Matt Maher: About time this hotbed of West Midlands football punched its weight
Football’s tribal nature means not everyone in the West Midlands will be elated at Albion’s promotion, or Villa’s remarkable escape from relegation.
Yet there can be no question both achievements were good news for a region which, in sporting terms, has for several decades punched well below its weight.
Next season will be just the seventh since 1986 that the area has had three clubs in the top flight – and the first time since Wolves were relegated at the end of the 2011/12 campaign.
In 18 of the last 34 seasons, the West Midlands has had only one representative in the highest tier (in 1987/88 there were none). Blues’ League Cup win in 2011 remains the region’s only major trophy success since the turn of the century.
For an area with such a rich footballing heritage it is a rather shoddy record, one which can hopefully now begin to change.
Wolves are leading the charge, having secured a top-seven finish and the possibility of European football for a second straight year. The challenge for Villa and Albion, after establishing a foothold in the division, is to join them in becoming a force.
Of course, Albion’s promotion will also see the rekindling of a rivalry with Wolves which has not been played out on the pitch since the Baggies were 5-1 winners at Molineux in February, 2012, a result which led to Mick McCarthy’s sacking and sent their rivals on a decline which did not stop until they reached League One.
More than eight years on, plenty has changed. Albion’s relegation in 2018, after eight years in the top flight, saw them replaced by a Wolves rejuvenated, first by Kenny Jackett and then Fosun’s ambition and investment.
Continued progress under Nuno Espirito Santo over the last two seasons means that for the first time in many a year Wolves will meet their rivals next season as the region’s team to beat. Albion, at least initially on their Premier League return, must take the role of underdog.
The hope will be both meetings between the clubs take place at a time when supporters are permitted to attend. With reduced capacities expected as the sport gradually emerges from the coronavirus shutdown, the chances of either match playing to a full house may be slim. It would still be preferable to such a big occasion taking place behind closed doors.
Escaping the Championship is tough but as Villa have shown the even harder task is staying in the Premier League, even when you spend £140million.
Albion will not spend anywhere close to that amount and the onus will be on technical director Luke Dowling and his recruitment team repeating the largely excellent job of 12 months ago, when they successfully revamped the playing squad following the disappointment of missing out on promotion through the play-offs.
Slaven Bilic, who also helped procure key players like Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira, must then find a style to suit a division where the challenges are relentless.
Wolves are also entering a key transfer window. Their achievements over the past two seasons have outstripped expectations but the question now is how much further the current squad can climb.
Earning the respect of the Premier League’s elite is one thing, breaking into it is quite another. Wolves can still qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League and if they achieve that, the outlook will drastically change.
If not, the aim will be to make a sustained push for a top-four finish next season, when both Arsenal and Tottenham are likely to be stronger. The only way of doing that is by further strengthening a squad of players who, due to the pandemic, will go the best part of two years without much of a genuine break.
Villa will also be aiming to fight higher up the table. Survival was an acceptable outcome for the club’s first season back in the top flight after a three-year absence but the margin between success and failure was far finer than they intended.
Consolidation is the next phase, with a view to laying the foundations which will see them join Wolves in knocking on the door of the big six.