Blogs & Opinion


Most Popular Posts:

Johnny Phillips on why clubs from the West Midlands are struggling for success

Blogs - Johnny Phillips Posted 11th March 2013 view comments

"The problem round here," said a former distinguished employee of West Bromwich Albion, "is that there is nothing to aspire to."

It was an off-the-cuff remark made to me a decade ago but it has stuck in my mind ever since.

We were having a conversation about the relative lack of success, in football terms, in that particular part of the West Midlands: Birmingham and the Black Country. It is a conversation that is just as relevant today.

Villa: Have endured a tough season in the Premier League

Villa: Have endured a tough season in the Premier League

Why has such a densely populated area, which includes the second largest city in England, full of teams with substantial heritage and supporter-base, had so little to shout about for the last 30 years?

Local rivalries spur sides on, although they can also be an unhealthy obsession if the competition isn't good enough. Sir Alex Ferguson had the incentive and made it his raison d'etre to knock a great Liverpool team off their perch when he took the reins at Old Trafford. And with Everton also winning at home and abroad, there was plenty of competition in the North-West back then.

Why has such a densely populated area, which includes the second largest city in England, full of teams with substantial heritage and supporter-base, had so little to shout about for the last 30 years?

Johnny Phillips
Quotes of the week

By the time he did win his first title there was a new local threat. Blackburn Rovers scuppered Fergie's hopes of three in a row, winning the title in 1995. And now, of course, it's the noisy neighbours at Manchester City who are banging their drum on his doorstep.

By contrast Arsenal, flying the flag for London alone, made the running under George Graham as the Eighties turned into the Nineties. Arsene Wenger subsequently led them into the new century. It was some years before Chelsea challenged their capital status. Today, Spurs have ensured three teams in the city will be competing for Champions League places this year.

Given its size, there is no excuse for London not being represented at the very top, but pipping their rivals gives each club that added incentive.


And it should be the same in the West Midlands. Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolves are four big clubs, all blanketed over a 13 mile conurbation.

When winning games they can each boast attendances to sustain them at Premier League level. Three are founder members of the Football League and all, bar Birmingham, have won the league championship.Wolves and Villa can add a sackful of FA Cups between them to those title hauls. Yet since Aston Villa's European Cup win in 1982, the intervening three decades have produced just three major honours - all of them League Cups. Villa won two, in 1994 and 1996, and Birmingham won the other in 2011. That is not a very good return.

This season is possibly the worst in a generation for the area. Albion can be well satisfied if they achieve a top-half finish, but it won't be the local rivalry that's spurred them on. Aston Villa are looking a decent bet to be relegated.

A division lower, Birmingham City have spent most of the season keeping an eye over their shoulder at the relegation places as a hoped-for promotion push never materialised. But it was never likely to with the club's owner Carson Yeung bringing financial turmoil.

Wolves can only dream of merely casting an eye on the relegation battle. They are wading knee-deep in the thick of it after a disastrous 12 months.

When Mick McCarthy left last February his side had only just slipped into the Premier League's relegation zone. His replacement, Terry Connor, didn't win a game and his successor, Stale Solbakken, struggled to come to terms with the demands of the Championship.

The Norwegian was sacked before he could get his feet under the table, with the club heading down the division and losing at non-league Luton in the FA Cup. And his follower, Dean Saunders, has won only one game.

A third tier with both Wolves and Birmingham in it next season is highly unlikely, but is not as unimaginable as it once would have been. It is where the West Midlands' other two clubs, Coventry City and Walsall, currently ply their trade.


More worryingly in these parts is that, with perhaps one exception at The Hawthorns, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the long-suffering supporters.

Under Steve Clarke, Albion have been very impressive in spells, just as they were under Roy Hodgson last season when, for the first time in 33 years, they finished above Villa in the table. That was seen as something to celebrate.

So what? Parochial rivalry is only worth anything when the competition is fierce. Now it is at an all-time low. The Baggies have a chance to rise above this pit of mediocrity and should be aiming for the Europa League if they want to show the rest that they really are a club on the up.

Villa have to get this season out of the way before they can regroup. But it is doubtful Paul Lambert will be given significant funds over the summer. A young side has shown promise at times this season, but it isn't that long ago that stellar talent was on show at Villa Park. The chances of quality players like Gareth Barry and Ashley Young turning up at the club any time soon are slim.

Birmingham actually turned in a £15.7m profit for the last financial year, but £21m is owed to Yeung and another company. Until the ownership is resolved it is hard to see the Blues challenging for promotion. Manager Lee Clark's public criticism of Nikola Zigic was symptomatic of the problems this season. Not everyone at St Andrews is pulling in the same direction.

And what about Wolves? The club's hierarchy has come under increasing flak from supporters as the side slid out of the top flight and down the Championship. An impressive new North Bank stand towers above the rest of the ground, a grand show of ambition that has not been realised. Plans to rebuild the Steve Bull Stand and South Bank in the same style have been shelved, leaving the new stand looming awkwardly over the rest of the ground. A haphazard approach to managerial appointments hasn't aided their cause.

It's a great shame for the area. In a time of economic uncertainty, football clubs can do wonders for community spirit. In South Wales, Swansea's efforts have seemingly roused their arch rivals Cardiff. Both cities are embracing the feel-good factor of football. On the South Coast Southampton are back after a period of decline and Brighton are attracting gates of 25,000 at their new home as Gus Poyet leads a promotion push. The Amex Stadium is a fantastic place to watch football right now.

Not everywhere can expect to prosper and there will always be good clubs falling on hard times. Just ask Portsmouth. It's part of the cycle. But surely it's about time there was at least one team in the entirety of the West Midlands for the others to really aspire to, and beat.

You can see our feature on Wolves's battle to avoid relegation on Soccer Saturday this weekend.

back to top

Other Blogs:

Latest Posts in :

Alex Ferguson

King James reigns

Alex Ferguson celebrates a wacky, smile-inducing year in US sport - and salutes Miami's LeBron James....


Alex Ferguson

Start your engines!

Alex Ferguson predicts who will triumph in NASCAR's showpiece race, the Daytona 500....


Alex Ferguson

Clowney's no joke

US sports expert Alex Ferguson profiles Jadeveon Clowney, the biggest defensive pick of the draft....

Alex Ferguson

Call of the century

Spacemen Portland pick Bowie over Jordan - Alex Ferguson ranks the biggest decisions in US Sport....


Alex Ferguson

A perfect union?

Alex Ferguson looks at the possible unionisation of college football and how he would handle the issue....

Alex Ferguson

Independence aces

Alex Ferguson kicks off his Independence Day fun by picking his 20 best bits of American sport....


Paul Merson

Arsenal must win

Paul Merson says Arsenal have to have a right go and beat West Ham to keep their top-four bid alive....

Graeme Souness

Im-pressed by Bayern

Graeme Souness explains why Bayern's pressing game will yield many more positives than negatives....

Ed Chamberlin

Van the man?

Ed Chamberlin explains why Tejay van Garderen is capable of plucking the Tour de France's Yellow Jersey....


Guillem Balague

Choose Van Gaal

Louis van Gaal is ideal to replace David Moyes at Manchester United, says Guillem Balague....

Stuart Barnes

Rhythm and flow

Stuart Barnes says video referees are ruining the rhythm of games and causing too many delays....

Dewi Morris

Heart and soul

Dewi Morris looks at a crucial weekend in the Championship as we head towards the play-offs....

Phil Clarke

To Hull and back

Phil Clarke looks at the mental damage done to Hull FC and Huddersfield in the Challenge Cup....

Bob Willis

Away for a while

Bob Willis thinks Jonathan Trott will be absent from England duty for some time following his relapse....

Rob Lee

Out of the woods

Rob Lee heralds the return to form of Lee Westwood and says he could yet win multiple majors....

Rob Lee

Pinky and perky

Rob Lee blogs on his vivid Masters Breakfast attire and the men that made waves at Augusta National....

Barry Cowan

Barcelona bounce

Barry Cowan says Rafa Nadal must bounce back in Barcelona and hails the form of Stan Wawrinka....

Mark Petchey

Fillip for Ferrer

Mark Petchey marvels at David Ferrer's win over Rafael Nadal but downplays it's long-term significance....

Alex Hammond

Just Cause

Alex Hammond reveals her tips for the Irish Grand National and the other decent racing in Ireland this weeend....

Alex Hammond

Going the distance

Marathon entrant Alex Hammond previews the Newbury action and Scottish National meeting at Ayr....

Alex Hammond

Rocky's road

Alex Hammond explains why she is backing Rocky Creek and Lion Na Bearnai at the Grand National....

Johnny Nelson

Battle of Manchester

From Crolla's derby delight to Munroe's emotional farewell - Saturday had it all, says Johnny Nelson....

Glenn McCrory

Manny happy returns

Manny Pacquiao is back to his best and could yet get it on with Floyd Mayweather, says Glenn McCrory....

Johnny Nelson

Delighted for DeGale

James DeGale's Matchroom switch is the perfect move to get him back in the mix, says Johnny Nelson....

View from America

The Fog of War

Simon Veness reviews the "torturous" hype ahead of the NFL Draft and why it's so hard to predict....

Neal Foulds

Trump tip

Ronnie O'Sullivan is favourite for the Worlds - but Judd Trump could spring a shock, says Neal Foulds....

Neal Foulds

Night at the Circus

Neal Foulds is looking forward to another fun, raucous Snooker Shoot-Out - but can't pick a winner....


Neal Foulds

Simply the best?

Five-time Masters champion Ronnie O'Sullivan may be the best snooker player ever, says Neal Foulds....


Kelvin Tatum

Gear shift

Wolverhampton and Belle Vue will want to kick-start their seasons on Tuesday night, says Kelvin....

Kelvin Tatum

The contenders

Kelvin Tatum runs through the teams and riders ahead of the 2014 Elite League Speedway season....

Kelvin Tatum

Kelvin's 2013 Review

Kelvin Tatum salutes Poole's hierarchy and Tai Woffinden in his round-up of the speedway season....


Richard Moore

The final curtain

Richard Moore reflects on Sunday's Closing Ceremony to an unforgettable Olympic Games......


Richard Moore

A lasting golden glow

Richard Moore suggests all the British Olympians should visit schools and talk about their experiences....


Richard Moore

Favourite Froome

Richard Moore reveals his predictions for the 100th Tour de France, which starts on Saturday....


Wayne McCullough

Wonderful Davis

Wayne McCullough watched Antonio Rogerio Nogueria take on Phil Davis at UFC Fight Night 24. ...


Wayne McCullough

Jones shines bright

Wayne McCullough was highly impressed as the talented Jon Jones made short work of Mauricio Rua....


Wayne McCullough

A bloody marvel

Wayne McCullough salutes Diego Sanchez as he edges out Martin Kampmann in a UFC humdinger....