Alex McLeish could have been forgiven for believing a West Midlands derby would be a serene affair compared with his experiences in Glasgow but the Birmingham City manager made that mistake once and learned his lesson. A Q&A evening at St Andrew's, on the back of a crushing derby defeat in April 2008, opened McLeish's eyes to the level of pain supporters were feeling and made him realise he had underestimated the intensity of the fixture.
Villa hammered Birmingham 5-1, the fourth of what is now a record six straight victories over their neighbours, and emotions were still running high when McLeish turned up at the club a few days later. The Scot knows a thing or two about tribal loathing from his time in charge of Rangers but the audience that greeted him at St Andrew's felt the need to explain the enmity that exists between Villa and Birmingham as well as cross-examine his tactics.
"I underestimated the derby when I first came down," McLeish said ahead of Sunday's game at Villa Park. "We got a thumping. And the backlash from the fans made me realise this is an enormous derby, up there with Rangers and Celtic. I went to a Q&A the week after and the questions weren't vetted, it was no holds barred, and there were a few things I didn't like that were said that night. But it was good information. And it made me realise about the fever pitch of the derby here in the Midlands.
"I went into the game with good intentions but we got beaten heavily," McLeish said. "But nobody ever praises you for that. If I went 4-5-1 people say 'too negative'. But then you go 4-3-3, with [Mauro] Zarate, [James] McFadden and [Cameron] Jerome, and people say 'gutless, spineless'. So you just can't win. The result is the only thing. It's black and white. To be fair, in the last two we've been excellent and taken Villa to the wire and been unlucky not to take anything."
Although the Birmingham manager pointed out that he has presided over only three of the past six defeats by Villa, he also suffered three defeats and a draw to Celtic in his last four matches as Rangers manager. The contrast with the man in the opposite dug-out is stark. Gérard Houllier has gone 13 derby matches without losing, including nine as Liverpool manager, against Everton, and four during his time in charge of Lyon, against St Etienne.
So what is Houllier's secret? "First of all you need to be really aware that it's a different game in terms of commitment, intensity and the attitude," the Villa manager said. "At the same time you need to show some qualities which are absolutely indispensable to win it on top of your football. For instance, self-control, composure, character. You have to be focused and very concentrated, and you know in that sort of game will to win is as important as skill."
Houllier passed on some tips to McLeish a few years ago, when the Birmingham manager took a sabbatical from the game after leaving Rangers. McLeish described the time he spent watching the Frenchman coaching and managing at Lyon as a "great education", and the two have remained close since. They have yet to socialise together since Houllier took over at Villa last month but the Frenchman expects that to change after Sunday's match.
It is not the only thing McLeish hopes will change as he looks to end Birmingham's losing streak and shift some of the power back to the blue side of the city. "When we talk in terms of finance and investment, Villa are still light years ahead of us," he added. "Whether there is a massive disparity in technical ability, you'd have to question because of the way we played last year. We'll try and beat them tomorrow, that's for sure."
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