Decline and fall of Midlands from football heartland to Premiership's poor relations

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The Independent Football

If, as Shaw expects, either Birmingham City or West Bromwich Albion are relegated, the region will have just two Premiership clubs unless Wolverhampton Wanderers win promotion. The contrast with Villa's triumphant campaign of 1980-81 is stark. They were joined in the top division by Albion, Birmingham, Nottingham Forest, Coventry, Stoke, Wolves and Leicester. (Chelsea, for the record, would finish 12th in the old Second Division, ahead of Cambridge on goal difference).

The concentration of Midlands clubs meant a derby every three games. "For most of those teams, Villa were the club to beat, so the matches had extra bite and we had to work that bit harder," Shaw recalls. "Albion, for instance, were very strong under Ron Atkinson, and finished fourth. Our main title rivals were Ipswich. They had no comparable fixtures.

"Some critics said Ipswich would have finished top but for being distracted by their Uefa Cup run, but we won 26 of our 42 games, which was more than anyone else. With three points per win we would have won it by more than the four-point margin we had by the end."

Shaw, who had grown up a Villa fan, was 19 when he started out in August as understudy for the injured Brian Little. The manager, Ron Saunders, used only 14 players in the First Division matches, seven of whom were ever-present. Shaw was one of four products of the club's youth system among the senior squad. He was pure gold in claret and blue, ending the season with 19 goals and winning "every young-player-of-the year award going - the Midlands Soccer Writers, Professional Footballers' Association, Robinson's Barley Water, you name it!"

A year later, Villa added the European Cup to their first title in 71 years. Victory over Bayern Munich in Rotterdam - achieved under the chairmanship of Ron Bendall during a brief, illustrious hiatus in the control of the club by Doug Ellis that soon resumed and continues today - proved the end of an era rather than the start of something.

"The team got broken up too quickly," says Shaw. "We never went on to become a force over a five- or 10-year period as we could and should have done."

Still a regular at Villa Park through his work in the media, Shaw views his old club and the state of the game in the Midlands, with a sense of resignation. "It's a sad indictment of football locally that Villa seem to think that winning the derbies and finishing in a respectable position is enough. They have the potential to do much more, but I can't see them competing with the top four or five without major investment.

"I don't think we'll ever again see the region have the kind of representation it had a quarter of a century ago. Certainly not in my lifetime. The clubs here have been left behind because of mismanagement of finances and the failure to develop young players."

Next season, laments Shaw, the likelihood is of only one rival for David O'Leary's side. "Birmingham and Albion are running out of games. I don't hold with the idea that whoever wins at St Andrew's will stay up. There are nine more games - 27 points each to go for - though the result could have a psychological bearing on both during the run-in.

"Albion got out of trouble brilliantly last year, but it's a question of which team holds their nerve better and who can grind out a surprise 1-0 win here or there against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. That's what it will come down to. I have a feeling that Birmingham may just have the stronger squad and the better goalscorers."