Wolves and West Bromwich Albion.
A proper derby. Indeed, one of the very oldest derbies.
Under normal circumstances, competed for amid a crackling, partisan atmosphere with no quarter either given or received.
A rivalry which may have fluctuated in intensity and importance during various eras but most definitely continues to stand the test of time.
It will be almost nine years since the two last faced off – in dramatic fashion – when they meet again at Molineux on Saturday, although the lack of fans will clearly make for a very new and different dynamic.
The renewal of acquaintances will also bring an end to the longest ever peacetime sabbatical for this particular battle for local pride.
Does absence make the heart grow fonder when it comes to this particular fixture on the English footballing calendar? Fiercer, more like!
Even amid some regular gaps in recent decades this fixture has had its moments.
How about Danny Crainie’s double in a Wolves win at the start of the Eighties’ slide, or Steve Bull turning Steven Spielberg with his own script to grab a last gasp winner on his first return to Albion at the end of that decade?
Iwan Roberts’ Hawthorns hat trick, Jay Bothroyd’s winner coupled with Matt Murray’s heroics, a Steven Fletcher brace in a vital victory to help Wolves secure their Premier League status.
Mike Stowell’s penalty save to preserve a goalless draw 25 years ago this very week, or Mick Kearns and Wayne Hennessey performing similar heroics many years either side.
Rob Hindmarch, sadly no longer with us, writing his own name into Wolves folklore with his late late pinching of a point.
And in the blue and white corner? Darren Bradley’s spectacular winner, Keith Curle, Jordao, Carlos Vela, the season Albion won four out of five including both legs of the Championship play-off semi-finals, the South Bank takeover, otherwise known as a pie and a pint.
Going back further, there are even more memories from a fixture that even if sometimes devoid of quality, is so rarely lacking in drama.
None more so than that most recent meeting in 2012 when Peter Odemwingie’s hat trick and a calamitous Wolves second half ended the tenure of Wolves boss Mick McCarthy, sparking a spiral which took the Molineux Men all the way down to League One.
Among the Baggies’ scorers that day was a midfielder who boasts the rare feat of being on the winning side – for both teams – in a Molineux derby.
Step forward proud Dubliner, former Republic of Ireland midfielder, and now assistant coach, Keith Andrews.
He even has the scars to prove it!
“I joined Wolves at the age of 15, and having then lived in the Midlands for a few years, I knew all about this derby,” Andrews recalls.
“I was a fan who had been to games and to different derbies like Celtic against Rangers, and I was well aware of games which had more significance growing up even playing schoolboy football and Gaelic football as well.
“Once I had been in Wolverhampton for a while it was made pretty clear to me that Wolves against Albion was a big deal.
“I knew that the Midlands was very much Wolves against Albion, and Blues against Villa, and that Wolves and Blues or Wolves and Villa was a secondary derby.
“Sometimes people try to throw derbies and rivalries at you at certain clubs when they don’t really exist but Wolves and Albion is proper, it’s fierce.
“There is an historical element to it, they are right next to each other geographically and the fans of both sides work with each other on a daily basis.
“At Wolves everyone would be telling you much they hated the Baggies and how important those two games of the season were – so yes, I was well aware of it!”
Exhibit one from Andrews’ Black Country portfolio came in March, 2001, on only his tenth Wolves league start, at the age of just 20.
Crossing the Irish Sea to join Wolves Academy after taking his exams as a 15-year-old, Andrews had already spent time, and undergone trials, with several different clubs.
Newcastle, then in the Premier League under Kevin Keegan, made a strong offer, but Andrews had felt particularly at home during Easter and Summer holidays spent at Wolves, and also felt the route to the first team might be both quicker and more realistic.
There was also a huge Irish connection at Wolves, with many other young players daring to dream in making that same journey, including a certain Robert David Keane.
“From day one something just felt right to me about Wolves, from the way I was treated to how much everyone made me feel welcome and at home,” Andrews recalls.
“It was just a gut feeling to pick Wolves, and gut feeling is something I will often use when making decisions still now.
“I loved my apprenticeship – it wasn’t without its tough times and sad days and teary nights as a young boy away from home, but it served me well through the rest of my career and also in life in general.”
Andrews progressed through the ranks both ambitiously and impatiently.
Always learning, always developing, but desperate to savour a first team opportunity.
After a couple of brief substitute appearances in wins against Swindon and Crewe, further openings didn’t follow, so Andrews, wanting to play games, headed for a loan spell with Oxford in which he scored the winner on his full league debut away at Swansea.
Then, after the departure of Colin Lee, assistant John Ward stepped as caretaker boss before the arrival of Dave Jones, and recalled Andrews for his first Wolves start, in a 1-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
“It is ironic because I am now an assistant and have been a coach for several years and when John was assistant at Wolves, he would always say to me, ‘I’d play you if I was manager’,” he recalls.
“As a 19 or 20 year-old at the time I would probably be thinking: ‘Really? Would you?’
“But John was true to his word, and, when he was in charge for a few games, brought me back from a short spell at Oxford which had got me up to match tempo, and put me straight into the team.
“Dave Jones then came in and also showed a lot of faith in me, and, even with other more experienced midfielders around, for the rest of the season I was pretty much in all the time – it was my breakthrough.”
And one of those games, so early in Andrews’ Wolves career, was a 3-1 home success against Albion in which George Ndah (2) and Ludo Pollet were on target.
“I remember Albion were going well and we were struggling a bit, mainly rebuilding under a new manager and going in a different direction,” says Andrews.
“In big derbies, sometimes it means that little bit more to the underdog, and I just think back to it being a phenomenal day.
“Some days you get a feeling in the dressing room, that everything is going to go right, that you are going to get on the front foot and you are going to smash them.
“That is how it turned out, and I still have a scar on my hand from that game!
“It came from a challenge and I don’t know if it was Richard Sneekes, Michael Appleton or Neil Clement – as the years have gone on the memory has faded but I still have the scar as a reminder.
“I was loving it, flying into tackles, knowing what it meant to the fans, it was just a quality day.
“To be playing with so many of my mates who had I come through the youth team with, and then George, who had been very good to me as a young player, getting the two goals…it was brilliant.”
Joleon Lescott, Lee Naylor, Carl Robinson, Adam Proudlock. Those were the mates Andrews relished playing alongside during an era when several Academy graduates – including by then the departed Keane – burst onto the scene.
At the same time, as Jones continued to rebuild, the dressing room was soon stacked up with big players and big personalities – Paul Butler, Denis Irwin, Paul Ince, Colin Cameron, Alex Rae, Dean Sturridge, Nathan Blake. It was no place for the faint-hearted.
Although he relished the competition, and learned a huge amount from those more experienced colleagues, Andrews feels he wasn’t given a “fair crack of the whip” in opportunities, and that first breakthrough season would ultimately prove as good as it got for him at Molineux.
That having been said, a red-card at Crystal Palace which he still feels was harsh nearly 20 years later, didn’t help in prompting a crucial suspension at the start of the following season, albeit one consolation was to become Wolves’ youngest captain in a century at home to QPR on the final day.
“I looked around the dressing room and saw some really experienced players, players whose boots I had cleaned as an apprentice, and so to be chosen as captain was a huge day in my career,” says Andrews.
“The game was fairly forgetful but certainly not for me!”
The following two years however Andrews wasn’t as involved as much as he would have liked, especially during the play-off winning season, where any chance of featuring in the closing stages was ruined by breaking his ankle in the FA Cup quarter final at Southampton.
He did make his Premier League debut in a 1-1 draw against Newcastle, in between loans with Stoke and Walsall, and was also a regular starter under Glenn Hoddle, but by this time Andrews had already decided he needed a fresh start.
“I was up against those really experienced and proven campaigners and so I knew it was going to be tough but I felt I wasn’t given a fair crack,” Andrews explains.
“Then it got to a stage where I wasn’t playing, didn’t look after myself as well as I should, and started picking up injuries.
“I was a young lad with a few quid in my pocket, socialising too much, and then it becomes a vicious circle.
“I have gone on record previously to say that I didn’t like my last two or three years at Wolves, I felt like I was always in limbo.
“I fell out of love with football, it became more like a job, and ask any footballer and they will tell you – it should never feel like a job.
“I do have to look myself in the mirror, I wasn’t as professional as I should have been, and as the years went on I used that as motivation.
“But I do think the club could have allowed me to leave, especially when I wasn’t playing too much.
“I had been trying to move on for two, two-and-a-half years, and that is a long time in football.
“Glenn Hoddle came in, and I liked playing for him.
“He played me in a deeper role in midfield, and I loved some of the things he brought to the club.
“He was by far the most forward-thinking manager I had worked for to that time and some of his ideas were phenomenal.
“But I had already made my mind up – I wanted to leave.
“I was going to let my contract run out, be in control of my destiny, and make a fresh start.
“I just had to go, I had been at the football club for nine years, and I felt I was part and parcel of the furniture, which I didn’t want anymore.
“The easiest thing would have been to sign a new contract, but it wasn’t a financial decision, I just wanted to take that next step and really challenge myself somewhere else.
“Listen, there were some great times, and the club was on an upward trajectory with that play-off win, but from a selfish point of a view it just felt like my career stalled after that first breakthrough season.
“And do you know what? I really don’t think the Wolves fans ever saw the best of me, for that variety of reasons.”
It would be an incredible 11 years between Andrews’ two Black Country derbies, and there was still plenty of time after leaving Wolves before he would find himself back in residence in the Midlands.
After leaving Wolves he joined Hull, but suffered an injury early on, and it was then at MK Dons, where a former team-mate would later arrive as manager, that the rejuvenation of Andrews’ career really started to take shape.
Paul Ince came in to take the helm, MK won the League Two title and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final at Wembley in which Andrews scored a penalty, and the former Wolves skipper then took him to Blackburn, back to the top flight.
It was at Ewood Park that Andrews would make the vast majority of his 85 Premier League appearances.
“Something felt right for me when I went to MK Dons, and Incey came in as manager for my second year there,” he explains.
“I have to say I had a slight concern, as there had been a bit of an edge to our relationship at Wolves and we had been through a couple of run-ins.
“I took so much from those experienced players at Wolves, and it was a proper old school dressing room with some of the characters at the club at that time.
“But also, I would never take a step back even as a young lad – there were some hefty tackles back in the day in training and I am sure the senior players probably thought I had too much to say for myself.
“Paul Ince though, he is an absolute warrior.
“He is easily one of the best players I ever played with and I couldn’t believe how good he still was when he arrived at Wolves.
“I picked up so much from him, although probably a whole lot more when he managed me later on and I wasn’t in direct competition for a place in the team!
“And I needn’t have been concerned when he came to MK, because right from the off he was unbelievable for me.
“I was a big part of things at the club already, but he made me feel like a million dollars from the first conversation we had on the phone.
“He pretty much based the team around me, let me lead the dressing room like he had at Wolves, and I think that working relationship was mutually beneficial for both of us.
“He coached me and nurtured me and gave me some of his pearls of wisdom, and ultimately gave me the confidence to go and show I could become the player he felt I could become.
“Offers started coming in for me, but Incey asked me to stay, and said that if he got a job in the Premier League, he would take me with him.
“That happened with Blackburn, and I know he had to fight to get me there as the club weren’t keen on bringing in a player from League One.
“But he wanted me there, he knew what I was like and how he could trust me, and I would like to think that even though unfortunately Incey wasn’t there anywhere near as long as he would have liked, I vindicated his decision and desire to get me there.”
It was at Blackburn that Andrews earned his first senior Republic of Ireland cap, at the age of 28.
He would go on to win 35 in total, including at Euro 2012 where, despite his country’s disappointing showing, he was a rare shining light, and would later secure the FAI’s Player of the Year Award.
A desire to be in the best possible position to make that squad had seen Andrews depart Blackburn on loan for Ipswich, where he scored nine goals before Christmas.
He then gave up an 18-month contract at Ewood Park to sign a six-month deal with Albion, a move that put him on collision course for his second involvement in a Black Country Derby.
That most recent meeting of the impassioned rivals would have dramatic and long-lasting consequences for anyone of a gold and black persuasion.
Andrews, on his Baggies debut, notched the fourth goal in a 5-1 victory which included four goals in 25 carnage-filled second half minutes.
“Roy Hodgson had enquired about me when he was at Fulham, and speaking to those who had played for him and the way he sets his teams up, I felt I could flourish,” says Andrews.
“Going into that game, it was a big one for me with it being not only my debut but going back to Wolves – I had to hit the ground running.
“It was a strange day.
“Wolves are the club who gave me my first ever chance and for that I will always be tremendously grateful, but it was also where my career stalled a few years later.
“And that day, from a West Brom perspective, it felt exactly the same as my previous derby with Wolves – there was only ever going to be one outcome.
“We were very well organised under Roy, we were confident and just felt in the ascendancy for most of the game.
“There is no getting away from the fact I was delighted that day, to score, with the result, and it was such a big time for me with the Euros just around the corner.
“But I also had a lot of friends on the Wolves team that day – Ireland team-mates – and my overriding emotion as I walked off the pitch as I looked at Mick and Terry Connor was sadness.
“I knew where Wolves were in the league, the pressure they were under, and what might happen after such a result.
“I knew Terry from the help he had given me when I was at Wolves, and while I didn’t know Mick personally, he is someone I have always looked up to and have the utmost respect for with what he has achieved in the game.
“Wolves at the time were struggling, and that was something that carried on after the decision was made for Mick to leave.”
Andrews enjoyed his time at The Hawthorns, and may well have stayed longer had Hodgson not left to take on the England job, but ultimately it would be the end of his own Premier League adventure, albeit he continued to play at Championship level with Bolton, Brighton and Watford before launching his next chapter as a Player/Coach back at MK Dons.
As with playing, Andrews has had to work extremely hard to progress, and remains appreciative to Karl Robinson for the time at MK which offered plenty of responsibility, full access to board meetings and recruitment and “a brilliant learning environment to flourish.”
Andrews had already kicked off his coaching qualifications whilst at Blackburn back in 2008, and, after MK, went on to work within Ireland’s underage teams before becoming assistant to Stephen Kenny with the under-21s.
Then, with the succession plan to follow McCarthy brought forward due to the Covid-19 pandemic and cancellation of Euro 2020, Andrews continued his association with Kenny as assistant to the now senior boss.
It has been a challenging introduction, not least because of restrictions associated with the pandemic, but also losing out on penalties after dominating Slovakia in the semi-finals of the Euro play offs.
“When the penny dropped, I got to where I did in my playing career by hard work and sacrifice, and doing the right things, and that is what I have taken into coaching,” says Andrews.
“I have been through the Coach Education process for the last seven or eight years, completing my Pro Licence a couple of years ago, have been on countless courses to improve myself, and have been in coaching at club academies whenever I could.
“Retirement scared me to be honest, I had seen what it had done to several of my team-mates at Wolves, and so while I physically I could have carried on playing for longer I decided to throw everything behind my coaching.
“I have been developing both as a person and as a coach, and had already had plenty of experience with Ireland’s underage teams before joining up with Stephen and the Under-21s, and now the senior team.
“It is a challenge but also very enjoyable, working within the senior set-up which currently includes a lot of younger players and trying to mould them into a successful team.
“It has also been a difficult and trying few months where we know results haven’t been good enough and to lose on penalties to Slovakia was obviously hugely disappointing.
“Unfortunately those results do happen, and we have to dust ourselves down and go again, and ultimately we want and need to win football matches.
“It is time to look towards March, an exciting new campaign, to galvanise the group and make sure we are aiming for a successful future.
“Covid has made life challenging for everybody, but hopefully the vaccines are going to make a difference and both football and life can move towards being more normal over the coming months.
“I am just really itching to get back into it again, and like all of the staff I am working non-stop behind the scenes to do everything I can between camps to support Stephen.
“I just want to continue bettering myself as an individual, which in turn will hopefully help the group, and this is a great opportunity which I am really keen both to grasp and embrace.”
Working behind the scenes includes continuing to watch Irish players in as many games as possible, and Andrews has remained – when travel is permitted – in his role as a respected pundit for Sky Sports, although on a lesser scale now he has those increased responsibilities with his country.
A stylish midfielder who could pick a pass but also put his foot in where needed, he has taken that honest and forthright approach into his media work.
However, not sure you will see too many of those pundits recording warm-ups on their phone and jotting down passing drills in case they might be of use in the future!
Andrews will also be taking in the renewal of the Wolves/Albion rivalry, this time from his armchair, almost 20 and nine years respectively from his own memorable experiences of the fixture.
“It’s a huge game at the moment, and Albion, with one of my former managers in Big Sam, need a result,” he admits.
“Wolves have set the bar so high in recent seasons that the last few weeks feels like a bit of a dip, not helped by losing (Raul) Jimenez, but they are still on a phenomenal journey.
“It’s going to be an intriguing game, and one I will definitely be watching!”
Even without fans, there will no doubt be more drama, more memories to be made, as either Nuno continues to improve his already lofty status among the Molineux faithful, or boyhood Wolves fan Big Sam comes back to gatecrash the party.
For Andrews, having finished as a winner on both sides of the Black Country fence, this is one afternoon when he cannot really lose!