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March 01, 2009

A ‘So–Called’ Article

One of the most enjoyable sights of this football season has been how the football media and the wider footballing public have been adjusting to Villa’s challenge into the top four of the Premiership. Not a week goes by without the phrase ‘Premiership’s so-called big four’ being banded around in a pubs and media outlets.

People are hedging their bets when they talk about ‘so-called’ teams. They can not use the ‘massive club’ phrase without being labelled a rent-a-quote that pollutes the radio phoneins. No one can quite bring themselves to suggest that there is a select group of clubs in the Premiership, because that is to admit that the league is unwinnable, and we always told that the Premiership is the greatest league in the history of world football.

We all love a football fairy tale. Being an Ipswich fan, I can remember the 2000-2001 season when my team had the possibility of a Champions League position going into the final game of the season. If we fast-forward ourselves to this current campaign, for the first part of this season, we were entranced by the success of Hull City, who had been dismissed as relegation certainties in May, as soon as they had been promoted.

Hull fans began to talk of a ‘European’ tour at Christmas and the journey started to unravel as the festive decorations were being taken down. Normal service seemed to have been resumed, and I sensed that there was some relief amongst the chattering classes. ‘Hull in Europe?’ was the joke, and you sensed a mood that although it was fun to enjoy the Tigers’ moment in the sun, it was time for the big boys and their ‘massive clubs’ (another pointless phrase) to take over. Normal service had to be resumed.

Hull may have gone but Villa is still in the top four, and the great footballing public is starting to grind their teeth. I was the recipient of a foul mouth rant from an Arsenal-supporting work colleague about Villa’s ‘so-called’ arrogance as they sat in the fourth Champions League place. No one was immune from this broadside including Martin O’Neil, Agbonlahor and the fans, and I stood like a stunted goldfish wondering how someone can possess so much anger.

I am wondering whether all this angst is due to the slow realisation amongst the Arsenal faithful that Champions League football is not guaranteed at the Emirates next season. The gunners are fighting off Villa and Everton from their ‘rightful’ position of a fourth Champions League place, like an elder brother struggling to deal with two obnoxious siblings. I am enjoying this battle.

We all know the statistics that Villa have used the smallest squad of the big four, and we have enjoyed some exciting results during the season. It is not an accident that Villa have been amongst that ‘so-called’ top four during this campaign, playing a brand of football that is in marked contrast to the 0-0s that are clogging up various seasons at this present time.

… and people just don’t like it. They want a certain amount of order to be restored, and I could detect some relief when Everton defeated Villa in the FA cup. Like night following day, the headlines began to question whether the Villa bubble had burst, whether the team had imploded, and whether O’Neil had bitten off more than they could have chewed. It seemed as if Villa were predicted to return to their ‘usual’ position of shattered dreams and mid table mediocrity that defined most of the 1990s and the earlier part of this decade.

The vultures have continued to circle since the Chelsea defeat and the European cup exit, but despite the angst from certain fans, Villa enter Spring in a position beyond their wildest dreams. We can have a separate debate whether it was a unnecessary ‘safety-first’ attitude in Moscow, but we should not forget that Villa are still fourth in the league. Arsenal seem to be going through a retro 1990s phase in their development and Villa need to capitalise on this malaise in North London.

It may be an example of how far Villa have come over the past couple of years, when the faithful have high expectations about their team. Throughout my university years, it was a daily occurrence to meet a Villa fan who had written off their season before the end of August. Every single comment would be met with a sad shrug of the shoulders, and the conversation would crumble into a vague misty-eyed discussion about various league cup finals.

Now things have changed. Villa are having a season to remember, and for those supporters out in the footballing galaxy who do not support the ‘so-called’ big four, it is refreshing to see a team upsetting the dull canter of Manchester United and the rest to win every available cup. Can the ‘so-called’ big four be turned into the ‘so-called’ big five? That is the next Villa objective.


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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