Aston Villa vs Birmingham City: How the second city’s nasty neighbours became almost inseparable

It has been an eventful few months at both clubs ahead of Sunday's derby, where growing fan optimism centred around on-field events is juxtaposed with storm clouds of uncertainty surrounding finance off it

Brendan McLoughlin
Thursday 22 November 2018 14:14
Aston Villa v Birmingham: Gary Monk previews his first ever second city derby

These are curious times in the second city.

Seventeen matches and 1,530 minutes into this Championship season, all that separates Aston Villa and Birmingham City, 11th and 12th respectively, is one goal.

Yet those unremarkable positions fail to portray what has been an eventful few months at both clubs where growing fan optimism centred around on-field events is juxtaposed with storm clouds of uncertainty surrounding finance off it.

The improving Villa, now with Brummie native and boyhood fan Dean Smith at the helm, delivered a statement result – well, as much as that is possible in this ever-fluctuating division – in their 3-0 dismantling of Derby County at Pride Park a fortnight ago.

That is now three wins – and clean sheets – from Smith’s first five matches in charge and slowly but surely the easy-on-the-eye playing style which became his hallmark at Brentford is starting to appear.

Birmingham, meanwhile, have lost just once in their last 13 matches and in the Championship’s October player of the month Lukas Jutkiewicz – with eight goals in his last eight matches – and Che Adams (five in his last five), there is surely no strike pairing in better form.

Lukas Jutkiewicz has been in impressive form this season

After arriving in March to become their fifth permanent manager in a mere matter of 15 months, Garry Monk steered them to final-day survival – the second successive season they had to go through the nerve-shredder – and now all the signs point towards them having turned the corner.

Why? Monk has certainly restored a bond between club and supporters – one he recently bumped into at a petrol station even offered to buy his fuel – after making a concerted effort to become embedded within the community. He arranges monthly away days with his players to increase team morale – the last being clay pigeon shooting.

One of his players, Gary Gardner – currently on loan from Villa – cites Monk being a key factor in his loan move across the divide this year.

Garry Monk with former Blues striker Geoff Horsfield at a community event

“It was an easy decision – Birmingham’s a big club in its own right,” Gardner, speaking on a visit to a Birmingham City Community Trust Soccer Camp, says. “Garry’s a great manager to play under. He’s been a breath of fresh air.

“I’d heard a lot of good things before I came in and since I’ve arrived he’s really helped me with my game.

“I feel at home. Having my brother already at the club has helped me massively. If you are given the chance to potentially play alongside your brother that is something you’re going to want to take.

“The fanbase at Birmingham is brilliant and it’s a proud moment for my family [some of whom are Blues fans] for me to play for Birmingham City. So, it was a no-brainer.”

John Terry gets confrontational during last season's derby at Villa Park

Primarily, though, Monk has restored City’s identity – something Smith too is striving to do after no clear pattern of play under Steve Bruce – and while it may not be as aesthetically pleasing as that of his opposite number, it has certainly been effective.

Blues are long used to playing the part of underdog – it is one they have long relished and thrived upon as that famous League Cup victory over Arsenal testifies – and Monk has built a physical, uncompromising side with an unbending will. Sunday’s game could be made for them.

The word 'built' should be used loosely as what makes Monk’s start all the more remarkable is the backdrop he is working against, after the club was hit with severe restrictions by the EFL over player recruitment over breaching rules on losses and are due to face a disciplinary commission for breaking profitability and sustainability regulations. A potential points deduction of up to 15 points has been mooted.

Gary Gardner at the Birmingham City Community Trust Soccer Camp

Villa, meanwhile, have had financial headaches of their own. The true extent of play-off final failure against Fulham was laid bare when it was claimed they would need to make up a £40m shortfall to avoid breaching FFP at the end of the 2018/19 campaign.

Deadlines to pay HMRC were missed with then-owner Dr Tony Xia warning of “severe Financial Fair Play” challenges.

A firesale loomed, yet significant investment arrived in July courtesy of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens – believed to now be the third-richest owners in English football – and they immediately flexed their financial muscles by blocking any sale of crown jewel Jack Grealish on the cheap as well as sanctioning loan deals for high earners like Tammy Abraham and Yannick Bolasie.

With Villa in their final year of Premier League parachute payments, the need for promotion appears increasingly acute and, while chief executive Christian Purslow has gone on the record as being “highly respectful” of FFP rules, lingering question marks remain.

Just four points off the top six and in a division more open than that which was dominated by Wolves last season, a promotion bid remains legitimate, and a taxing run of fixtures which follow (Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, West Brom, Stoke and Leeds follow after the derby game) could go some way to shaping their aspirations.

First, however, is the small matter of local bragging rights.

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