I am an Aston Villa fan … well not one those rabid ones. I can recall seeing them four times live and probably seen a professional football match six times live. The first time I saw a football match I was six years old. It was at Villa Park in Aston, Birmingham. It was an amazing experience. 1960, October 1st. A neighbour around the corner took me to the match, he was with the St John’s Ambulance and he was volunteering at the ground. It was a magical experience; it was the first time I recalled being in such large ‘enclosed’ space. There was an electric hum from the crowd. Sort of an infra-sound. The pitch was the brightest green I have ever seen. And I got to see it literally from the touch line, I was told not to wander onto the pitch, but I was old enough to know not to do that.
I have vague recollection of the match, the claret and blue of Aston Villa. I remember the colours of Leicester being a light blue, but who knows, this memory has been retrieved and redeposited so many times. To the eyes of this six year old the teams seemed fairly even. The difference being the goalkeepers. The excited roar followed by a disappointed groan as the Leicester goalkeeper saved another attempt. The ecstasy and the agony if you like. Anyway Leicester went on to win 3-1. The goal keeper for Leicester happened to be Gordon Banks, who went to play for England’s triumphant team in the World Cup in 1966.
But what a experience, it was magical.
Why support the Villa? Villa’s archrival was Birmingham City, their ground was marginally closer. Well Villa was my first match. And, our lodger Toni, was a professional coach, I vaguely remember him being at Aston Villa, probably as some third assistant trainer or something. Apparently he was a coach in Hungary and Portugal as well. So my support for Villa was set. I can remember Toni tying a shoelace to a football, to help hone my skills. The ball in the rain passed as a medicine ball. It didn’t work.
The next time I saw Aston Villa play was in 1968 at St Andrew’s, the home ground of Birmingham City, aka the Blues. By now I was going to school in Bordesley Green (two bus rides from home). I went past the old St Andrew’s pretty much most school days. My classmates were all Blues fans. Anyway, I watched the game from Tilton Rd with my mate Robert and surrounded by the home side – Blues fans. I wasn’t able to cheer for Villa, not that there was much to cheer about, they lost 4-0. Probably saw the Blues play as much as I did Villa at this time.
At home there was a token rivalry, my Mum supported the Blues, my Dad West Bromwich Albion, not that they would go as far as look up a result or anything. There were two years where Villa and their fans had to endure the third division; anyway that ended. I eventually ended up going to university in Norwich and in the final year April 1975, my ex-girlfriend, her husband to be, my wife to be and I went to Carrow Rd to watch Villa versus Norwich (Canaries) for the last league match of the season in what was then the second division. I did not jinx them, Villa won 4-1. Villa got promoted to the first division. It’s funny how little I remember of that match other than feeling sorry for Norwich.
When I finished university, I went to South Africa for six years, did not watch any live football there, but did play for Chamber of Mines there, a social league. On returning to the UK, I did get chance to watch at least one more Villa game, went with a fellow squash player, but a real Villa fan, Graham. It was a dreary affair in November 1986. I remember it as a 1-0 win for Villa against Derby County, but checking the results Villa won 2-1. Two things that stuck out for me how the Derby and Villa fans had to be kept separated in the stands and they were still trying to have a go at one another. The other thing that stuck in my memory was Steve Hodge, he was more than a competent central midfielder, but god was he foul mouthed. Incidentally Steve Hodge was the one who inadvertently set up Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal when playing for England. About the same time, I did get a tour of Villa Park, it was one of those fan-touristy things. The memory has all but faded.
My last professional match that I watched was in 2013, Montreal at Vancouver in the second leg of the Canada Cup. I happened to be in town and was persuaded to go to watch at BC Place. Again it was on of those magical moments when BC place filled up (well half filled up). There was a sublime goal where Camilo Sanvezzo scored from a set piece from near the halfway line.
And of course there was Nigel Reo-Coker a name that I was familiar with. Most Saturday mornings, I go to the BBC football website and see how Villa are doing. Reo-Coker had been a Villa player, 2007 to 2011. That evening Reo-Coker ran his heart out in a loosing cause. The Whitecaps had gone 2-0 up, with Montreal coming back to draw 2-2 and winning on aggregate away goals. A ‘good’ match to watch.
Over the years I have played recreational football too. In my youth I played just for the fun of playing football: in the schoolyard, or at university a pick-up game or intramural seven-a-side. In Canada played in a recreational league, in fact I have played more in Canada than anywhere else. But the knees protest too much now.
Other people have pointed out aspects of football are a little like religion. Some personal recollections and observations:
- It is magic, well magical is a better description. It inspires a sense of awe as described my first experience of Villa Park. I have sensed the same thing at other venues eg Turffontein the deep murmur of the crowd in anticipation of the first horse race.
- Many fans are devoted. They donate their hard earned money and give Aston Villa money just to watch the sermon from the Park.
- There is worship, the current Saint Jack Grealish is the hoped to be the Saviour.
- Speaking of hope, Aston Villa won’t get relegated this season and will climb the stairway to Premier League Heaven in the coming seasons. And Champions League Glory.
- Does the hope verge on prayer? And of course the Villa hopeful have faith that the team will regain past glory.
- There is a sense of connection and betterment, this is hotly discussed on fora like VillaTalk.
- Football has its cathedrals, England’s Vatican is Wembley, all fans want to worship their teams at this particular Mecca. And of course Villa Park is one of the most venerable cathedrals of old.
- Then we have the chants, exalting the great ones before us today and demeaning the demons that are preventing us from displaying our majesty.
- Rituals we have, wearing the colours, scarves, and shirts with current and past saints emblazoned on the back.
- Then there is looking for salvation when we are down at half time.
Religion can have its negatives. On the less positive side:
- We have the devil, the club that cannot be named outright – SHA from The Sty.
- SHA’s followers cannot be name directly either, blouse. They must be vilified; on no account can anything positive be said about them, lest it turn out to be true.
- Amongst us we have those who will protect our hallowed name with violence.
This of course is a little tongue in cheek, but with an element of truth.
I hope I never have to cry Why have you forsaken me Aston Villa.