The last time a Scandinavian centre-back from Aston Villa pronounced on the Second City derby, Olof Mellberg provoked a backlash which both camps felt contributed to Birmingham City's third win in five unbeaten Premiership tussles with their neighbours. No wonder Martin Laursen picks his words carefully as he explains why Villa must show greater aggression at St Andrew's tomorrow.
Mellberg was reported as saying he disliked his club's cross-town rivals and could never play for them. The Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce, claimed the Swede was not good enough for his team anyway and used the comment to fire up his players. Laursen, preparing for his first appearance in the fixture, offers no such hostages to fortune as he and the Birmingham striker Clinton Morrison get together to appeal for a peaceful derby.
Prefacing his remarks with "with all respect to Birmingham", the Dane insists David O'Leary's side are ready to reclaim local bragging rights. "I can't see why we shouldn't beat them," he says. "We've got six points more than them."
Laursen, who transferred from Milan in May but missed the autumn meeting because of injury, is echoing the comments of several Villa players since the clubs were reunited three years ago. Yet Bruce's team have repeatedly had the upper hand, even when lower in the table.
"No one gets time on the ball in these games," says Laursen when pressed to account for the anomaly. "On the day, they've done that better than us. We have to look inside ourselves to see what we've been doing wrong. We must win the tackles and be more aggressive. That will suit me; my game's very physical. We know you can't play 'nice' football against Birmingham, but there's a feeling within the Villa squad that we need to put things right."
Laursen played for Milan against Internazionale, as well as for Verona against Chievo and in parochial affairs like Denmark's game with Sweden at Euro 2004. "Derbies are always special. The atmosphere is fantastic, especially in this country, with all the singing and noise. It's a pleasure to play."
However, Villa have handled the pressure less well than Birmingham. In 2002, Peter Enckelman let the ball bobble under his foot for an embarrassing goal. In the return, they finished with nine men. "It's important not to get too nervous or excited," Laursen says. "Some people lose their heads and get red cards. If you strike a balance between passion and concentration, you have a better chance of winning."
Morrison, an ever-present in the modern derby and scorer in two of the games, confesses that he expects Birmingham to miss Robbie Savage, who is now with Blackburn Rovers. "One reason we've done well against Villa is that we've had people like Sav who can get the team going in the dressing-room."
The Republic of Ireland attacker, who will probably start on the bench as Bruce pits Emile Heskey and Walter Pandiani against Mellberg and Laursen, adds: "In the back of your mind you always think Villa are going to beat us eventually, but this game could be the making of us. It's an ideal time to play them, off the back of two defeats when we didn't turn up. I know how big this match is for people, which makes you more determined to put on a show."
Laursen and Morrison present a picture of mutual respect as they pose for the cameras at The Belfry. "The players have to be responsible," says the Villa man. "If we behave stupidly, it could spread to the fans and they'll do bad things. If we set a good example, then it will be just a normal match."
He may want to reassess his notion of normality after sampling St Andrew's. The Milan derby is a home game for both clubs, even though the "away" team have fewer fans inside San Siro. Birmingham's ground is very much "Blues" territory, brimming with partisanship and resentment over Villa's perceived arrogance. As such it represents a challenge for players that O'Leary has branded "too nice".
Laursen appears tailor-made for that description. Polite and friendly, he speaks Italian and German as well as English and his native tongue, while his Italian girlfriend, Marianna, studies stage-direction at a university in London.
"As a player you have to give your all in a game, and then you can be a nice guy afterwards," he argues. "In England it's not enough just to be a good player. You have to be able to handle the physical side. I think the manager is trying to stimulate us with his words. We have to show him we're not too nice."
* Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, is to make £4m available to David O'Leary this summer and hopes his manager will use it to sign up to three players.Reuse content