“Never the best for actual football, this local derby sunk to a new low with five players booked, one sent off and a catalogue of nasty tackles and incidents. Admittedly the weather was foul, but that was no excuse for some of the things that went on.”

This damning summary came from Central Television’s Gary Newbon as he introduced highlights of Aston Villa’s clash with Birmingham City. It was 15 October 1983 and viewers were warned to expect the worst from that day’s feisty encounter at Villa Park. In the brief package that followed, the ball was shown holding up on the rain-soaked turf as two combustible teams threw everything they had at each other. Top-flight football was rather different back then, with physicality and intimidation key components in any contest.

That game has since gone down in history as one of the most notorious meetings between Blues and Villa, followed by another grudge match later in the season. The Second City derby is rarely short of incident, with regular clashes both on and off the field, but this took things to another level entirely. The local press were quick to condemn what went on, with some choice headlines in the next day’s newspapers. It was labelled “The Horror Show” by the Sunday Mercury and “Brum’s Day of Shame” by the Birmingham Evening Mail.

“The rivalry was intense between Blues and Villa, and on the two occasions we played them that season it wasn’t any different,” said Howard Gayle, who had signed for Birmingham City from Liverpool earlier that year. “To be fair to both teams, that first game at Villa Park should never have been played. The pitch was atrocious. There’d been heavy rain before the game and there were large pools of water on the pitch.”

The difficult conditions had a big influence on the outcome as an error-strewn goal gave Aston Villa a 1-0 win. A hopeful punt over the top turned the Birmingham defence and although Pat van den Hauwe reached the ball first, his back-pass was held up in the water. Tony Coton’s rushed attempt to gather succeeded only in handing a simple chance to the persistent Peter Withe, who jabbed the ball into the net before celebrating in front of the home fans.

“I’d actually scored a few times against Birmingham,” said the former striker. “I did it at St Andrew’s funnily enough, when Ron Saunders was about to take over. He’d refused to do so until the Monday, when the game was done. We played them on the Saturday and I scored the winner. As a player and a team you want to win every game. You try to put it to the back of your mind that it’s a local derby, but it’s something special to the supporters. It was great to score, particularly in front of the Holte End.”

“I’d been to Villa-Blues derbies as a supporter so I knew what it was going to be like,” said Coton. “I knew it would be hostile. The conditions were wet. We didn’t think the game would be on, to be honest. You know that it’s going to be intense, it’s going to be close. You were always told to play the game, not the occasion, which is hard when you’re local lads. There were a lot from Birmingham in our side. I’m from Tamworth. It’s hard because you’ve been there as a supporter, you know what it’s like and you know what it means to your mates and everybody else. You try to treat it the same as any other game but you know it’s not.”

It was a suitably scrappy goal to decide a game that might have lacked in quality but certainly not endeavour or intensity. Desire, commitment and aggression characterised the efforts of both sides. Aston Villa occupied their traditional role as favourites, the far more successful establishment club that Birmingham City’s punchy underdogs couldn’t knock off their perch. Blues were determined to find other ways to compensate for a shortfall in skill and, even if they couldn’t win, at least subject their opponents to an unpleasant afternoon.

Villa had finished sixth in the First Division the previous season, 11 places clear of their local rivals. The year before they’d won the European Cup with a side constructed by Ron Saunders, who now found himself in the Blues dugout. He’d resigned from Villa in February 1982, a few months before their great triumph against Bayern Munich, following a disagreement with the board over his contract. Saunders soon returned to take the towering Noel Blake and the needling Robert Hopkins, both passionate Birmingham City supporters, with him to St Andrew’s.

“It was hard coming up against Ron,” said Allan Evans, who made almost 400 appearances for Villa over the course of 12 years, after joining from Dunfermline Athletic in 1977. “He was the one who brought me down to Aston Villa in the first place so I’ll always have a great deal of respect for him. I thought he was the best manager I ever played under. Not just because he signed me, but because of the type of person he was. He expected everything of me and I expected to give everything I could. If you were on the same wavelength as Ron in terms of giving it your all then you’d never fall out with him. He’d always have your back. But if you stepped out of line then you were in trouble.”

Saunders was quite the taskmaster. Demanding, disciplined and fiercely loyal, he crafted a team in his own image. His eight years at Villa Park delivered great success, including a promotion, two League Cups and the First Division title. The decision to take over at Birmingham City was a contentious one and added an extra dimension to a long-standing rivalry.

At the time there was plenty of crossover between the two clubs, much of it facilitated by Saunders. While Blake and Hopkins had been peripheral figures for Aston Villa, they became cult heroes at Birmingham City. In his single first-team appearance for Villa, Hopkins had insisted on wearing the Blues badge beneath his shirt. His loyalties wouldn’t be compromised even if it meant incurring the wrath of the club he played for and its fans. Villa supporters turned on Hopkins when they found out, hastening his departure.

“I suppose it added something to the game from their point of view,” said Coton. “They’d all been at Villa. Ron had won them the league, and he basically won them the European Cup. I know Tony Barton was the manager but it was Ron’s team. Wherever you go, it doesn’t matter what affinity you have. If you leave somewhere you want to come back and do well and show them what they’re missing. Without doubt, Blakey, Hoppy and Ron wanted to beat the Villa that day.”

“They weren’t regulars at Aston Villa and that’s the reason they moved on,” recalled Evans, the Scotland international centre-back. “They obviously wanted to prove a point and I think occasionally things got out of hand. In those days, when tackling and physical contact were allowed, people could go overboard at times. When you’re in a bloody battle, as those games were, sometimes you’ve got to look after yourself to a certain degree.”

The Aston Villa side also had players with Birmingham City connections. Peter Withe had spent a season in royal blue before going on to make his name at Nottingham Forest, Newcastle United and then Villa, for whom he scored the winning goal in the European Cup final. Alan Curbishley had left St Andrew’s for Villa Park a few months before, while Tony Morley and Dennis Mortimer would have brief spells with Blues later on in their careers. In total, eight of the 24 players involved that day would turn out for both clubs at one point or another. If anything, familiarity seemed to breed contempt.

There was already plenty of animosity between the two camps, who would take the chance to stoke the fires further ahead of kick-off. Mind games were an important part of a player’s armoury, as Allan Evans explained. “The intimidation started in the tunnel, it didn’t start on the pitch. You were always likely to say something to someone, particularly your immediate opponent, that would upset them. That’s what it was about – 11 players who were trying to be better than the opposition.

“If that intimidation or talking could upset their rhythm then that’s what you’d do. That’s not necessarily dirty tactics, that’s just the way it was in those days. In terms of technique and ability, football’s better than it’s ever been, but there’s not as much edge to it as there used to be. I was successful in football because I was a fighter. I was a battler. I was committed to my team and I was committed to my teammates. If someone hurt my teammate then they were hurting me.”

There was no lack of fight on show at Villa Park, with so many fouls committed that the game never really developed any rhythm. More than 50 free-kicks were awarded in total, many leading to longer delays as players argued over the referee’s decisions or sought to settle individual scores. There were wild challenges throughout, with Howard Gayle hacking down Mark Walters early on to set the tone. The Villa players responded with indignation.

As tensions rose and exchanges became more heated, Mick Harford clashed with Dennis Mortimer on the touchline. Although the ball had already rolled out of play for a throw-in, Harford took the opportunity to punt it directly at the Villa captain from close range. Just feet from the watching fans, the two squared up to each other, both determined not to back down or lose face.

Shortly before half-time, with Villa leading 1-0 through Peter Withe’s goal, the atmosphere turned particularly nasty. Kevan Broadhurst attempted to control a skidding clearance with his chest but the ball overran, opening the way for Steve McMahon to launch himself into a crunching, studs-up challenge. There was a heavy collision and instant retribution from Harford and Gayle among others before McMahon had even got up off the ground.

The referee, David Allison, rushed over to intervene. McMahon somehow received only a booking despite breaking Broadhurst’s leg He was stretchered off to be replaced by Byron Stevenson, and would miss more than two months of the season. That proved to be the tipping point as a simmering, barely contained tension finally spilled over.

“Tackles were flying in,” said Withe. “It was a bit of a battle, and the way the game progressed there was ill-feeling on both sides. It erupted. The day and the conditions warranted sliding tackles, and they were flying in from here, there and everywhere. Players were getting agitated with the way that the game was going. It got a bit heated. If you look back at some of the tackles that were going on you could understand why people were getting frustrated. It maybe got out of hand a little bit and the referee could have sent three or four players off.”

The match itself became almost a secondary concern in this brutal battle of wills. Noel Blake thought he’d equalised from a corner, as he forced the ball over the line following an aerial challenge between Mick Harford and Nigel Spink. The referee called back play for a free-kick while the Birmingham players, wearing their away kit of white shirts, blue shorts and red socks, appealed to no avail.

The action wasn’t limited to the confines of the pitch either, as a half-time ruck proved. Overwhelmed with a sense of injustice, and keen to defend their injured teammate’s honour, Blues continued the fight in the tunnel during the break. Some went straight towards the Villa dressing room as the enmity threatened to get completely out of hand. Several players had to be calmed down and made to refocus on the match.

In the second half, after a series of increasingly rash tackles, a red card was finally brandished. It had been a long time coming. Colin Gibson’s desperate lunge on Howard Gayle turned out to be the final straw for Allison. Gibson left the field still railing against the referee’s decision as Blues proceeded to take charge of the game’s final stages. Their push for an equaliser seemed to have been rewarded late on when Gayle’s cross into the box was inexplicably handled by Peter Withe.

Often taunted as a Villa reject, Noel Blake stepped up for a shot at redemption but his weak, side-footed penalty was comfortably saved. He was in the thick of things once again at full-time when he was approached by Steve McMahon, the Villa midfielder unwisely choosing to gloat about the score. Blake responded with a headbutt which was missed by the officials but not the TV cameras. He was later fined £200 for bringing the game into disrepute.

“McMahon had been mouthing off during the game, and then at the final whistle he gestures ‘1-0’ and tries to shake Blakey’s hand. That was it. He was very lucky because it was only a soft one from Blakey,” laughed Coton. “We missed a penalty. We had a goal disallowed that we felt was justified. They scored off a back pass that’s stuck in the water as I’ve gone to pick it up and Peter Withe just gets a toe poke on it. It goes through my legs and that’s a horrible way to lose a game. Blakey would have been frustrated that he missed a penalty and he’d had his goal disallowed, and that was the wrong thing for McMahon to do.

“I’ve seen the footage of that game since. You just know now that they’d probably be banned for 12 games or something like that for some of those challenges. The fact is that they didn’t get spoken to half the time. That’s just the way the game’s moved on. There was a bit of a dust-up in the tunnel after as well but that happens. We’d just lost the game and felt we should have got something from it. It was just handbags really.”

As ever, Birmingham’s players wouldn’t let it go. They challenged their Villa counterparts to pick up where they’d left off in the players’ lounge after the game but nothing came of it. Still smarting from the defeat, they would have to wait several months for the chance to get revenge in the return game at St Andrew’s. Certain vendettas were left to stew and fester.

If the fights between both sets of players were somehow grimly fascinating, the violent exchanges between supporters inside and outside the ground were anything but. One was stabbed and 80 others were arrested that day. Unfortunately, such turf wars were a routine feature of meetings between the two clubs during the tempestuous seventies and eighties, an undercurrent of which still remains. Hooliganism was in the ascendancy as football became something of a pariah sport in mainstream society. Clashes between rival fans were a common occurrence and could overshadow the match itself. This time they went hand in hand.

“It was a war against Birmingham, it wasn’t just a game. That’s the way the fans wanted it to be in a lot of ways,” said Allan Evans. “The problem was always if it spilled over on the pitch then it was likely to spill over on the terraces. That’s the last thing you wanted to happen as a player because people got hurt. But on the pitch it was a certain type of warfare. You weren’t going to use your fists but there would be a physical element to winning the battle against your opponents.”

Gayle agrees with the sentiment. “We weren’t aware of anything after the game but it’s something which is synonymous with derbies,” he said. “The fans compete with each other off the pitch as much as the players do on it. Birmingham City and Aston Villa fans were no different. In fact, there was maybe more of a rivalry and a hatred between the two clubs than many other derbies I’ve played in.”

That group of Blues players – Harford, Blake, Hopkins, Gayle and Coton chief amongst them – carried a fearsome reputation. They were a tight-knit bunch and fiercely protective of each other. They would often be seen out together in the pubs, bars and clubs of Birmingham and certainly weren’t to be messed with, either on or off the pitch. A drinking culture prevailed throughout football and they were active participants, often spending Saturday nights together with the supporters who’d earlier watched them play from the stands.

That closeness could be a blessing and a curse. It showed that top-level players remained approachable and rooted in the local community, but didn’t suggest the highest standards of professionalism. Some of them occasionally ended up in scraps but could always be relied upon to back each other up. Birmingham supporters of that era were perversely proud of their fighting spirit and the sense that they understood the club’s underdog mentality.

Those players were in their element ahead of the return match, which took place at the end of March 1984. It was their explicit purpose to right the perceived wrongs of the previous meeting. Avenging the loss and Kevan Broadhurst’s broken leg provided extra motivation beyond the three points Blues needed to start pulling away from trouble at the bottom of the table.

“When we played them in the second game at St Andrew’s the whole build-up the week before was really tense,” recalled Gayle. “All of the players and the coaching staff knew that we owed it to ourselves and the supporters to put it right. That week we were kicking lumps out of each other in training. There was a tense atmosphere within the club. Every day in training there were arguments, scuffles, little niggly things. Everyone just wanted to play in that game and the fans were willing us on.

“The gaffer got us in on the Friday morning, he picked the team and reminded us what was at stake. The dressing room was that intense before the game that the players took over. We were geeing each other up and reaffirming what we had to do. It was about giving each other that bit of confidence. There was no way we were going to lose that game. We were up for it.”

Although Mick Harford was suspended, substantially reducing Blues’ goal threat and intimidation factor, they still believed. So did the supporters, as a crowd of 23,993 – more than double that of the previous two home games – turned up for the occasion. While the weather was nowhere near as bad as last time, it was a blustery day and the ball was difficult to control.

Having exited the FA Cup at the quarter-final stage, league points and local pride were the only priorities left for Birmingham to focus on. Despite a run of eight games without defeat after the turn of the year, relegation was still a distinct possibility. Aston Villa weren’t entirely safe either. They were in patchy form, particularly away from home, but had won at Sunderland in their previous game. As a result, Tony Barton went with the same starting line-up, meaning there was no place for Dennis Mortimer or first-choice goalkeeper Nigel Spink.

Within minutes of kick-off Robert Hopkins, who had already been suspended three times that season, was pulled up for the first foul of the game. The winger had decided to renew hostilities with Colin Gibson, roughly bumping the Villa player off the ball. The referee, John Hunting, decided that a warning would suffice.

Blues exerted the early pressure in another physical game, which was enlivened by an impressive finish from Byron Stevenson. The chance came about through aerial bombardment as the ball was twice loaded into the box but only partially cleared. Gayle lifted it back in again and Mick Halsall’s header fell to Stevenson, who improvised well, hooking the ball into the top corner on the volley to put Blues ahead.

Withe missed a good chance to equalise, firing over from 12 yards out, but the Villa striker did find the net midway through the first-half with a thumping header from Paul Rideout’s cross. “You’re not singing anymore,” cried the triumphant Villa fans as the home crowd was temporarily silenced. The goal was no less than they deserved for a spirited display and the sides went in level at the break.

A strong and sharp-elbowed target man, it was the kind of contest that suited Withe. While some players wilted under the pressure, he embraced it. “I’d been brought up all my life believing that you’ve got to battle through adversity,” he said. “You have to keep working hard and climbing the ladder. When those situations come about you’ve got to try and rise above it but never back down. Some people relish that sort of environment, and some don’t. When the big occasion comes, not all players step up to the plate."

Withe did, but it wasn’t enough. The second half started with a game of head tennis between opposing defences, which was brought to a close as Halsall punted the ball away for Gayle to give chase. The former Liverpool man latched onto it, took a touch to move clear of the defenders in pursuit, and drilled his shot low past Mervyn Day. He ran off in delight, scaling the fence in front of the Kop, right fist aloft, to celebrate with the supporters. It’s become an iconic image in Blues’ history.

“It was a great moment. It was everything,” said Gayle. “It got us back in front and it was my first goal in a Blues-Villa derby. It turned out to be the winner but we had two chances cleared off the line within five minutes of scoring that goal and we really should have put the game to bed. We were on the front foot and we were spurred on by all those Blues fans.

“I’ve been a football fan and I know what it’s like to lose to your arch-rivals. I know what it means to the fans. We used to spend a lot of time with Birmingham City fans. We were always around them and they were always reminding us that we had to beat Villa. I thought we were really unlucky in the first game at Villa Park but there was no mistake in the second one.”

Gayle seemed especially invigorated all game, hunting down lost causes and never giving Villa’s defenders a moment’s rest. His pace and directness made him a constant threat. After a blistering run past his sparring partner for the day, Allan Evans, he almost set up Robert Hopkins for a third goal but Colin Gibson intervened. “How cleanly past his man did Howard Gayle go then?” enthused Barry Davies on that night’s Match of the Day. “Didn’t break stride, just took the bend like a thoroughbred.”

For Villa, the trickery of Mark Walters was causing problems for Brian Roberts, a new signing who’d already been installed as Blues captain. Although efforts from Rideout and Withe went close, the home side held on for victory. A mini pitch invasion followed. Sweet as it tasted at the time, that was to be the club’s last win of the season. Just four points were taken from Birmingham’s final eight games as they slumped to 20th and were relegated back to the Second Division.

They were even complicit in their own downfall. The out-of-favour Mick Ferguson was loaned to Coventry City and scored three goals in seven games for the Sky Blues, helping them to survive at the expense of his parent club. Relegation was confirmed on the final day, with Aston Villa comfortably ensconced in the top half. Blues arguably never recovered from another physically and emotionally draining derby. Revenge had been secured but it was ultimately in vain.

“We were without some key players, and maybe we thought that game against Villa was our season-breaker,” said Gayle. “Instead of kicking on from there we went backwards. We drew a lot of games, even the last one, which we really needed to win. We ended up drawing 0-0 at home to Southampton, which meant that Coventry escaped.

“You don’t win trophies or stay in the division just by beating your arch-rivals. We underachieved towards the end of the season but I wouldn’t put it down to complacency. I’d put it down to the fact that we were only a relatively small squad and we lost some key players who we really missed. You can lift yourself that extra bit, and ride through the mist with derby games to some extent, but over the course of a season we just couldn’t cope without those important figures.”

Two games of frayed tempers, pitched battles and occasional outbreaks of football had a defining effect on Birmingham City’s season, but not in the way they’d hoped. The brutal meetings with Aston Villa stood out as landmark moments in an otherwise disappointing campaign in which that same level of effort and commitment failed to yield sufficient points to ensure their survival. With one win each, the derby spoils might have been shared that season, but, as has so often been the case, Villa had the last laugh.

From their perspective, a successful era was giving way to a far more challenging and uncertain one. The side that Ron Saunders had built, and the mentality that he’d instilled, was gradually being lost. Villa continued to finish above their local rivals on a consistent basis but missed the galvanising effect of their old manager, whose stay at Blues only lasted for another couple of years.  

“The side that won the championship and the European Cup was so good because they cared for one another,” said Evans. “That team was getting broken down after that. New players were coming in and there was never the same togetherness as Ron Saunders had built. That’s what you’ve got to recognise. He had a formula that worked for him and was successful for him at Villa. Once he was gone, and the changes started being made, it was never going to be the same.”

The same was true for football in the city as a whole. The landscape shifted along with Saunders during that period, as he had a defining impact. He later took charge of West Bromwich Albion for a little over 18 months as they also dropped out of the First Division and he was unable to plot an immediate return.

That would prove to be Saunders’s last managerial job and a far cry from previous successes as Blues, Villa and Albion fell on hard times in the late eighties.