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Preview: Is West Brom-Villa the biggest rivalry?

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It was the derby that defined a generation in the West Midlands.

Now the heroes of yesteryear believe the Albion-Villa rivalry which resumes tonight at The Hawthorns could captivate a whole new set of players and fans.

In recent decades the Baggies' bitter battle with Wolves and Villa's highly-charged contests with Birmingham have become the fixtures that set competitive juices flowing among players and supporters in the West Midlands.

But back in the late 1970s and early 80s, it was the Baggies' joust with Villa for regional supremacy that set the agenda – and for the players involved it was the game the mattered most.

Now, with the clubs again locked together in the Premier League and Wolves and Blues languishing outside the top flight, the central characters from derbies past hope the glory days of the fixture will return.

"The biggest game for us was always Albion versus Villa," recalled Ally Robertson, a stalwart of 626 Baggies appearances and a veteran of some highly significant meetings with the claret and blues near the top of the old First Division.

"At the time Wolves were not our big rivals at all.

"They had been relegated and come back up but were down at the lower end of the table, whereas we'd been down but come back strongly and were up near the top.

"Our great local derby was always Villa because we had a great side and they had a great side and, from about 1978 to 1982 especially, the two clubs were always challenging up near the top of the league. It was a big game – not just in the region but nationally too."

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From Albion's return to the top division under Johnny Giles in 1976, they spent five years along with Villa as permanent fixtures in the top half of the table.

The Baggies finished third in 1979 before the rivalry reached its height two years later as Villa won the title with Albion in the chasing pack throughout the season.

Yet in 10 league meetings during that time, the Baggies won just once with Villa victorious on five occasions.

Robertson recalled: "We never did well against Villa. It was weird. It seemed like Villa always beat us, we always beat Blues and Blues always beat Villa. I think we possibly tried too hard because they were always huge games. We knew the Villa players because we would be in the same pubs and nightclubs, and we knew what it meant to the fans because in those days we used to mix with them."

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Winger Tony Morley played for both clubs.

But while his 69-game stint with the Baggies in the 80s proved largely unspectacular, it was his legendary spell with Villa that defined his career, culminating in league title and European Cup success and leaving him with vivid memories of Albion clashes.

So intense were the passions in the fixture that Morley was once sent off at half-time after complaining to officials about some solid challenges from Baggies favourite Derek Statham.

"The biggest game for Villa fans will probably always be against Blues but for us players West Brom was always the massive game," said Morley.

"At the time we were both among the top five sides in the country.

"West Brom had a fantastic side in the late-70s and early-80s and Villa were challenging for the title, so when we met they were massive, massive games.

"When I was at Villa both Blues and West Brom were huge games, but for the players it was probably more vital to beat West Brom because they were such a good side.

"But whatever anyone says, Villa are by far the Premier club in the Midlands and their fans feel they should always finish above West Brom. All of the other clubs raise their game against Villa and, if they say they don't, they're kidding themselves."

Another Albion legend, Cyrille Regis, became synonymous with the fixture in 1984, when he netted in the snow as a late Baggies onslaught turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 win.

He would later turn out for Villa and then for Wolves, getting a taste of a Black Country derby from a later era when he turned out as a substitute against the Baggies.

"They are both big games for different reasons," said Regis. "Albion and Wolves are the only two teams in the Black Country so that really is a local derby with local bragging rights at stake. But, in our day, Albion versus Villa was always about being the best team in the Midlands."

Now, after more than two decades without a win against Villa and a prolonged spell outside the top division, Albion are unbeaten against their neighbours in five meetings – a run that began with Youssouf Mulumbu's dramatic late winner at The Hawthorns in 2011. And with the Baggies' best side in a generation coinciding with Villa's fall down the Premier League ranks, the sides are evenly matched again and their meetings are threatening to become the pre-eminent West Midlands fixture once more.

Regis has only one regret.

"I think it has become bigger again, but it would be even better if both clubs were in the top six," he said.

"When they're both in mid-table, I don't think it can ever be quite as big as it was.

"But it is an interesting game now. The teams are evenly-matched and Villa are playing better away from home so it's really too close to call, although I'd say Albion will start as slight favourites."

Morley said: "The game has become big again in the last few seasons because the momentum has been with West Brom and the teams are better matched than they have been in ages.

"West Brom will be favourites simply because they have probably got the more experienced side, whereas Villa have a lot of youngsters at the moment.

"You have to give West Brom credit because in the last 18 months to two years they have established themselves as a Premier League side and, at the moment, probably fancy their chances of beating Villa, which makes the game really interesting."

To listen to our Albion and Villa reporters discuss tonight's derby tie, click here

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