The When Saturday Comes website recently reminded its readers of an article written back in November 1995 by Don Watson, in which he discussed the uncomfortable but doubtlessly common occurrence of supporters of an away team taking up seats amongst home supporters.
This can be because of a number of reasons: an unsuccessful struggle to get a visitor’s ticket due to a ridiculously small away allocation; a decision to attend the game with friends who support the home side or perhaps a familiarity with the home club due to living in the locality, bringing with it less trepidation in venturing in amongst the locals and easier access to a match ticket when your club is in town.
Watson is a fan of Leeds United, who in the 1995-96 season in which the original article was published, finished mid-table in the Premier League and made it to the final of the League Cup, where they were soundly beaten by Brian Little’s emerging Villa side. Leeds were then struggling to keep up with their success of a few seasons before, having been the final division one champions before the birth of the Premier League. In that first Premier League season, it was Villa, however, who were pushing for the title. As the season entered its final three games Big Ron Atkinson’s team were level with Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, captained back then by Steve Bruce.
On a night in April 1993, when United won at Crystal Palace, we were also away, at fourth-placed Blackburn Rovers, a club flying high on the investment of the late Jack Walker. Reconstruction of the Darwen End behind one of the goals meant a minuscule allocation for visiting supporters (the attendance was just over 15,000, with Villa receiving 500 tickets).
Not to worry, with a friend from the local area, we were able to acquire tickets. We certainly weren’t the only Villa faces in the Blackburn End that night. As the WSC introduction to Watson’s article put it:
“Being an away fan in the home end requires a special kind of supporter. No other creature in nature has to master the intricacies of camouflage as completely as an away fan in potentially hostile territory.”
There were lots of Villa wishes and probably even prayers that night but other than when Dalian Atkinson hit the post early on there was no chance of us inadvertently shedding our camouflage and revealing our true claret and blue colours, other than by a desire to get out of there as quickly as possible at the final whistle.
In a season when they had given us so much to shout about, Big Ron’s team gave us little that night. We were left to marvel at just how good Gordon Cowans (alongside him in the Blackburn midfield was Tim Sherwood) continued to be, supplying forwards Gallacher and Newell, who got the first half goals in the home side’s 3-0 win. If he didn’t know it already, Ron must have realised how good Sid was that night too, as he was back at Villa Park for a third spell by the start of the following season. That night was an epiphany for me, though. Perhaps in the extreme disappointment of that failed title bid, I made myself a promise to no longer sit in with the home fans at a Villa away game. It wasn’t something I’d done too often previously but there had been occasions.
If there was a slim chance of getting a ticket for the away end for that game at Blackburn, there was no chance whatsoever of getting one for Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road ground in 1990-1991. Following an infamous FA Cup match with Millwall in March 1985 which ended in a riot, the club placed a ban on away supporters, which lasted for a number of seasons. So our game there in November 1990 was not one for you to reveal your colours to show you were part of the just over 10,000 members-only crowd.
As it was, the main excitement of the day was, in fact, obtaining tickets from the ticket office, with the aid of some helpful home fans, rather than in watching Joszef Venglos’ side slip to a 2-0 defeat, in the last game of a six match winless run in the league, during which we scored just one goal (sandwiched in the middle of this poor run was the highlight of Venglos’ reign, an unforgettable UEFA win over Inter at Villa Park, as well as the disappointing travesty of defeat in the second leg). It never got much better under Dr Jo.
The last time we were relegated, before this current stint in the second tier, the team (as you would only expect) was well backed on away trips in its attempt to escape the drop. For one reason or another, trips into enemy territory were necessary to see some of the final crucial games. The Upper West Stand at Highbury provided a nice view of the Villa fans at the Clock End amongst the 18,000 plus crowd, less so of the pitch, where we suffered a 2-1 defeat, Warren Aspinall raising hopes briefly with a lucky equaliser.
Aspinall’s goal was not enough for us to give away our Villa identity to the locals, even if they’d not already guessed by the frowns we wore. It was impossible to disguise such looks of unremitting misery – by that stage of the season they were tattooed on our faces.
Two days later, on Mayday Bank Holiday Monday 1987, we were relegated by a home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. A seat in Manchester United’s K Stand (for the princely sum of £4.30) for our final division one game (for just a season as it was to turn out, thanks to Graham Taylor), brought another away defeat. It was memorable only for the Villa supporters in the 35,000 crowd, but not particularly for the players even with a late consolation goal from Paul Birch, whose effort in that deservedly relegated side could never be questioned. If only we’d had eleven of him, then and now.
We’ve all heard stories from older supporters about how they would go to Villa one week and Blues or Albion the next. Such things don’t happen today. It didn’t happen in my day either, but what I did as a kid was stand on the Brummie Road End with Albion-supporting mates when the Villa were in town. It meant we could all watch the game together though banter certainly within the ground was kept to a minimum for fear of your allegiances being revealed beyond your circle of friends. Once out of the ground, in this case the Baggies’ main stand, joy could be expressed at what was thankfully often a Villa victory.
The Milk Cup win of November 1983 was just such an occasion, with goals from Mark Walters and Dennis Mortimer giving us a victory and bragging rights in our Handsworth neighbourhood. Reaching a certain age meant that was the last time a derby game was attended in such a manner, although similar glee at the result has been spent walking down Sandwell Hill after a few Villa Albion games watched from the more hospitable climes of the Smethwick End.
These days, Fulham’s Craven Cottage, with its neutral zone housed just along from the official away supporters allocation, removes the need to sit amongst home fans at an away game and provides a decent environment, conducive to wearing your colours and showing your support in a way that sitting amongst the home supporters never would and depending on your point of view, probably never should. Not that we’d be too likely to reveal our Villa identity at the Cottage if we were to do such a thing, as Villa have given us precious little to shout about at Fulham over the years and that didn’t change this year either.
Of course, you know what you’re getting yourself into if you choose to sit amongst home supporters when Villa are the away team. It’s the strangest of environments to put yourself in. A no-win situation, that’s no fun either. You’re in amongst people who for ninety minutes want exactly the opposite outcome to you, or as Watson more eloquently put it:
“There is nothing to illustrate the Newtonian law about equal and opposite reactions quite so effectively as sitting next to an opposing supporter.”
But at least you were there right? It’s not something I’d recommend or even intend to do again but never say never: away tickets for some of those crucial games can be hard to get hold of.
Written by: Robin Wilkes
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