September 05, 2008

Stepping Out on a European Tour

Stepping Out on a European Tour (1040 Words Friday 29th August 2008)

It was only at 4:00pm on Wednesday with just over twenty-four hours to go to the big match against FH Hafnarfjordur, when I decided to return to Villa Park for my first taste of Aston Villa circa 2008. I am currently mired in PhD revision and stress and felt that Villa could provide a relaxing tonic in a way that chocolate or TV can not quite reach.

Wednesday 17:40: I gabble with the ticket sales telephone operative for a seat. I am provided with a top class position in the Trinity Road Stand, and assured that I will have a great view of the action. In my excitement, I forget to ask where to pick up the tickets, and feel too embarrassed to meekly phone again to clarify the location.

Thursday 09:00: I try to wise up on Icelandic football. I want to know more about this mysterious country than who is Hermann Hreidarsson. I look at some dramatic snow-capped mountains and hot water springs but find little else.

Throughout the day, I struggle to find anything about tonight’s opposition, and I am still struggling to offer a convincing Icelandic pronunciation of FH Hafnarfjordur. However, I love the fact that this team is still clouded in the fog of the unknown, and wonder whether the players will sprint out of the dugout in flames and smoke.

Thursday 18:50: Arrive at the football ground in the gloom of a muggy summer evening. I run up the Holte End steps like a child going to find Santa on Christmas Day. I interrupt my friend’s Thursday bath in Ipswich to gush about Villa Park.

The sweat smell of chips and doughnuts bounces around in my nostrils, as we discuss the upcoming game with my best mate who is a long motorway drive away. To my left, I watch the lorries stack up on the Aston Expressway into the confusion of ‘Spaghetti’ Junction.

I can see groups of Villa fans proudly clad in claret and blue mulling along

Trinity Road. Every bit of railing is coloured in the club colours, with two gables shaped like lions. I wonder what stories could be told, if these lions could talk.

Thursday 19:30: I find my tickets and prattle to a very tolerant security usher about how I was looking forward to this game. I wonder what she thought of me. “If this guy behaves like this before a UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Road match, which Villa are already 4-1 in front, how would he behave when Manchester United and Liverpool are in town?”

After aimlessly walking around the concourse, I take my seats and immediately see why the telephone operative had described these seats as some of the best in the ground. I look to the Holte End, in full soulful voice, bashing out the club hits like troopers. The pre-match build up involves a mental vow to head in to the Holte End on my next visit to Villa Park but I am unsure which tier would be best.

Thursday 20:00: The match starts and the rest of the first half disappears in a very quick blur. I am mesmerised by Gabby Agbonlahor whose surging runs along the wing remind me of skimming a stone across an electric blue lake whilst on a Sunday afternoon stroll. It is how football should be played.

John Carew and Martin Laursen go for a slow jog up beside the pitch and salute the adoring Holte End. Martin O’Neil gives a series of waves and my attention moves to Wayne Routledge at number 18. I watch him coming in from the flank for a series of powerful shots at the bemused Icelandic goalkeeper.

Gareth Barry is roughly in font of me plying away in the left-back position plying balls up to the surging forwards, in the company of Zat Knight. Two goals are exchanged like two shots in a Wild West Cafe

Thursday 20:45: Half time and I slip into the ancient pursuit of people watching. I wonder whether I should say hello to the cuddly lion that is making his round of greetings to younger fans beside the pitch, but think that my time for all that happened in about 1984 or 1985. Half time does not seem to drag into a black hole of chart hits, and birthday greetings, and the players return to the arena.

Thursday 21:50: Credit must be given to FH Hafnarfjordur. Our Icelandic friends had a good go at this game, and I am not sure that I would have the heart to try and overturn a 1-4 score miles away from home. I join the Villa fans in applauding the vocal Hafnarfjordur support in the director’s box, and stumble out into a warm West Midlands night.

I hear the ecstatic chants of ‘We’re Going On A European Tour’ as I follow the Villa faithful to Witton station. Whilst the football train waits for a green signal, I look to my right to see the bright floodlight shining on a deserted Villa stadium.

The bright blue lettering is unmistakable and the lion crest seems to act as a beacon in the North of Birmingham. The train carriage is full of excited teenagers debating whether their Thursday night can continue in the pubs and clubs of Birmingham. I wish I could join them, but I am tired out. I would be asleep in ten minutes and I know that I have still got to get the Leamington Spa train.

Thursday 23:30: The identity of a football supporter is either his shirt or a programme and I am drawn into conversation with a Villa fan and his mother. Their Villa match had been their chance to recreate some family moments from the late 80s and early 90s. We launch into a Villa history conversation about Dwight Yorke and Dalian Atkinson, which has to be sadly curtailed at Leamington Spa.

It was my first European match at Villa, and it was an exciting experience. I could forget about the PhD stress for a short while. However I hope that the journey continues a little longer this season to the point that a new set of heroes and some new commentary will go into the Villa consciousness as it did in 1982.

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