We at Groundhopper Guides like to introduce folks to parts of English football culture you might not be aware of.
So along those lines, let’s get to know one of the most intense rivalries in all of English football, the Black Country derby between Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion.
If you’re really new to this, that word derby is pronounced “DAR-bee” and in this sense means a local rivalry. Man U vs Liverpool is the best-known rivalry, but among the top derbies in English football, the Black Country derby is probably the least well-known outside England, simply because the clubs haven’t spent a lot of recent seasons in the Premier League.
It’s also the answer to a trivia question you may hear if you ever take the tour of Wembley Stadium. There’s a person whose job it is to inscribe the FA Cup trophy with the names of the winners after the Final at Wembley, and there’s only about a five-minute window to do so. My Wembley guide asked what that person’s worst-case fixture might be, and I proudly popped up with the correct answer: A Black Country derby! I must say, no one expected that to be said with an American accent.
Where is the Black Country?
We’re talking about a pocket of the West Midlands, an area centered more or less around England’s second-largest city, Birmingham.
The area is basically littered with big football clubs, as well. Here’s a closeup of the area around Birmingham, showing the five Football League or Premier League clubs that call it home: Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Walsall, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
You could also throw in Coventry City and Stoke City here, as well, but I confess to getting confused as to where exactly these geographical lines are drawn.
If you’re an American, think of it this way: You think it’s normal that New York has two teams in pretty much every sport. Imagine, though, if they had three on Long Island! Those folks wouldn’t get along, right?
Why is it Called the Black Country?
It really is all about coal, one way or another. There was a famously large seam of it just below the surface, which could have given it the name. But starting in the 18th century that coal was dug up and burned to fuel, literally, the Industrial Revolution which started here: iron, steel, glass making, etc. This led to a lot of pollution, another possible reason for the name Black Country.
Wolverhampton was particularly famous for making locks and, eventually, cars. West Bromwich Albion was actually founded by workers at a spring factory, and they were the first to use Albion, kind of an old Celtic/Roman/somewhere-back-there name for Britain, in their title.
Who Plays in the Black Country Derby?
We need to distinguish here between a West Midlands Derby, which involves any of these folks; a Second City Derby which is just Aston Villa and Birmingham City; and a Black Country Derby, which is any of West Brom, Wolves and Walsall. Walsall, though, are a smaller club who’ve played only about 30 games total against the other two; it’s been since 2014 they played Wolves and 2004 they played West Brom, so we’ll move on from them and concentrate on the big boys.
If you wish to get lost in the details of all this, and also add the East Midlands to your understanding, check out this helpful piece in The Guardian, which summarizes the local animosities thusly:
Villa and Coventry don’t get on. Birmingham dislike Wolves, Stoke don’t have much time for Wolves or West Brom, Birmingham and West Brom don’t mind each other too much, Walsall get a few too many patronising pats on the head for their own liking, and everyone has it in for poor old Villa – something not helped in modern times by the fact that ever popular PM David Cameron is among their fans. Yes, we’ve only just scratched the surface here.
Apparently supporters of the two clubs aren’t as confused by all this. A 2008 survey of English football supporters reported that the Black Country derby is the most intense in the country. That’s why it has been since 1996 that they played at the “usual” time of 3 p.m.; the authorities like to stage these derbies at noon so people won’t be (as) drunk for kickoff.
History of the Black Country Derby
The first time West Brom played Wolverhampton was in 1883, but it got serious starting in 1888 when the Football League was formed — by a Villa man, no less — and both the Baggies and Wolves were charter members.
Since then, as of this writing in early 2021, they have played 160 times, with the following results:
- West Brom Wins: 64
- Wolves Wins: 53
- Draws: 43
Things got really serious in the 1950s, when they were two of the best teams in the country. They were both in the First Division (today’s Premier League) from 1949 to 1965. During that time, Wolves had nine top-three finishes, three titles, and two FA Cups. West Brom got a Cup in 1954.
In fact, that 1953-54 season was probably the highlight of the Black Country derby. Wolves won the league, by four points over West Brom, who won the Cup. That put them together in the Charity Shield game before the next season, a 4-4 draw before 46,000-plus at Molineux. If only I could find video of that one!
Wolves in those days played some very famous “friendlies” against European competition, including a home game that was the first broadcast live on the BBC — a game which is said to have inspired the creation of the European Cup.
That’s why the announcer in this 1956 newsreel film refers to them going to Moscow. This is a Black Country derby from that season at the old Molineux. Same spot they play in today, but a very different stadium.
Other Notable Black Country Derbies
2006-07: Black Country Derby x 5!
In the 2006-07 season, West Brom and Wolves played five games: two in the league, one in the FA Cup, and a two-legged tie in the Football League playoffs. (Yes, England does have playoffs.) Wolves fans might want to look away here, though, because it’s mostly good memories for Baggies faithful. While they each got a win in the league, West Brom won a cracker in the FA Cup’s Fourth Round:
The teams finished in the top six of the league table, which put them together in the playoff semifinals, one leg at each place. Cue up another thrilling afternoon at Molineux. Check out the atmosphere! Like we always say, nothing beats a derby.
West Brom got the second game, 1-0, but they lost the playoff final at Wembley to Derby County — of the East Midlands, by the way.
2011-12: Blowout and Riot
Wolves fans, look away again. Both teams were Premier League for this season, and in the first game West Brom got a 2-0 win at The Hawthorns. Before that, though, a local TV show thought it a good idea to get a supporter from each team, sit them down, and record whatever happened.
If anyone wants to do a study of passive aggressive, condescending smart-assery, they can simply use this video.
Painful. But not as painful as the return leg at Molineux, which West Brom won 5-1! These are the best highlights I could find:
Let’s just say that Wolves fans were unhappy after that. They seem to have rioted in the streets. According to police, about 400-500 of them left the game early to wait for West Brom fans outside the stadium, then turned on the cops when they were kept away from their enemy. 600 officers were involved, 11 of them were injured, many were arrested and some £20,000 in damages were reported.
In footballing terms, the aftermath wasn’t much better for Wolves. They sacked their manager the next day, got relegated, got relegated again in 2013, spent a year in League One (hello again, Walsall!) and only got back to the Premier League again in 2018.
Guess who else is back in the Premier League again? West Brom. This means that as of 2021, the Black Country derby is back on. It won’t really be the same until fans can come back to the grounds, so let’s hope both of them stay up so that in the 2021-22 season, we groundhoppers can have a couple of great Black Country derby games to attend.