The Second City derby has proved a nerve-shredding experience for goalkeepers, with the worst gaffes perpetrated on the Aston Villa side. Ben Foster is keen for it to stay that way when he guards Birmingham City's net today – especially with England team-mate and former Watford colleague Ashley Young threatening his hopes of a fumble-free 90 minutes.
Peter Enckelman and Thomas Sorensen have both gifted goals to Birmingham since hostilities with Villa were renewed in 2002. Foster, a £6m summer signing from Manchester United, realises the banter he enjoyed with Young while on loan at Vicarage Road will be replaced by hard-nosed professionalism whenever the attacker stands over a set-piece at Villa Park.
"Ashley always wanted to stay behind after training at Watford to practise penalties and free-kicks against me, but he'd never score," the 27-year-old Midlander said. "He used to set up mannequins on the edge of the penalty area and try to curl the ball round them. He fancies he has a good free-kick in him, but I can tell you I'll be devastated if he puts one past me!"
Foster's predecessor between Birmingham's posts, his golf partner and England rival Joe Hart, faced such a moment in the April derby. James Milner stepped up to score from the spot after a contentious decision late in a game dominated by Birmingham. Villa's 1-0 win ensured Martin O'Neill left with a 100 per cent record from six matches, but with his successor Gérard Houllier's options limited by injuries and suspension, Bluenoses scent a reversal in fortunes.
"Fans keep telling me to make sure we 'stick it up the Villa'," Foster said. "It's probably our biggest game of the season from their point of view. Because I've come from the outside I didn't know how intense the rivalry was. It's all you hear about. You don't want to let these fans down at the best of times, so especially not now."
Enckelman's career never really recovered from the night he let the ball roll under his foot for a Birmingham goal. He did not get a touch to a Villa throw-in, so a corner should have been awarded. However, his dismayed reaction persuaded the referee that there was contact and highlighted the pressure players are under in derbies. "I remember the Enckelman mistake," Foster reflected, "and this is definitely a game when you do not want to cock up."
His own decision-making was criticised after United's 4-3 defeat of City in last season's first Manchester derby. Having learned his trade with Racing Club Warwick before being spotted by Stoke, sold on to Old Trafford and sent to Watford to gain experience, he is now thriving on being undisputed first choice at St Andrew's.
"I love it here. I feel needed and relied on. The last few years at United weren't so great for me because I was in and out of the team, but this is a great club. We didn't have the best start, and people were saying it was all doom and gloom. But we weren't worried about our form. Now we're going into this game on the back of a win over Blackpool last week."
Villa's topsy-turvy form, and the sense that the Birmingham manager Alex McLeish all but narrowed the gap between the sides last season, will encourage the visitors' optimism. "They've had an up-and-down season. I don't think you know what you are going to get from Villa at the moment," Foster said. "A change of manager is always a shock to the team, especially as Martin O'Neill left so close to the start of the season.
"The new man will have his own ideas and they take a while to get used to. We'll just have to hope we catch them on one of the bad days."
Recent history of hostility
2002-03 Blues 3 Villa 0; Villa 0 Blues 2
The first League clash in 16 years will forever be "the Peter Enckelman match". With Villa 1-0 down, the keeper took his eye off Olof Mellberg's throw-in and the ball trickled under his foot into the net. Red cards in the return for Joey Gudjonsson and Dion Dublin (for butting Robbie Savage) as Birmingham won again.
2003-04 Blues 0 Villa 0; Villa 2 Blues 2
After a stalemate in the first fixture, the 100th League derby produced fluctuating fortunes at Villa Park. Darius Vassell and Thomas Hitzlsperger scored to reward an hour of flowing football and myriad chances by Villa. Mikael Forssell halved the arrears, and with just 20 seconds of stoppage time left, Stern John equalised.
2004-05 Villa 1 Blues 2; Blues 2 Villa 0
The curse of the Villa keeper strikes again. Thomas Sorensen let Clinton Morrison's shot through his fingers and David Dunn doubled the lead before Gareth Barry replied. At St Andrew's, Emile Heskey, now of Villa, profited from another Sorensen error, then Julian Gray sealed Birmingham's second double in three years.
2005-06 Blues 0 Villa 1; Villa 3 Blues 1
An early strike by Kevin Phillips, who is in Birmingham's squad today, ensured Villa's first top-flight derby win since 1983. Manager David O'Leary angered the crowd by going on to the pitch to hail chairman Doug Ellis. The rematch stood at 1-1 until a second-half bicycle kick by rookie Gary Cahill swung it Villa's way.
2007-08 Blues 1 Villa 2; Villa 5 Blues 1
Steve Bruce's last derby was Martin O'Neill's first. Villa led with an own goal by Liam Ridgewell, who they had sold to Birmingham, and won with a late header by Brummie Gabby Agbonlahor. Claret-and-blue rule continued in Alex McLeish's first derby in charge with a rout led by two goals each for Ashley Young and John Carew.
2009-10 Blues 0 Villa 1; Villa 1 Blues 0
O'Neill wondered how "enjoyable" it was but Agbonlahor wasn't complaining after another late headed winner. Birmingham dominated at Villa only for the referee to rule that Roger Johnson had fouled Agbonlahor late on. James Milner's penalty beat Joe Hart to make it six wins out of six.
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