Chants of ‘mind the gap, Wolverhampton’ echoed around Villa Park as Birkir Bjarnason took on three Wolves defenders before calmly slotting the ball past John Ruddy in the 85th minute to secure a stunning 4-1 victory for Aston Villa over table-topping Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It felt like a statement win. We smelled blood and were hunting our neighbours down in the race for promotion to the Premier League at the tail end of the 2017/18 season. The race was on - with just seven points separating the sides with ten games to play.
That superb win though was ultimately in vain as it was those decked in the ‘old gold’ who deservedly won the Championship title that season. Seven wins from their next nine games ensured that Wolves would be eating at the head table. Nuno Espirito Santo developed a scintillating playing style to match their solid and creative recruitment system. A team that some called the finest the second tier had seen in recent memory. With West Brom’s relegation in the same year, they became the Kings of the West Midlands - by default.
Now we’re looking to dethrone them.
Villa’s promotion a season later than Wolves means there are two clubs representing the West Midlands in the Premier League for the first time in years. Head-to-head in the first top flight meeting between the two clubs in eight years, the initial meeting at Molineux in early November promises to be a feisty affair. This hasn’t always been the case with these two clubs though. A rivalry that’s deemed not as big a game as when Villa face Birmingham or Wolves play Albion. But has that changed now?
The relationship was dented when Wolves introduced a rather unfamiliar (in England, at least) transfer policy involving Jorge Mendes and third-party ownership which Steve Bruce, the then Villa boss, was particularly concerned about, asking how Wolves were “luring Champions League players to play in the Championship”, basically doubting the legality. It wasn’t just Bruce who was questioning Fosun’s link to the ‘super-agent’ Mendes either. Owners of Leeds and Derby were openly critical of Wolves’ operation which subsequently got the EFL alerted to call a meeting with the club’s hierarchy. Wolves were found to have not broken any Football League regulations, satisfying them that all was above board. Wolves fans suggested that other clubs were just jealous of their success. Perhaps they’re right.
Wolves fans led the ironic laughter when Villa reportedly created a partnership with Jorge Mendes in an advisory role. How much influence he had over any transfer activity is unknown but Director of Football Jesus ‘Suso’ Garcia Pitarch has said “I have involvement with Jorge Mendes but also a lot of other agents”, trying to distance himself from close ties.
If our board had any frustrations about Wolves trying, successfully, with this tactic, then they were quickly, and maybe hypocritically, forgotten as we tried to get on board with that same method. Thinking outside the box can often be the difference between success and failure - it wasn’t quite the case with Leeds’ spy-gate scandal, but it maybe it helped gain points somewhere along the line.
As you’re probably aware, not many local clubs like us. Birmingham, West Bromwich Albion and Coventry most evidently include anti-Villa songs in their terrace repertoire. It’s not hard to see why either, having dominated Midlands football for so long with the odd splash of competition for a few years from each at some point. In the same way Everton supporters feel disdain towards Liverpool, rivalries always tend to have an imbalanced look about them. With the case of Villa and Wolves though, things only seem to have become heated recently. Taking into account that I was born in 1990, Villa and Wolves have always seemed to be ambivalent towards each other. A shrug of the shoulders when you hear the other’s name mentioned. So is it all because of Mendes that this has changed?
When you hear sports journalists trying to portray Stoke v Villa as a Midlands derby, I roll my eyes. In what world do we feel animosity towards each other? Location is a big factor in rivalries. Obviously this is the case with Birmingham and with West Bromwich’s Hawthorns stadium being located on the fringes of north-west Birmingham, I can understand the nature of their contempt towards Villa too, and to us them. Coventry, being slightly further afield, you feel has more of a historical tone to it given how much pleasure we took in their relegation back in 2001 and the fact that they were in the big time for 34 years prior to that. Wolverhampton and Aston are close but maybe not close enough. If you wander around Birmingham, very few Wolves shirts are on show, the same, I’m sure, in Wolverhampton with Villa tops.
The simple matter is that Villa and Wolves didn’t meet very often at all between 1984 and 2003, just the three times in fact. A 19-year spell scarcely playing a team means you’ll hardly be likely to show any hatred towards them as there are people in the crowd who have never seen these two teams compete against one another. That wasn’t the case back in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s with regular matches between the two. The occurrence has improved slightly, however, as we’ve battled in 12 games in the last 16 years - still not a great deal. With more regular meetings, this may rekindle what could be a delicious encounter between two current sides wanting to play expansive, attacking football.
Twitter regulars seem to be wondering where this rivalry has come from too. Both sets of fans seem to like handing out stick to the other. A question you often see on the #avfc and #wwfc hashtag is ‘Can’t we go back to not minding each other and disliking the Baggies and Blues?’. But goading the opposition is rife online. The internet has made the world a smaller place and people of different persuasions can find each other with relative ease, meaning conversation and debate are commonplace. Petty arguments aside, why shouldn’t we want another heated rivalry? They’re exciting, unpredictable, emotional games that can offer some of the best memories you’ll experience as a football fan. Other than the idiotic violence pre and post match, I wouldn’t change a thing about derby games. I’d accept another one with open arms. I don’t know if the police would agree with that sentiment. It’s important to have somebody that challenges us to aim high. Without the added incentive of trying to overtake a local rival in the table, we may be inclined to settle for mediocrity.
It could be too soon for us to overtake Wolves in the standings this upcoming season though. What they achieved last season as a newly-promoted team was phenomenal, something I don’t think any realistic Villa fan thinks we’ll reach this year. We’ve seen European competition hamper the domestic hopes of several clubs over the years, fatigue playing a massive factor in their struggles, so it could take a toll on Wolves - enough for us to take advantage of? We’ll see. Nonetheless, an intense couple of games versus possibly a new arch-rival will be absorbing.