Second City Derby: Aston Villa v Birmingham City Rivalry & History

Aston Villa v Birmingham CityBirmingham is the second biggest city in England and there are two clubs with a distinct dislike for each other at the heart of it. Aston Villa FC is based at Aston to the north of central Birmingham, with Birmingham City to the east in the Small Heath Area.

Historically, Aston Villa are amongst the biggest and most successful football clubs in the country, winning the league titles, F.A. Cups and even the European Cup in the early 1980's. Birmingham City haven't enjoyed the same level of success, but they have won the League Cup twice, crucially in 1963 at the expense of their city rivals. For most of their history they have played in England's top two divisions, as a result, there has been over 100 meetings between these neighbours since they first clashed back in 1879.

Below we give our predictions for the next Second City Derby, preview the last meeting and give you all the head to head stats and information you need to know about this fierce rivalry.

Map of Aston Villa & Birmingham City Stadiums

Map of Aston Villa & Birmingham City Stadiums

About the Second City Derby

Birmingham City Centre Skyline

As with other rivalries that we feature, inter-inner city derbies are arguably the most passionate of all. It’s not that two teams from different cities can’t enjoy a rivalry worth of the name - you only need to ask Liverpool and Manchester United fans how they feel about each other to get a sense of that. Yet there’s something about a rivalry that can cause families to fall out around the dinner table that makes them more noteworthy. Of course clubs at the top of the table in any particular country will have fans located everywhere, but for teams that haven’t competed for the biggest prizes in decades, the idea of heading into school or work and knowing that you’ll see a load of people desperate to crow about their team’s success over yours when you bump into them.

Whilst it’s possible that the same will happen to fans of Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, for example, it’s just not as likely as for supporters of the two Merseyside clubs or, in this case, Aston Villa and Birmingham City. The two Birmingham-based sides have been going at it hammer and tongs for decades, creating one of the most bitter rivalries outsides of Glasgow. Yet how did it all come about? Is there no common ground between them? What do we need to know about how they came to so vehemently dislike each other? That last question is probably the most relevant, given that they’re not the only teams based in the Midlands and yet an enmity has grown and grown over the years that makes the derby matches between them a mightily fiery affair.

The Second City Derby’s Origins

Having been formed just a year after Aston Villa in 1875, it’s perhaps at least slightly interesting that Birmingham City didn’t play against their neighbours for the first time until September of 1879. Back then, you’ll remember, they were known as Small Heath Alliance and the game took place at Small Heath’s Muntz Street home. Villa’s players said that it was ‘only suitable for pot-holing’, which might explain why the home team won 1-0.

The first competitive game between the two sides didn’t occur until 1887, owing to the fact that the Football League hadn’t been formed back then and so the opportunity to face each other didn’t materialise until they met in the Second Round of that year’s FA Cup. Villa won 4-0, also winning the first match between the two sides in the Football League when they met in the 1894-1895 campaign.

There have been some ding-dong battles between the two teams from the Second City over the years, such as the game in the league in 1925 at Villa Park when the home side went 3-0 up, only for City to three goals in the final moments of the match to snatch a point. One of the most fascinating encounters actually occurred not between the first teams but the reserves, with Villa’s headline making signing of Tom ‘Pongo’ Waring getting his debut against Aston Villa for the second-string in 1926. That in itself isn’t overly remarkable, but what’s surprising is that twenty-three thousand turned up to watch the reserves match.

Aston Villa’s presence in the Premier League from the moment that it was created in 1992 meant that fixtures between the two sides were few and far between during the 1990s. There was a keen sense of anticipation when the clubs met in the league for the first time in fifteen years after Birmingham City gained promotion in 2002. Despite having been in the division beneath Villa during that period, the Blues won 3-0 and 2-0 in the two games in the Premier League during their first stint in it.

The History of Aston Villa’s

There’s something to be said about the history of two clubs being important when it comes to looking at the rivalry between them. We’re not going to look back forensically at everything that happened to Aston Villa from the club’s formation right through to the twenty-first century, but it’s definitely worth exploring Villa’s origin story and then comparing it to that of Birmingham City.

The club was formed in March of 1874 by a group of members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in the Handsworth area, which has since been incorporated into the city of Birmingham. Jack Hughes, Frederick Matthews, Walter Price and William Scattergood were the names of the four founder members and they organised a match against the local rugby team, Aston Brook St Mary’s. The match was noteworthy because it seemed to sum up the battle between the new sport of football and rugby. The two teams agreed to play the first-half under the rules of rugby and the latter under the new Association rules.

In 1880 Aston Villa won the club’s first honours, being crowned the best team in the city when they won the Birmingham Senior Cup. Seven years later and a more national award was theirs for the taking when the won the FA Cup, but it was the year after that would define the club’s place in the history of the burgeoning sport of football. It was Aston Villa club director William McGregor who was one of the driving forces behind the idea of a league competition for football teams, which was founded in 1888 as the Football League. Villa were, of course, one of the first teams to compete in it.

First League Tiles and F.A. Cups

Aston Villa Title Winning Team in 1899
Aston Villa Title Winning Team in 1899, Wikimedia Commons

During Queen Victoria’s reign Aston Villa established themselves as one of the country’s best sides, picking up five leagues and three FA Cups. They moved to Aston Lower Grounds in 1897, celebrating the fact by winning the Double. Though the ground nowadays is known as Villa Park, it wasn’t officially declared that but instead that was a name given to it by supporters that began to catch on. They won back-to-back titles in 1899 and 1900, picking up another title in 1910 and then a fifth FA Cup in 1913. Their sixth FA Cup arrived in 1920 but it signalled the start of a bit of a drop-off for the Villians; in 1936 they suffered relegation down to the Second Division for the first time in the club’s history.

Moving Up and Down Divisions

In the decades that followed, Villa bobbed up and down between the two divisions, punctuated every now and then by a trophy such as the FA Cup in 1957. Three years later they won the Second Division and then in 1961 they won the inaugural edition of the Football League Cup. It was supposed to signal a return to the good times for the club, but instead it proved to be a false dawn and in 1970 the club was relegated to the Third Division for the first time. That came on the back of turmoil behind the scenes, resulting in the entire board resigning and the club being bought by a London-based financier named Pat Matthews. Though the new ownership could do nothing about the club’s immediately future, it would prove to be a major changing point in its fortunes.

Ron Saunders and the Return of Success

Villa’s return to the Second Division came thanks to a record setting seventy point haul from the Third Division in 1972, though greater things were to come thanks to the appointment of no-nonsense Ron Saunders as the new manager in 1974. He led them to a League Cup and in 1975 he also returned the Birmingham side to the top-flight. Remarkably, even that was only the start of their exploits, with a First Division title coming in 1981. That resulted in Aston Villa playing in the European Cup in 1981-1982, though the season was to take a surprise turn when Saunders had a falling out with the club’s board and quit midway through the campaign. That was in spite of Villa being in the Quarter-Final of the European Cup. He was replaced by his assistant manager Tony Barton, who would etch his name in the club’s folklore by guiding them to a 1-0 win over Bayern Munich in the final, winning the European Cup.

Graham Taylor and Villa's Modern Era

Though the side would go on to win the European Super Cup in 1982-1983, they would struggle to repeat those same heights and instead suffered the ignominy of relegation in 1987. They returned to the top-flight under Graham Taylor and the one-time England manager would lead them to a second-place finish in the First Division in 1990. Villa finished second again three years later, having been one of the founding teams of the Premier League when the competition was formed in 1992. The side’s fortunes were varied during the 1990s, but they still won two League Cups and even reached the FA Cup final. Even so, the European Cup win seemed a distant memory to most Villa fans, let alone football fans in general. Certainly one set of supporters that could care less about the club’s achievements in the 1980s were ones that also happed to live in Birmingham….

The History of Birmingham City

Muntz Park Football Stadium on Ordnance Survey Map
Ordnance Survey via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps one of the reasons for the rivalry between the two clubs has as much to do with history as it does geographical location. Birmingham City was formed as Small Heath Alliance just a year after Villa came to life in the city. It didn’t take the new club long to turn professional, doing so in 1885. Within four years they started playing in the Football Alliance and then in 1892 they were invited to join the Second Division of the Football League; perhaps a somewhat surprising decision given that the Chairman of Aston Villa was the man responsible for the Football League itself several years before! Their progression to the top-flight was hampered at the end of the campaign, despite the fact that they actually won the second-tier league at the first time of asking. That’s because they lost the ‘test match’ that would have seen them join the First Division.

From the point of view of their city rivals Aston Villa, Birmingham City have always been a couple of steps behind them. They did gain promotion the following season, but only lasted until 1908 when they were relegated out of it and remained absent until after the First World War. They returned to the top-flight in 1921 and ten years later the club appeared in the FA Cup final for the first time. They went on to lose 2-1 to a team from the West Midlands, West Bromwich Albion. Whilst they were able to retain their First Division status over the following few years, they struggled for any sort of consistent league form and in 1939 they dropped down to the Second Division, just ahead of the Football League’s abandonment owing to the Second World War.

Becoming Birmingham City

After having dropped the ‘Alliance’ from the club’s name in 1888, the club adopted the rather more straightforward moniker of ‘Birmingham’ in 1905. By 1943 it was decided that another change was called for, with the decision being taken to add ‘City’ to the title. It came at a time of some increased success, with the club winning the Football League South, which was formed during the Second World War, in 1945 and then made to the semi-final of the FA Cup when it was played for the first time after the war. It wasn’t to herald a new era at the club, however, with promotion to the First Division in 1948 being swiftly followed by relegation out of it again two years later.

Division Two Titles and F.A. Cup Finals

Whilst supporters of the Blues would be loathe to admit it, that’s a relatively fair reflection of the club’s time overall in the twentieth century. They never really threatened to win the top-flight, most of the time being considered fortunate to have made it there at all. Though they won the Second Division four times between 1892 and 1955, City only made to to two FA Cup finals in that era. Having lost to West Bromwich Albion in 1931 they then went on to miss out because of Manchester City’s success in 1956. There was to be some success in the Football League Cup in 1963, however, and it was to be at the expense of their bitterest of rivals.

The 1963 All-Birmingham League Cup Final

Back in the 1960s, the League Cup final was competed over two legs. Aston Villa had already enjoyed some success in the competition, winning it in its inaugural outing in the 1960-1961 campaign. Having also beaten Birmingham City 4-0 in their most recent league outing, there was a sense of confidence pervading Villa Park when the two teams made it through their respective sides of the competition to face each other across two games in the final.

City had beaten Doncaster Rovers, Barrow, Notts County, Manchester City and Bury to make the final, whilst Aston Villa had come up against Peterborough United, Stoke City, Preston North End, Norwich City and Sunderland and vanquished them all. The first-leg at St. Andrew’s was supposed to be a formality when the two teams met on the 23rd of May 1963, but the home team took the lead after just fourteen minutes. City were in dreamland when the same player, Ken Leek, doubled their lead after fifty-two minutes before Jimmy Bloomfield made it three just after the hour.

Villa gave themselves a lifeline for the second-leg when Bobby Thomson scored for them, but the match at Villa Park played out as a rather boring 0-0 and Birmingham City won their first major trophy. Any piece of silverware is always a joy for supporters to see their team lift, but when it comes at the expense of their city rivals there’s no question that it means that little bit more. Whilst Villa would go on to win the First Division and the European Cup in the 1980s, thereby being undeniably more successful than their neighbours, there’s no question that City’s win in the League Cup final, the only time that the two teams have faced each other in a major final, gave the supporters bragging rights for years to come.

A Final Revival

If City’s directors, owners and supporters were hopeful that their League Cup win would prove to be a catalyst for something approaching a consistent set of results for the club, they were destined to be disappointed. In the years that followed they found themselves slipping and sliding between the three divisions of the Football League. There were some moments of success in there, however. In 1956, for example, City became the first English side to take part in a European competition when they qualified for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Their European adventure continued four years later when they became the first English side to make the final of a European competition, losing to Barcelona in the final of the same competition.

Generally speaking, though, things weren’t as good for Birmingham City as their neighbours during the twentieth century. In fact, they would only sample a touch of anything resembling major success again in 2011 when they faced Arsenal in the League Cup final and beat the Gunners 2-1. The supporters had enjoyed a trip to Wembley in the same competition ten years before, but lost to Liverpool on penalties in a year when the Merseyside club went on to also win the FA Cup and UEFA Cup in a treble for Gerard Houllier’s side. The win over Arsenal in 2011 meant that Birmingham City had won the League Cup more than any other trophy other than the Second Division.

Alex McLeish

On the seventh of June 2011, it was announced that Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish would be crossing the city in order to become the manager of Aston Villa. It was a move that surprised virtually everyone in football, not least of all because the Scot had failed to help the Blues avoid relegation in the season before the move.

It was an appointment that pleased neither set of supporters, with Birmingham fans feeling as though they’d been betrayed by the managed that had helped the club to win its only piece of silverware for more than fifty years. Villa fans, meanwhile, felt that the appointment of a man who had seen their rivals relegated twice in four years was one that lacked ambition.

Whilst it would be grossly unfair to suggest that it accurately reflected either fanbase fairly, Alex McLeish received death threats from both sets of supporters after his appointment as Villa manager was confirmed. It was the ultimate conclusion to a long line of problems that had been building over previous years, with a BBC TV show called Police Academy UK capturing trouble between Villa and City fans when the programme recorded in Birmingham during December of 2010.

McLeish was the only manager ever to move directly from Birmingham City to Aston Villa, but in the end it would be Blues fans that would have the last laugh. The Scottish manager lasted just one season at Villa Park before the club’s owner, Randy Lerner, decided that he was more trouble than he was worth. The Villans avoided relegation by just two points and almost exactly a year after he’d seen his Birmingham City side drop out of the Premier League into the Championship, Alex McLeish was sacked as Aston Villa manager. Villa would only last four more years in the top-flight before themselves being relegated, allowing hostilities between the two teams in the league to resume once more.