Written by Mark Richards of Heroes & Villains
As I’ve said before, and you’re probably tired of reading, I’ve been a bit disillusioned with modern football for years. In fact, it had got to the stage where if anyone asked me who I supported, I was starting to hesitate before I said “Villa,” and that would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago.
It wasn’t the football on offer that was driving me away, or the price, and certain not the fact that we were in the Championship and not really showing much sign of getting out of it. The reason why I was so fed up was, well it was everything. I can’t stand the hype, the second-hand glamour, the marketing drive that you ‘have’ to love football and if you do, you have to watch every match on TV, read every word and be in thrall to the big stars.
What I particularly hated was the fact that if by some miracle we did get promoted, we’d then have to spend a fortune to have any chance of survival and that option would be down to the largesse of our owner. Success for the Villa, in whatever form, wouldn’t be due to the manager finding players and a way to get the best out of them, it would be because our rich owners had donated more of their limitless wealth to us than the other clubs’ rich owners had.
Like a lot of us, I was ambivalent about leaving the Championship in any case. I liked being able to talk to other team’s supporters without wanting to ram their patronising words down their arrogant throats. I enjoyed the occasional visit to away grounds; Rotherham was great for cheap beer, Preston for having six thousand of us there and Fulham was Fulham. What a pity they got promoted, then Did a Fulham.
But I suppose what I liked most of all was the feeling of being a big fish in a small pool, of knowing that we were the patronising, arrogant ones and that when I went to the match it was in expectation of winning rather than fearful of a heavy defeat. Deep down, though, I realised that this wasn’t right. It was bulling in a way, wanting to stay with the little lads because we knew that if we went up we’d be back to the bad old days of struggling.
And besides that, it’s not my club anymore. We might sing that we want our Villa back whenever the owner doesn’t do what we want but we have to face the reality that those days are gone. It’s not our Villa and it never will be; it’s the Villa of whoever has the cash to buy out the previous rich man (or not, as the case may be) who got tired of his plaything.
Then something happened. I got my Villa back, or at least my love for my club. It was always there, I just didn’t realise it. And it happened in the most unlikely of surroundings.
When we were promoted before, it was on a wave of memorable performances and unforgettable occasions. The third division and forty thousand-plus crowds. 1975 with its run of thirty-two points out of the last thirty-six. Even Sir Graham’s season, when we staggered over the line, was great thanks to the away form that made travelling around the country so enjoyable. As this season wore on it became clear that even if we did go up, it wouldn’t be on such a wave of optimism that we enjoyed before.
Then that run started with the win over Derby. Jack’s return, and his volley that kickstarted the revival. Not that it meant all that much – after all, we were staying down and he was off in the summer. Don’t get too attached; it won’t last.
Beating Small Heath in the most trying of circumstances inspired a feeling of pride that my team can behave in such a way, then going to Forest emotionally exhausted but still getting three comfortable points. The wins kept on coming but it’s the hope that kills you. Last minute at Wednesday then against the odds at Rotherham. Still I didn’t feel any great attachment. Perhaps I was trying not to get carried away, or maybe I really had had enough.
Against Bristol City there was the definite feeling in the air that we might be on the verge of something to equal those glory days after all. The crowd was buzzing before the match, impressively noisy throughout the ninety minutes and triumphal afterwards. That they could get so worked up about us only added to the belief that we were becoming something to talk about once more. After all, nobody bothers about the little clubs anywhere, do they?
The rest of the season passed in a bit of a blur. I could have been fighting with myself, trying to convince my inner being that I didn’t want to get too carried away because after all, I wasn’t that bothered anymore and life’s better in the Championship.
And so on to the play-offs. By now bugger not wanting to go up. I wanted us to hammer that mob of sanctimonious, self-appointed moral arbiters of best fans and prettiest football back to Smethwick and beyond. Grind them into the dust and leave them so that forever more they’ll be in tears at the memory. Let us hand down such a battering that their future generations will shiver at the mere mention of our name. I cursed when Glenn Whelan miskicked, abused their cheating and time-wasting, cheered myself stupid when we scored, then scored again, and at the end of the game stood for a good five minutes hurling abuse at the rapidly-departing backs of their ever-complaining unfortunates.
But still it didn’t really feel complete. I was just going through the motions. I watched nervously for ninety minutes of the replay, couldn’t watch extra time, walked the dog we haven’t got for half an hour and got back home just in time to see Jed Steer and the Deathstare of Doom carve his name in to Villa folklore. And even though I let out such a scream of delight people two streets away were ringing the emergency services thinking that the Martians had landed when Tammy stuck the winning penalty away, even then there was the nagging doubt that I was really didn’t believe it.
Match tickets, train tickets, hotel (yes, I had booked it before the semi; I was going down for the weekend anyway. Really). Before the match went by in the usual haze of meeting up early, swearing that you’re not going to drink too much because you want to enjoy the day, and being on your third pint by twelve. Again, there was a general feeling that if we win great, if we don’t then we’ll have another season of enjoying ourselves. What was left unsaid was that another season would be a bit hard to enjoy with our loan players gone, Jack and John McGinn joining them and FFP rearing its head once again.
The match itself was the usual mix of hope, optimism, joy, fear and panic. The final whistle went and everyone around me was hugging, jumping up and down, celebrating, doing all the stuff that we’d watched other clubs doing and we’d forgotten about. Then came the moment.
Over to the massed ranks of celebrating Villa supports came two others. Dean Smith, with all his birthdays, Christmasses and school holidays all come at once. Jack Grealish, who’d succeeded in the biggest gamble he will ever make. He’d put his career on hold, sacrificed his place in the England squad, for us. And although I say two Villa supporters, I really mean three.
Two years ago John Terry was up there in the list of Most Hated, and with good reason. Then he joined the Villa, gave us a season of top-quality performances and more than that, played a massive part in clearing out the complacency that had been developing for over a decade. It’s no coincidence that since Terry arrived in the dressing room I can’t think of one game when a Villa player could be accused of not trying.
I know he won everything at Chelsea, and that they’ll always be his club, but watching Terry celebrating with the players and the rest of the coaching staff, seeing that unity between them and the rest of the supporters, made me realise that he’s one of us now, and once a Villa man…
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