Bloody Bluenose awaits McLeish as rivals unite
Swapping clubs in the Second City is a career choice fraught with animosity
Sunday 19 June 2011
Before his new post was even confirmed, Alex McLeish achieved something few observers of the Second City football scene would have believed possible by uniting Aston Villa and Birmingham City fans. Both, it seemed, despised the former Rangers and Scotland manager.
The shared antipathy is based almost entirely on the mutual loathing between the clubs' followers rather than on McLeish's abilities, personality or record (a mixed bag which includes two relegations from the Premier League as well as winning the Carling Cup). The hardliners who gathered at Villa Park to protest against his imminent arrival were adamant they did not want a "Blues reject". The Birmingham message boards seethed with a sense of betrayal that, of all the clubs in all the world, their manager had to defect to Villa.
One imagined Randy Lerner, Villa's American owner, studying the online footage of claret-and-blue demonstrators and being perplexed by the terminology. "We don't want a 'Nose here," one said – Lerner may be unaware of the term "Bluenoses". Another called the club McLeish left "Small Heath", the name they relinquished a mere 106 years ago.
The history of hostility stretches from last season's games – marred by fighting outside the stadiums and flares being hurled after the Carling Cup quarter-final – all the way back to the first derby in 1879. The victory gained by Birmingham's forerunners, Small Heath Alliance, was officially recorded as "one goal, and a disputed goal, to nil".
The rivalry has always been based on local tribalism rather than religion, politics or any festering historical grievance, unless the latter category includes the perception, passed down through generations of Blues fans, of themselves as the city's poor relations. According to this mindset, Birmingham have been denied their rightful place in the top echelons of the English game and the affections of the Midlands public by the supposedly arrogant Villa.
The counter-argument is that Villa have much to be boastful about, having garnered plenty of serious silverware down the decades, including a European Cup in 1982. By comparison, Birmingham's two League Cups in 136 years look pretty feeble, and it was in keeping with their capacity to snatch trauma from the jaws of triumph that they contrived to get relegated barely two months after at last updating their collection.
Villa's success has attracted a broader, more middle-class fan-base from the surrounding counties. Birmingham's heartland is the south of the city, which has been badly hit by the loss of blue-collar jobs. This is often cited in mitigation of their lower attendances, though a 16-year absence from the top flight had already led to a weakening of partisanship.
The fans tend to portray their Villa counterparts as childish glory-hunters, mocking them with chants of "Vi-lla" inhigh-pitched voices. When Birmingham joined Villa in the Premier League in 2002, the first song from their end at the play-off final was "Shit On The Villa" (to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel"). The slogan "Bluenose Scum Not Welcome" sprayed at Villa's training ground after news broke of Lerner's move for McLeish was accompanied by the initials "SOTC" – "Shit On The City".
The clubs will not meet next season, doubtless to the relief of the police. In 2006, hardcore rival gangs, Villa's C-Crew and Birmingham's Zulus, fought a pre-arranged battle before the derby. The example from the pitch wasn't auspicious, with Villa's Dion Dublin sent off for butting Robbie Savage in the first modern-day meeting at Villa Park. In April last year the Blues captain, Stephen Carr, gestured to the Villa fans after his team lost to a vehemently contested late penalty.
In 1982, when Villa's title-winning manager Ron Saunders resigned and pitched up at Birmingham days later, there was talk of pitch invasions in protest against the board. It receded as his deputy, Tony Barton, steered the side towards the European Cup final.
McLeish's best hope of winning over sceptics ahead of the new season is to make high-profile signings. A swoop on St Andrew's for Ben Foster, as a replacement for Tottenham-bound goalkeeper Brad Friedel, would further antagonise the fans who acclaimed him at Wembley in February.
Ominously for this strong-willed, intelligent Glaswegian – who will not underestimate the intense feelings his switch would stir having been in Scotland when Mo Johnston spurned Celtic for Rangers – he is likely to start the campaign only two consecutive defeats away from a Holte End revolt.
Conversely, a run of wins and the dissenters may savour the feeling of having profited at their neighbours' expense. When one protester ranted in a video interview that "none of us will ever buy a season ticket again", his girlfriend smiled and chipped in: "I will."
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