STEVE Clarke has predicted a derby ‘cracker’ against Villa in Monday's Hawthorns clash (ko 8pm) – and has called on his men to ‘earn’ the bragging rights for the Albion fans.
The Baggies have finished above their claret-and-blue neighbours in the table for the last two seasons and are unbeaten in five games against them.
Those stats have given cause for Baggies supporters to drum up the anthem ‘Pride of the Midlands – We Know What We Are’ in celebration of their new-found status as the region’s top dogs.
And Clarke hopes his team can keep delivering with the rivals locked in mid-table on 14 points apiece, and tenth-placed Albion only better off on goal difference by one.
“The song the Albion fans sing says it all really,” said the Hawthorns chief, ahead of the live TV encounter.
“It means a lot to the supporters to finish top dogs in the Midlands.
“I’m sure the Villa fans are the same, and the Birmingham and Wolves fans.
“Over the last couple of years it has been the Albion fans who have had the bragging rights.
“But we don’t have a God-given right to that – you have to earn it.
“At the moment both teams are trying to earn that right.
“It’s a West Midlands derby – the only West Midlands derby in the Premier League this season because, unfortunately, some of the other teams have dropped out.
“It’s a big game.
“We understand what it means to our supporters.
“I’m sure the Villa people know what it means to their supporters.
“We’ve got the Monday night all to ourselves, the whole country can watch if they want, and hopefully we put on a good spectacle.
“I’m a little bit biased – I hope the Albion get a good win.”
He added: “I think both teams are evenly balanced this season.
“Where we are in the league I think is a fair reflection for both teams.
“We had a slow start, they started a little bit quicker but we are where we are.
“There are still a lot of points to play for and a lot of games still to win.
“Where we’re going to end up I can’t tell you – but I know on Monday night it should be a cracker between two teams.”
Both games last term finished in draws and Clarke’s overriding memory from his first tastes of this particular contest was the atmosphere.
“In the first game at Villa Park, I thought we played very well and controlled most of the game but let it slip away from us a little at the end,” he said.
“I think we could probably feel a little aggrieved not to take all three points from that one.
“In the home game we played poorly in the first half and found ourselves 2-0 down.
“It took a really big effort for us to rescue the point and I think at the end of that one a point each was a fair result.
“They were two great games with two great atmospheres.
“They were enjoyable games to be involved in and hopefully this year will be the same.”
The visitors have only lost once on their Barclays Premier League travels this campaign – a narrow 2-1 defeat at Chelsea.
And Clarke has been impressed by Paul Lambert’s men as he focuses on ways to snuff out their counter-attacking threat.
“We expect a difficult game but I’m sure Villa expect the same,” he insisted.
“Paul’s good because he changes his formation a lot and he makes it difficult to read the type of team he’s going to play against you.
“So there has been a lot of work done in the coaches’ room and on the training pitch.
“Hopefully you’ll see the results on Monday night.
“I think it will be a good game.
“I like Villa; I think they play with good enthusiasm.
“Their performances away have been good.
“They have a team well suited to counter-attack so we have to be on our toes.
“We’re aware of the threat of Aston Villa, we’re aware of what we have to do to counteract that.
“But we have to concentrate on ourselves as well; we have to make sure we go out and play to our maximum.
“If we do that we can get the three points.”