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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.

June 08, 2008

England and Euro 2008

It’s like nothing has changed

It is three days into the Euro 2008 championships, and I am in a parallel universe. I have managed to forget about Big Brother but I have been less successful in forgetting about the lack an international team in Austria and Switzerland. You know who I mean! The side plays their matches at Wembley stadium, wear a white shirt emblazoned with three lions, and once won a trophy when my parents were in their teenage years.

In a weird way it is quite relaxing that there is no home interest in the tournament. I did not realise how good I look in a Spanish football shirt (!) and I have not had to build myself up into an emotional frenzy that crashes within the first seconds of an England game after the first tepid back pass to goal. I do not have to treat ‘news from the England camp’ with the same importance as one of those alarming adverts of the 1970s that told you to hide under a bridge during nuclear fallout. .

This year, I do not need to believe that this will be ‘England’s year’ after what I believe is a convincing win against a difficult opposition ends in the following match with a heartbreaking penalty shootout. I do not need to waste the next two days on Internet forums discussing why England cannot take penalties. I believe that England in an international football tournament has become as predictable as an Eastenders plot line.

Despite my relaxation, I was obviously disappointed that England did not qualify, but I did not believe that hell had frozen over because my national team had failed to qualify for a tournament that is arguably more difficult then a World Cup. I believed that it was a case of short term pain for long gain. For at least the last decade, or probably longer, England had been bereft of ideas and had been living on past glories of Euro 96, which some observers still believe that England won in all but name.


With the lack of home interest, I optimistically hoped that Gerrard, Terry, Lampard, Rooney and the rest would be locked into barren rooms that played constant Euro 2008 coverage, to help them understand their failure to qualify for a tournament. I did not want to see Theo Walcott on All Star Mr and Mrs, Peter Crouch frolicking around a beach without a care in the world and Wayne Rooney’s stag night.

I wanted Steve McClaren to have spent the months since that Croatia game considering how he had effectively failed to lead his team to Austria and Switzerland. I did not want to see a ‘media’ campaign that was about as reflective in tone as stagnant water, which announced that McClaren was back and ready for job offers. The whole sorry episode reminded me of Del Boy trying to sell a battered Robin Reliant.

My therapy after last November’s Croatia game was helped by the appointment of Fabio Capello. I optimistically believed that the new manager would bring some fresh ideas to the table. I even believed that England could actually play in a formation that was not 4-4-2 and that young players could get a chance to shine in preparation for the World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign. I believed that I could sit down and enjoy Euro 2008, with the thought that everything was ticking along nicely at home, and I could enjoy an England campaign in 2010 that would not collapse into acrimony at the quarter final stage.

The warning signs were there when Beckham played in an England friendly within Paris at the end of March. I was pleased to see Beckham get his sort-after cap and I applauded his contribution to club and country over the last decade or so. I was surprised to see Beckham return for the further friendly matches and concerned to see that ‘Becks’ had re-established himself to the right of the midfield. I do not doubt his ability as a dead ball specialist, but does England have no emerging right wing talent that could be at the peak of their powers for World Cup 2010.

I can not help but feel that an opportunity has already been lost in failing to try out some young talent in the England ranks. Trying out means not just calling up young turks like Joe Hart and Gabby Agbonlahor for a training session. Trying out does not mean an 89th minute cameo like a Britain’s Got Talent act but giving at least 45 minutes of action for these young and enthusiastic players. Remember the revelation in World Cup 2006 matches, when we discovered that Aaron Lennon was able to run at defences?

I now read that Steven Gerrard is now being primed for the left wing side of the midfield. This move smacks of desperation on the same level as Coca Cola’s attempts in 1985 to convince a sceptical public about the taste of ‘New Coke.’ Why change a winning formula? Find me a Liverpool fan who can earnestly tell me that Gerrard can perform at his best on the left wing, and I will run naked up

Wembley Way.

I can offer some more concerns about England’s game, but I think that these are old concerns, and the will starts draining from you when the same issues return again and again. I guess that the jury is out until the World Cup qualifying games. I also have to wonder whether I would have been so pessimistic if England had been in Austria and Switzerland this summer.

I can be assured that Euro 2008 has to be a sobering experience for everyone connected with the England national team from the fans through to the FA hierarchy. The lack of action in June 2008 does not just means some breathing space for the football suits to work out how to get the World Cup to England in 2018.

It is probable till 29th June that none of us can forget about the fact that England are not at the tournament. We can try and support a random foreign team, and I am following Spain because I believe that their football should be of the style that should be adopted by England. We have to hope the lessons of Euro 2008 will be learnt and this great footballing nation will come back stronger in 2010. After all, missing out on one tournament can be regarded as unfortunate; two will be seen as a crisis.

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