For the first time in over 25 years the West Midlands big four clubs are all in the top flight of English football. CYRILLE REGIS – who played for most of them – looks at some of the dark days of the past while highlighting what the likes of Albion and Wolves must strive for if they are to maintain their Premier League status.
Remember the 1983/84 season?
“I honestly cannot remember,” says Cyrille Regis.
So let’s jog his memory. It was the last time Albion, Blues, Wolves and Villa were all in the top flight.
Regis was to score for Albion in a dramatic 4-3 defeat at Villa Park on the opening day of the season.
It was to be his final full season at The Hawthorns before he made his move to Coventry during the following campaign.
The 83/84 season ended with 20th-placed Blues and Wolves, in 22nd, relegated.
Albion were 17th with Villa toiling around mid-table.
The next two-and-a-half decades, we know about.
Regis, who served Albion and Villa with distinction, before stopping off at Wolves towards the end of his career, believes the area needed a boost.
“It was a barren time for the West Midlands,” he told the Birmingham Post. “London, Merseyside, Manchester – they were strong throughout.
“They prospered and even when they had their dips they retained some form of stability. I can’t even remember that year if I’m honest. But it’s brilliant to have all four clubs back there.
“It’s good for the banter, but also for the clubs. Football is about tribalism, rivalry. That’s died down a lot since TV games became more regular.
“You can now get someone local supporting Barcelona. But this will encourage a bit more interest.”
Asked for his reasons about the West Midlands’ decline, the 52-year-old claimed it was down to poor management at the highest levels. “We went through a wilderness here because it went wrong, starting at the top,” he continued.
“You need chairmen with direction, a financial plan. Those who need to be harnessed into a working relationship with managers and the ambition.
“Look at what went on at our clubs during the 1970s and 80s. It didn’t work.
“Wolves for instance had several different owners. All had their own ambitions, own aims, own principles on what to do. There was no stability.
“You need stability and continuity to prosper in football.
“But also we now have chairmen in this area who appreciate that the financial aspects of a club need to be sustainable. You can’t go round offering £40k a week to every player because it’s the road to ruin if you’re living beyond your means.
“It’s not a question of not taking risks. You need to sometimes flex your ambitions and speculate but within reason. How long will you give a manager? Will you trust him?
“You look at the top end of our clubs now – there is continuity. Chairmen and boards who have either been here for a while or are in it for the long-term.
“We needed that and it’s about these people know what the clubs are about, knowing that you can’t throw money around at the club which cannot sustain it because they can’t attract 40,000 fans simply because of their demographics.
“Fans want controlled ambition and that’s what it’s about. Evolution rather than revolution. Revolution is fine if you’ve got a Walker at Blackburn, an Abramovich at Chelsea or what Man City are trying now.
“These days it’s about piecing together a playing squad that can sustain financial viability and prosper in the League – our clubs are getting it right.
“Look at Wolves. Doyle was a top signing last season. Now they’ve added Fletcher and each year while they stay up they can add one or two quality players. In four or five years they’ll be established and moving onto the next level.”
So how does Regis rate our clubs’ progress over the coming season?
Albion, where he played between 1977 and 84, are trying to establish themselves in the Premier League having been relegated in three of their four previous campaigns.
“The only way Albion can get out of their yo-yo predicament is with an element of calculated risk,” continued Regis.
“It’s that fine line between making sure you don’t overstretch but ensuring you’re making progress on the field. And, importantly, the big players you sign have to come off for you.
“Borja Valero, a record signing, never really worked. Luke Moore, another big money signing by Albion’s standards, is not really happening either.
“But if they can get it right then they’ve got a chance. Birmingham, Stoke, Wigan have all managed it. Stoke, too, they’re nowhere near as big as West Brom but they have a stable manager, and chairman who has a plan.”
Speaking about his former clubs Villa and Wolves, Regis added: “Wolves are getting there too.
“Mick McCarthy and the chairman believe in each other and have confidence in each other’s abilities. They’ve gone down the evolution route and they’ve got a very good chance.
“Villa have moved on. Martin O’Neill was relatively successful.
“At a club like Villa you’re dealing with players on higher wages. Any manager of a club of that size needs to deal and manage egos – it’s about telling that player who earns £50k a week that he’s not playing, but without losing his respect and knowing you may have to call on him later on.
“Randy Lerner has experience of running big organisations.
“Kevin MacDonald knows the club. He’s been there for 17-odd years. He’s part of the fabric and anyone who knows Villa’s youth set-up will tell you they play football well with the right tempo. The younger players will trust him and he will trust those players, as we’ve already seen with him playing Albrighton. And it will also give some of the more senior players something to think about – they will need to pick-up their game, make no mistake.”
Regis believes Wolves, Blues and Albion are capable of staying up.
“Birmingham have a good manager, a board who are willing to back him and confidence,” he continued.
“Wolves know they can draw from last year’s experience and Albion have been there before and can do it again – though both will need luck.
“What I want to see is Wolves and, especially, Albion, be aggressive and on the front-foot in those games where they can win.
“Do that and they give themselves a chance.”