Tales From The Second City

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 21 February 2009.

That was more like it.

The games are coming thick and fast now and I didn’t have too much time to dwell on the first game under the tutelage of Guus Hiddink. I think he is the nineteenth Chelsea manager in my lifetime. They come and go.

I left home in good time to collect Andy and Parky from their homes in Trowbridge by 8.45am. Not too much to say about Trowbridge. It’s the county town of Wiltshire, but is pretty bland. Hugh Cornwall of The Stranglers lives nearby and has recently written a song tacking the Mick out of it. There is a sizeable Chelsea support in the town though.

Loads of banter on the drive up the M5 yet again…I’ve lost count how many times I have driven along this route for an away game this season. Barring an inevitable CL semi at Anfield, this would be for the last time, though. Stopped at Strensham for a coffee…loads of Villa milling around. Villa’s support does reach down the M5 corridor towards Bristol. I was meeting up with Bob from Fremont in California, who had reached Birmingham in good time by train and was already in The Yew Tree at 10.30am. Every time I drive to Villa, I head past The Hawthorns and arrive from the north…I got trapped south of Villa Park after a game in 1994 and vowed “never again.” Villa Park nestles between Aston Park and the cloverleaf intersection of the M6 and the Aston Expressway which we Brits call “Spaghetti Junction”. Birmingham is our Motor City, the old heart of our ailing car industry…and I can’t stand the place to be honest. So – anyway, I was parked up just before 11am, and my quick getaway route all sorted.

Parky – on crutches still – was moaning about the long walk to the pub and so I told him to wind his neck in! We noted the blue skies above the terraced streets and industrial units of Whitton. I had a jacket on and, despite a breeze, the weather was surprisingly warm. Eventually, The Yew Tree emerged like a vision on the horizon. It was opposite a canal, of which there are many in Birmingham.

Parky and Andy got the beers in – their payment for my driving – and I located Bob nursing a pint of lager in a sunny room next to a conservatory. Cathy and Dog were outside. We only had an hour or so before we needed to move on to the stadium. One of my football passions has always been stadia design and history. The doyen of this is Simon Inglis, who first brought out his “bible” ( “The Football Grounds Of England And Wales” ) on the subject around 1985. I have the third edition, enlarged to include Scotland, which came out in 1996, plus three more books by him too. I knew Bob was keen to read up on Archibald Leitch ( yep, him again ) and so I lent him two of my four Inglis books to read while he is over here. Simon Inglis is a Villa fan too, so it seemed only right that I should hand over the books on this particular day. I remember Inglis lamenting the demise of the ornate Trinity Road stand in around 1996. Bob has been bitten badly by the Chelsea bug…his first game was in Palo Alto. I remember briefly chatting to him in the pub before that game in 2007, but he has since flown over to Europe four times since to see the team. We chatted about a range of things – including plans for the tour in the summer, plans for Juventus on Wednesday – and the beers went down well. It was soon time to leave for the game.

The Chelsea section was the northern end of the Doug Ellis stand. There was quite a line at the turnstiles. I spotted Dave Johnstone and had a quick chat. I said I’d try to get something to him for CFCUK about my own personal story of why the impeding trip to Torino means so much to me. He seemed pleased. This will be my CFCUK debut. Looking forward to it I must say.

Whereas Bob, Andy and Parky ( not to mention a few more mates ) were in the lower tier, Alan, Gary and myself were way up in the Gods. Three more people ( Roy, Ian and Kevin ) who were at the pub in Palo Alto were close by. Bob was actually two rows from the front and I was two from the back. I got to my seat just before kick-off.

Villa Park looked a picture, bathed in the winter sun. I took my jacket off – phew.

My thoughts the entire game were that we were still playing with Anelka wide in a standard 4-3-3, but I have since read Hiddink’s comments about us having an extra man in midfield ( presumably he meant Kalou ). I was convinced that Anelka was wide left the entire game…OK, apart from his goal. Did anyone else think we were playing 4-4-2? We certainly began well, lots of possession. The Chelsea support appeared to be invigorated too, with constant noise. I have to say I was disappointed by Villa’s support.

When Frank received the ball on 19 minutes, I was convinced that he would struggle to do much with the ball as he was hemmed in by two defenders. I should have relaxed – Frankie danced away from his markers with a superb shimmy and put through a slide-rule pass for “Doves” to dink in. That was a fantastic goal – another one for the boy Anelka. The players celebrated down below and I quickly grabbed my camera from my back to snap away. I have the roar from Ballack captured on film. I like our movement in the first-period with plenty of thrust provided by Bosingwa and Kalou down below me. Villa had a few chances of course. I captured Ashley Young’s free-kick on film, the ball just leaving his foot on a swerving trajectory towards the goal. It rattled the bar and thankfully our usual nemesis Heskey couldn’t convert. The game ebbed and flowed…it was a nice game of football.

I noted a few banners on the balcony at the Holte End…”AVFC Our Obsession” and “The Holte End – The 12th Man.” These are in a similar vain to out banners at Chelsea. A nice touch I think. You may not have seen it on TV, but there is a permanent message on the balcony at the North Stand…it details about twenty words uttered by the commentator when Tony Morley crossed for Peter Withe to score the winning goal in the 1982 European Cup Final. Again, a nice touch. At half-time, a platoon of soldiers, just back from Afghanistan, were welcomed onto the pitch and they walked the perimeter, shaking hands with fans from both sides. I expected them to get to our section and for the first one to ask “right – where’s Lovejoy?” Bob was about six seats away from Lovejoy and reported that he stayed awake all game.

Soon into the second-half, my good mate Alan pointed out past the North stand, to my right and said “blimey – looks like even the mascots have given up on the game.” The two Aston Villa mascots ( lions – no doubt called Rory and Leo I suspect ) were seen walking across the Villa car park…as bizarre a sight as I have seen for ages, like something from a Dom Joly TV show. I had to capture it on film – and once I get the photograph, I will run it as a caption competition. My submission is –

“Right, I’ll see you back home. Don’t forget the shopping – a tin of baked beans, some washing up liquid, a wildebeest and a couple of gazelles.”

Roars of laughter.

Villa had more of the game in the second-half and I had to note that on many occasions our central three of Mikel, Ballack and Lampard were too close to each other. We seemed unable to exploit space out wide. However, I thought Deco did OK when he came on. Villa had a few half-chances but their finishes were poor. JT had a great game alongside Alex, especially when they were faced with both Carew and Heskey.

Loads more photographs of the team celebrating together in front of the delirious away fans at the end of the game, too.

Well happy with the result. Fine singing from us, too.

I met up after with all my mates outside The Cap And Gown pub. Andy, Parky and myself were headed home, but the other members of The Bing ( Alan, Gary, Daryl, Simon, Milo, plus associate member Bob ) were off into the city centre for some beers. We will all meet again on Wednesday for the Juventus game. It was very warm on the trot back to the car – February for heavens sake! I overheard a few Villa fans grumbling to each other and inwardly smiled.

We were very happy to hear that the Goons had dropped points at home. The weather was beautiful as we raced south. What a nice day out. Just time for a solitary beer at The Black Horse in Trowbridge and we arrived just as United scored. We watched for half-an-hour, the pub full of plastic United fans. Parky looked like he was looking for an excuse to give a United fan some verbal, so I excused myself and left just before Ronaldo gave them the 2-1 win.

United will win the league this season, but I think we can push on and finish second.

I have waited thirty-four years to say this…”Juventus next.”

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