The West Midlands is one of the heartlands of English football. When a dozen chairman got together to form the world’s first football league in 1888, six of those clubs hailed from the centre of England.
At the heart of the region is England’s second city, Birmingham. There can be a tendancy to include a whole host of the region’s clubs – Wolves, West Brom, Walsall, even Coventry and Stoke – as being from Birmingham. That, of course, is not true and only two league clubs can claim to come from Brum itself – Aston Villa and Birmingham City.
Being an Aston Villa fan last season must have been a pretty hapless experience. The 2015/16 Villa squad simply weren’t good enough. Relegation to the Championship was finally confirmed with defeat at Manchester United in mid April.
Still, that is all in the past, and now Villa are settling into a season, at least, in the Championship. They have a new manager in Steve Bruce, once of course the boss at rivals Birmingham.
Villa can still revel in an outstanding history, with the crowning glory being that European Cup victory in 1982. You can add to that seven league titles, seven FA Cups, five League Cups and the UEFA Super Cup.
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When it comes to a level of grandeur and importance, Villa Park tops the bill and must be on any visiting Championship fan’s itinerary this season.
The Holte End holds 13,000 of Villa’s most passionate supporters. Underneath there are three levels of spacious facilities, making it one of the best home stands you will find anywhere. And outside there is an impressive entrance, with two flights of stairs leading up to turnstiles housed in an ornate brick exterior.
The main Trinity Road Stand was built in 2000 to replace the old, much loved stand that had one of the grandest brick facades anywhere in the game. The three tier replacement is now the biggest stand at Villa Park and is so big it goes over the road outside.
Across the city you’ll find Birmingham City at St Andrew’s. The club have appeared in two FA Cup finals, won two League Cups and have achieved the highest league finish of sixth in the old Division One in 1956.
Birmingham, the Blues, have mostly flitted between the top tier of English Football and the league below. After their second League Cup win in 2011, defeating Arsenal at Wembley, the club were relegated to the Championship. Although as a result of that cup win, the club had an enjoyable foray into the Europa League, the club have remained in the Championship since.
St Andrews was extensively renovated 20 years ago. The Tilton Road Stand and Spion Kop were demolished and replaced with a new all-seated stand. The new Railway End is the tallest at St Andrews and has an unusual design; as it has a small top tier of seating above a much larger lower tier. This upper tier, known at one time as the ‘Olympic Gallery’ enjoys probably the best views of the stadium below. The lower tier of this stand is where the away fans are housed.
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On their day the Blues fans can still give a rousing rendition of ‘Keep Right On To The End Of The Road,’ a song that was first associated with the 1956 FA Cup Final team. When there is a capacity crowd the atmosphere generated inside St Andrews is one of the best in the country.
The Blues fans themselves are a down to earth bunch and have a strong blue collar supporter base. You certainly couldn’t describe any Blues fan as being a ‘glory hunter.’
Birmingham is still very much an industrial city at heart, but over the last 20 years the city centre has been largely transformed.
There are now a plethora of top class restaurants and coupled with the multi-cultural make-up of the city, a wide array of eating establishments. Add on the opening of a number of real ale and craft beer outlets, then the choice of food and drink has never been more wider.
The night life is vibrant, mostly based around the Broad Street and Arcadian areas. The former is situated near the now pleasant Gas Street Basin, which is based around the meeting of two canals, whilst the latter is based in Birmingham’s Chinatown.
The transformation of the centre can be best seen in the new Bullring Shopping Centre as well as the new Grand Central area, which incorporates New Street Station.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in the city takes place from mid-November up until Christmas, when the German Christmas Market takes place. A number of streets in the city centre are filled with traditional German food, drink and gift stalls.
Both the Blues and the Villa have had well documented difficulties recently. But both have also enjoyed success. They have two of the finest stadiums in the land, and the city they call home is regenerating itself. Pay England’s Second City a visit this season – it may well surprise you.