It was in Birmingham, in 1887, that William McGregor, a director of Aston Villa, originally conceived of a football league, with regular home-and-away fixtures. The competition began the following year and for all but six of the subsequent seasons England’s biggest regional city has been represented at the top table.
Next season, however, despite Aston Villa’s corpse twitching into life under Rémi Garde, Second City is likely to mean second class in the national game. Birmingham City could uphold the place’s status, as they have done for half the dozen seasons Villa have previously been out of the top flight, but despite making progress under Gary Rowett the odds are against them. In all probability the largest local authority in Europe, with a population exceeding a million, will not have an elite football club.
This is not to forget West Bromwich Albion, who host Villa today in the latest edition of a league derby first played 127 years ago this week (Villa won 2-0). The Hawthorns has a Birmingham postcode, lies within the motorways that encircle the city, and part of one stand is said to straddle the municipal border, but the ground is in Sandwell and Albion draw the bulk of their support from the Black Country rather than the city.
There were once three leading clubs in Birmingham: Aston Villa, Small Heath and Birmingham St George’s. The latter reached the FA Cup quarter-finals in 1889, losing narrowly to the Double-winning Invincibles of Preston North End, and were two votes short of replacing Notts County in the Football League at the end of its inaugural season. So near, but so far. St George’s were soon eclipsed by Small Heath who joined the league in 1892, became Birmingham in 1905, and appended “City” in 1943.
A smart marketing move, perhaps, but Villa have usually been the bigger club and always been a grand one. No one visiting Villa Park could fail to be impressed by its majesty, especially the exterior with the Trinity Road Stand exuding history. But, as the photographs adorning the interior reveal, Villa’s heyday was shot in sepia. Six of seven titles, and five of seven FA Cups, were won before the First World War.
Birmingham was a proud, powerful city then, reformed under Joe Chamberlain (both clubs were founded while he was mayor) and prospering. The city flourished well into the 1960s and, though Villa marked time, the Blues rode the post-Second World War economic success of “motor city”. In 1956 they achieved their highest league place (sixth) and reached the FA Cup final. This was followed by playing in two European finals and winning the new Football League Cup.
Villa regained their superiority, lifting the title in 1981 and enjoying Continental glory a year later when Peter Withe’s goal won the European Cup. That, though, was an outlier. Five seasons later Villa were relegated. They quickly returned and there have been good times since, but Villa have never qualified for the Champions League and the last of their five League Cups was 20 years ago. The club were in the FA Cup final as recently as May, but that now seems a freakish event – they were brushed aside by Arsenal and the man who steered them there, Tim Sherwood, was fired within six months.
Birmingham City, meanwhile, dropped into the third tier before being stabilised by David and Ralph Gold and David Sullivan. But they sold up seven years ago to Carson Yeung, who was subsequently jailed, in his native Hong Kong, for money-laundering. The club has since been in embroiled in ownership wrangles and prior to Rowett’s arrival in October 2014 was heading back down. Nor have Albion, across the border, been much better, yo-yoing between the divisions, potless since 1968.
The clubs’ struggles reflect those of the region. The decline of the motor industry hit the West Midlands hard. Birmingham’s unemployment is more than twice the United Kingdom average and much worse than in other regional cities. Reflecting this economic climate, both clubs have kept admission charges (starting at £23 at Villa, £15 at Birmingham) towards the lower end of their respective divisions’ pricing.
In politics, as in football, failure forces change. The city council was castigated in the Kerslake Report 13 months ago for lavishing money on showpiece projects while failing at basic services such as rubbish collection. That led to new leadership. John Clancy, a Stockport fan by birth, Villa by adoption after 25 years in the city, is the council’s Garde with a brief to resist Manchester’s rise rather better than the city’s football clubs have done.
Clancy is acutely aware of the importance to the city of a successful football club or two. He told The Independent: “They bring tourists to the city, they are big employers, they promote the city internationally.”
Chinese investors, he said, were particularly aware of the connection. Co-incidentally, Trillion Trophies Asia, who are engaged in prolonged takeover negotiations for Birmingham City FC, are China-based.
Clancy wants to provide free school meals throughout the city and has named Villa as one of the agencies who could help fund the private-public initiative. Were they to go down that would, he conceded, be more problematic but he had “not given up yet” and believed Villa would survive.
It will be tough. Villa have taken four points from the last two games but remain 10 points from safety. “This is a crisis,” said the new chairman, Steve Hollis, yesterday. Birmingham’s chances of replacing them dipped when they had to sell Demarai Gray to Leicester City for a cut-price £3.7m.
McGregor’s Football League was formed entirely from the Midlands and north but football’s economic power, like the country’s, has long been moving south. This is unhealthy, for the nation and its national game. Manchester is resisting with the success of United, and latterly City, playing a part. A Second City revival would be just as welcome, but for now it seems the council cannot expect its football institutions to lead the way.Reuse content