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A Midlands revival?

As the weekend's Premier League scores filtered through, it was like 1981 revisited for the football tribes of the Midlands. Aston Villa had won at champions Manchester United, Birmingham City celebrated victory over West Ham and Wolverhampton Wanderers had triumphed against all odds at Tottenham.

Stoke City could not quite complete a quartet of successes against Wigan, but there was an unmistakable sense of a throwback to the days, 28 years ago, when Ghost Town rose to No. 1, Chariots of Fire ran all-comers ragged in the film industry and the region stood tallest in English football.

Villa were champions, bound for European Cup glory. And the presence of West Bromwich Albion, Nottingham Forest, Stoke, Birmingham, Wolves, Coventry and Leicester ensured the Midlands occupied more than a third of the First Division places.

Today, the representation is half that level. Yet in a Premier League that has been carved up between the north-west and London for too long, the signs of something stirring in the Second City and beyond are as welcome as they are overdue.

The only blot on Birmingham's landscape, as Blues fans savour five straight wins and wait for Alex McLeish to splash Carson Yeung's cash, is that their run has coincided with a Villa surge that has swept Martin O'Neill's side into the Champions' League places.

Villa were there early this year, of course, only to burn out as the matches piled up. This weekend's visit by Stoke will stir uneasy memories; the same fixture last March started the unravelling process, Villa leading 2-0 before being pegged back to parity in the final three minutes.

This season, not only were Villa relieved of European responsibilities in August but their squad has greater depth, a vital difference given that their style is predicated on energy-sapping endeavour. O'Neill bought well when he revamped his rearguard with Richard Dunne, Stephen Warnock and James Collins in August and they are tied with Manchester United and Chelsea in boasting the best defensive record in the league.

Stewart Downing's impact since his long-delayed debut has allowed the manager to tweak his midfield, with James Milner switching to a central role and reminding us that he was once a goalscoring teenage prodigy at Leeds. Why, even Emile Heskey is holding down a starting place - to the satisfaction, no doubt, of Fabio Capello - and has scored three in five games.

Not that O'Neill is admitting to any excitement, even with a Wembley place up for grabs when Villa meet Blackburn in the Carling Cup semi-finals next month. He prefers to lower expectations. "We're a million miles off," he scoffed after another away win at Sunderland on Tuesday. "There's a tendency to get incredibly excited when you win a few games."

At long last, Birmingham fans know that feeling. As striker Cameron Jerome put it memorably: "We're flying up the table sneakily, but trying to keep our feet on the ground."

McLeish is no more given to flights of fancy than O'Neill, his old Glasgow rival, but the dourness many perceived in him is now regarded as astute, no-frills management. The Scot's position could have been precarious when Yeung completed his takeover from David Sullivan and David Gold. Undeterred, he concentrated on reshaping the side he led to promotion.

He had backed his judgement with a keeper, Joe Hart, who was deemed surplus at Manchester City. And at a time when Joleon Lescott cost Mark Hughes £22 million, he paid a total of just £8.5 million for two centre-backs, Roger Johnson and Scott Dann, who had never played at the highest level before, yet are now fixtures in the Premier League's fourth-tightest defence.

In such hands, the £40 million war chest pledged by Yeung for McLeish to invest next month could net four or five players that might make the difference between matching the 10th place achieved under Steve Bruce and a Europa League spot.

Birmingham's almost tangible unity could be damaged by players seen as being there only for the money. McLeish, though, is a canny operator, who absorbed important lessons while playing for Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen, and will be alert to such dangers.

Insiders claim Yeung's enthusiasm is coursing through the club. The trick now is to maintain the momentum. Games like Sunday's at Everton - who are in the kind of position Birmingham were tipped to fill - must be seen as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks.

Wolves, who won the Championship ahead of Blues, have under-achieved by comparison, with Mick McCarthy's standing hardly enhanced by his 'second XI' selection at Manchester United. He will appear vindicated if a recharged Wolves 'first team' win a third game in four at home to Burnley. Lose or draw and the heat will really be on for Wolves, who have already played West Ham, Portsmouth and Hull at Molineux with a return of just a single point.

The absence of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Michael Kightly and Chris Iwelumo did not help. But the fact that seven of McCarthy's nine summer buys were in his makeshift side at Old Trafford suggests his dealings were less judicious than McLeish's. While the £6 million Kevin Doyle does look the part, another front-line striker must be a January priority.

Stoke, meanwhile, look comfortable in mid-table, the kind of status they last enjoyed three decades ago. Nevertheless it is a sign of the raised expectations among the Premier League's most partisan crowd that there were rumblings of discontent during the autumn. Criticisms centred on the unlovely long-ball game practised by Tony Pulis. However, the long wait for him to unleash Tuncay Sanli has finally ended, lending much-needed flair to the functionalism which Stoke, along with spirit and strength, possess in abundance.

The halfway point of the campaign beckons. As Villa found last year, halfway to paradise is nowhere if you do not see the journey through. The Midlands is braced for a thrilling ride.


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