacking of Moore did make sense results wise, but the sacking of Moore with no succession plan was, and is, beyond naive. It’s foolish, and it puts the club in limbo. It also alters the way in which the club can be perceived – compared to the other three teams in the play offs this year, we stand out as a team that doesn’t seem to have a plan. If we go up, James Shan will have an undeniably brilliant record of results as caretaker – is it really that unlikely that the club could decide to do the same with Shan as they did with Moore and promote him? Likewise, if we fail, is it really that unlikely that the club could decide to stick with Shan because it’d be a far cheaper alternative than looking elsewhere and “he knows the club”? This isn’t meant as a dig at Shan, but it is laughable, really, that a club potentially 3 games away from promotion doesn’t know who their manager is for after those 3 games. It’s even worse when you’re already thinking the club will probably get it wrong when they make a final decision, too.
And this is the biggest frustration with Albion. We had a chance to really reset this year, but have failed to do so. Although it’s been more exciting this season, performance has been poor most of the time and we’ve been reliant on a great strike force. It pains me to think that several of the issues we face as a club come from planning…and you can look over the years, back to Steve Clarke’s last Summer in charge, perhaps even further, and see that it is planning that hurts us most. This season we’ve struggled defensively…but in Craig Dawson (a player I’ve generally always liked) we have a defender that doesn’t want to be at the club and promotion, essentially, hinders his chances of a move away – we should have sold him last Summer – and then you look at, say, the decision to loan out Allan Nyom but have no plan to replace with another right back. Poor decisions. In hindsight, the last Premier League season, paying the ridiculous wages for Krychowiak and Sturbridge, Chadli and so on, have bitten us. If we don’t go up this year the potential for implosion next year is massive because we will absolutely have to sell to make amends, but we won’t get the money we may have got the year prior for the likes of Dawson and Rodriguez, for example.
But then comes the thing with football, and the Albion. Despite the poor planning, despite the frustration, despite the poor defending and performances, we finished fourth and are now two games away from Wembley, three games away from the Premier League. My heart says we can do it. My head says we need to do it but I don’t think we’re consistent enough. But this is football, and the heart will always override.
In a week that saw the impossible completed by Liverpool and Tottenham, it gives all fans hope. The unlikeliest of results are always possible. We go to Villa Park on Saturday as the unfancied team, in my opinion. Villa have ended the season in brilliant form. They have some of the best players in the league. They are a good team. But so are we. There has to be belief.
For all the frustration, the anger…the Albion are my club, and I have to believe things will go well. Although I have supported Albion long enough to know that, if we can, we will find a way to mess it up. We call it “doing an Albion” in our house.
21 years ago, my Dad was excited because we had Villa in the cup. Now, we have them in the play offs. I’m excited, I’m nervous and I’m absolutely dreading it. We’ve made up for that 4-0 drubbing in 1998 on a fair few occasions in recent years but none would make up for it more than beating them over two legs now. A few good results will make me forget all the frustrations…even if only for a few weeks…and it will mean everything.
The nail biting has already started. The anxiousness has kicked in. But deep down I can’t wait.
Now, I just wait and I hope. Hope that we do it. And, most of all, hope that we don’t “do an Albion”.