It was never likely to be a quiet affair. When ex-Aston Villa manager Ron Saunders took his Birmingham City team to Villa Park on October 15, 1983, he wasn't taking many shrinking violets with him. Tony Coton, Pat Van Den Hauwe, Noel Blake, Robert Hopkins, Howard Gayle, and Mick Harford are individuals that are often mentioned in a Who's Who of football's bad boys. But it wasn't all one way traffic. Colin Gibson and Steve McMahon would give as good as they got.
"The game that should not be passed for universal viewing" was the headline used in The Times, and the verdict elsewhere was just as damning. The Sunday Mercury called it "The Horror Show"; the Birmingham Evening Mail referred to it as "Brum's day of shame"; "Shame of the 'hate' derby" was the summary provided by the Daily Mirror.
"You could smell it in the air when we made the short coach journey to Villa Park," Tony Coton recalls in There To Be Shot At. "It was the unmistakable whiff of violence. The supporters of both teams had been at each other's throats for hours." With eighty arrests, and a fan stabbed, trouble swamped the day off and on the pitch.
On an afternoon filled with tension, it didn't take long for the fuse to be lit. The identity of the man who provided the flame was hardly a surprise; a player who had recently crossed the divide in the city to play for his boyhood club, and a young man who became well known to referees throughout the 1983/84 season. Robert Hopkins had originally been turned down by Birmingham City, and spent four years at Aston Villa. But his club allegiance was always close to his heart.
Wearing blue tops at training was one thing, but when Hopkins made a rare appearance for Villa at Notts County in 1982, his decision to wear a Birmingham crest under his Villa top proved as wise as Maggie Thatcher introducing the Poll Tax. Having been involved in a scrap with a Notts County player earlier in the match (quelle surprise), Hopkins' shirt had been pulled, and as he went to take a corner in the last minute, the Villa fans caught a glimpse of the badge. They were not amused.
Hopkins never played for the club again. Involved in an exchange deal with Alan Curbishley on the March deadline day in 1983 - no shouty men wearing yellow ties back then, I'm afraid - Hopkins could finally don the Blues shirt in a more conventional manner. Making up for lost time, he played very much like the fan who had been lucky enough to make it at his club. His committed style was welcomed on the terraces, but constant disciplinary issues suggested that Hopkins was an accident waiting to happen.
In fairness to Hopkins, his challenge on Mark Walters wasn't the first to cross the line. With the pitch drenched by heavy rain, Van Den Hauwe took an early opportunity to slide across the turf and clash dangerously into with Allan Evans. "If he [referee David Allison] was right in overlooking that he was horribly wrong two minutes later when he excused Robert Hopkins for clobbering Walters," Clive White wrote in The Times. The battle lines had been drawn.
"We knew certain Birmingham players would try to kick us so we were prepared to look after ourselves," Villa skipper Dennis Mortimer revealed. "In the past Birmingham have tried to intimidate us while we have been getting on with playing football." However, there was little chance of displaying your footballing philosophy on a day like this. "Soon sober men like Mortimer were sucked into the whirlpool of mindless tackles and assaults," White noted, adding that the players were "hydroplaning across the surface into one another like maniacs."
Villa would score the only goal of the match after a Van Den Hauwe back pass stuck in the surface, allowing Peter Withe to poke the ball away from Coton, before celebrating in front of the Holte End. It looked as if Birmingham had equalised later in the first half, with a Blake effort clawed away by Nigel Spink. But there were no hi-tech watches back in those days, I'm afraid, and the goal was not given. Unfortunately for Blake, his day was not going to get any better from this point on.
The tackles continued to fly in. Even the officials were not immune from the mayhem. On tackling Tony Morley, Blake continued skidding towards a linesman, wiping him out and forcing the official to limp out of the action. Another exchange saw Mortimer unwisely front up to Harford, never the smartest move, and one that the Villa captain appeared to regret immediately.
But by far the worst tackle of the afternoon involved Steve McMahon and Kevan Broadhurst. With the ball loose on the halfway line, McMahon launched himself into a two-footed lunge that was horrendous even by the standards of the 1980s. Broadhurst lay in agony, whilst Harford and Gayle made a beeline towards McMahon. The Villa midfielder was booked; Broadhurst was stretchered off, his career in ruins.
"Steve McMahon's tackle on Kevan Broadhurst was the only time a player didn't go for the ball," Saunders stated. "After that there was some bad feeling." That was a slight understatement. The series of challenges that saw Villa's Colin Gibson sent off highlighted the extent to which some of the players had lost their heads. Gayle had a dig at Gibson, before Hopkins attempted to wipe out Mortimer, culminating in the already booked Gibson climbing to his feet to trip Gayle. Frantic is one way of describing it.
With half an hour remaining, Birmingham were now in the ascendancy. Yet Blake would miss from the spot when given the opportunity by Withe's inexplicable handball, Spink saving the weak effort and with it ensuring that Villa would take three points. On the final whistle, McMahon helpfully reminded Blake of the score, receiving a headbutt for his troubles. Although the unfortunate Allison missed the incident, the television cameras did not. In an early example of trial by TV, Blake was later fined £200 for bringing the game into disrepute.
Some blamed Allison for his handling of the game. "We might have been saved from such vulgar scenes had David Allison, the referee, been more Lord Harlech and not as wet as the pitch," White wrote. Maybe if Allison had acted decisively at the start of the match then some of the aggro could have been avoided. The players certainly took full advantage, though. "The ball must have been screaming for mercy at half time," McMahon said. "Perhaps they should have taken it off and we could have all gone round kicking each other."
The trouble was not only restricted to the 90 minutes. "As both sets of players walked down the tunnel, the bad feeling continued and punches were exchanged," Coton explains. "'Fuck off you blue-nosed bastards,' screamed Gibson. But when he saw Mick Harford taking the stairs two at a time, he quickly realised the error of his ways and beat a hasty retreat."
Coton recalls how Birmingham's players laid down a challenge of carrying on the debate in the players' lounge, but sensibly Villa's squad never appeared. Yet the memories of that afternoon remained in the build-up for the rematch at St Andrew's. Promising to "Do it for Broads", City gained revenge for their bitter defeat at Villa Park.
The 2-1 win would prove to be a silver-lining on the grey cloud that suffocated Birmingham's season after their demoralising FA Cup Sixth Round defeat against Watford. Four draws and four defeats post-Villa saw the team slump from 12th in Division One, and hurtle through the relegation trapdoor, their fate sealed when their on-loan striker Mick Ferguson scored a winner for Coventry against Norwich.
Birmingham would bounce back immediately, but by the time the clubs next met in September 1985, Coton, Van Den Hauwe, Blake, Gayle, and Harford had all left Birmingham, and although the Blues would win 3-0 at Villa Park in March 1986, again it would prove to be their final League win in a season of relegation.
The two teams would next contest top flight matches in the 2002/03 season, with both of the fixtures providing controversial moments. Absence had obviously not made the heart grow fonder.