Tales From The Villa

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2012.

As I drove north on The Fosseway, past the towns of Malmesbury and Cirencester, I admitted to Parky that I was finding it hard to get “up” for the league game at Villa. What with our extended runs in the Champions League and the F.A. Cup this season, I have a feeling that if the Chelsea section of my brain was to be analysed, it would show something like this, as of the morning of Saturday 31st. March 2012 –

Champions League 50%
F.A. Cup 40%
Premiership 10%

But that is not to say that I always rate these three competitions in this manner; far from it in fact. Given the choice of one trophy each season, I would always choose the domestic league. Why wouldn’t I? I spend countless days following Chelsea’s pursuit of league points throughout the season. It’s just that as we are at such an advanced stage in both of these tough cup competitions, it is only natural for me to devote more thoughts to these two trophies. Or more importantly, if the truth be known, not the matches at all, but the whole”Chelsea-Matchgoing Experience” for the games in those competitions.

Firstly, let’s think about the F.A. Cup. Daryl kindly bought tickets for a few of us on Friday so that we can all sit together on that Sunday in April. All of us want to expunge the sour memory of the 2008 Carling Cup final from our minds. Thoughts of the pre-match at a sun-drenched Duke Of York near Marylebone and then a game against the team I like to beat most (well, them and United, it’s a tough call.)

Then we have the return leg against the eagles of Benfica on Wednesday. That promises to be another superb night of European football at The Bridge (and let’s not mess it up, eh Chelsea?). Should we be successful, we will then reach our sixth CL semi-final since 2004. That’s an amazing achievement, isn’t it? For all the new fans out there, you are lucky beggars. It took us 49 years for us to reach our first CL semi-final (Monaco, 2004) and we have reached four more (Liverpool, 2005, Liverpool 2007, Liverpool 2008 and Barcelona 2009) since then. It is no wonder that my head is full-to-bursting with European day-dreams. Should we put Benfica to the sword, we meet the favoured Barcelona or the under-dogs Milan. To that end, I have gambled on a cheap flight to Barcelona from Bristol; just £28. It would, as they say, be rude not to.

The weather was overcast as I headed north on the M5. Parky wisely commented that the colour of the sky blended in seamlessly with the colour of the road ahead. Only the occasional blush of gold from roadside daffodils and forsythia added the slightest hint of colour to the view.

Villa, eh?

I was well aware of our recent poor run of form against them. Since our classic 3-0 win at Villa Park in the Spring of 1999, we had won just once; Guus Hiddink’s first game in charge on a ridiculously warm and sunny day in March three years ago. I had been present at both of those games, but for many years, the thought of visiting Villa Park did nothing for me. From 1995 to around 2005, I only used to be able to afford to go to around 6 away games each season. I would rotate the grounds I visited, but would tend to steer clear of Villa Park. Sure, our record wasn’t great there, but I am not a fan of Birmingham in general. From March 1999 to January 2007, I only visited Villa Park once – a 2-1 loss in 2003. One of the worst ever Chelsea performances I can remember took place at Villa Park, too; a 3-0 defeat just after Christmas in 1994. Driving home that night, the rain lashing against the windscreen, my friend Glenn fell asleep in the back of my car. I always remember him waking from a dream in which he had witnessed Paul Furlong paying the ultimate price for a dreadful performance by being guillotined.

This would be my thirteenth visit to Villa; we had only won three of the previous twelve games. I guess this is the real reason for my ambivalence to visiting the place.

And yet, Villa Park is a grand dame amongst football stadia. Aston Villa were formed in 1874 and have played at Villa Park since 1897. When I first became entranced by football in the early ‘seventies, Villa were a third division club and were off the radar. They rose through the league system and were promoted to the top flight – alongside Manchester United – in 1975. They won the league under the stern authoritarian reign of Ron Saunders in 1981, famously using a first team squad of just fourteen (yes, fourteen) players. They won the European Cup the following year. They were a good, if not great, team, playing a very British system, full of tough-tackling midfielders like Dennis Mortimer and were spearheaded by the twin strike force of Peter Withe and Gary Shaw. At right back was ex-Chelsea midfielder Kenny Swain (whose league debut I witnessed in my very first Chelsea game in 1974.)

I remember my grandfather saying that he followed – though with not the passion of his only grandson – Aston Villa and Newcastle United in his youth. I have a feeling that Villa was his first love, with Newcastle only gaining his attention via a family friend – a local vicar – who resided for many years in Newcastle. I know that he once visited Stamford Bridge, the only football stadium he remembered visiting, when he was a young man. I begged him to tell me more of this sole visit, but his memories of that one game were not great. He went with his great friend Ted Knapton, but that is all he knew. I like to think that both of them visited Stamford Bridge for the Aston Villa vs. Huddersfield Town Cup Final at Stamford Bridge in 1920. There is every chance that this could be the case; both of them (they were both called Ted) were stars of the village football and cricket teams. As was the way in days of yore, county football associations would always get tickets for the F.A. Cup Final and I like to think that in 1920, the name of Mells & Vobster United was drawn out of the hat and the two stalwarts of my village’s sporting scene were justly rewarded. Apart from a win in 1957, that victory in 1920 was Aston Villa’s last F.A. Cup triumph.

We were parked up at around 12.45pm and the two of us spent ninety minutes in a relatively quiet pub a mile to the north of Villa Park. The “Crown & Cushion” allegedly used to be one of the Villa firm’s main pubs back in the rough-and-tumble of the ‘eighties. We have never experienced trouble there, though there is no doubt that Parky and I were the only away fans present. The pub is run by West Indians and the menu behind the bar detailed such delights as jerk chicken, mutton stew, ackee and saltfish and the like. Parky and I were not tempted. We decided to stick with pints of Kronenburg 1664 amidst talk of plans for upcoming Chelsea matches. Parky reminded me that his daughter Jade once played as a goalkeeper in one of the Aston Villa women’s teams a few years back. She lives in nearby Tamworth.

Parky shot off inside the away end while I spent twenty minutes or so taking a few shots of the area by the Trinity Road stand. Much to many Villa fans – and certainly my – consternation, the original Trinity Road, complete with red brick façade and Edwardian towers and gables, was demolished in around 1999 and was replaced by a hulking mass of steel-cladding and little charm. Part of the stand now runs over the road which it gives it its name; the tunnel is not on the same scale as at Atletico Madrid’s stadium, but is a unique feature in the UK. One of these days I will visit the red brick Aston Hall, which resides atop the park to the south of Villa Park. Outside the stadium, there was the usual hustle and bustle of a match day which I find so beguiling even after all these years. A Villa fanzine seller was vitriolic in his comments about current Villa manager Alex McLeish. At centre-stage in front of the stand was a simple statue of a bearded man, who I knew to be the former Aston Villa chairman who helped form the Football League in 1888.

His name was William McGregor and I guess we owe him an awful lot.

As I re-traced my steps towards the away entrance on Witton Lane, I heard the chants from opposing fans.

Chelsea : “One team in Europe, there’s only one team in Europe.”

Aston Villa : “Have you won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup?”

I made it inside the upper tier seats with only a few minutes to spare. I was alongside Alan and Gary, high above Parky and others in the lower tier. If I am honest, I am still getting used to the new 4-2-3-1 formation, but it is one that I have long admired. I seem to remember Liverpool using it well a few years back. No need to guess who the “1” was in that team.

What a crazy game. We should have been well clear at the interval and Fernando Torres could easily have bagged a hat-trick. He has endured the most awful luck in our colours, but as Alan said, we would rather he was getting himself in positions to miss rather than not getting into positions in the first place.

An early Torres chance was spurned but then a cross from Ashley Cole found the on-rushing Juan Mata. He aimed for Torres, but his shot from close in was inevitably blocked. It fell to Daniel Sturridge who poked home. A long distance blooter from Mikel was slightly deflected and was saved by Shay Given. Soon after, Mata delicately lofted the ball goal wards but the ball hit the base of the far post.

On 19 minutes, the home fans stood and clapped in order to show solidarity with the Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov, diagnosed with leukaemia just 24 hours previously. We soon joined in. I honestly wonder why people are surprised to see how football fans behave at moments such as these; we’re not animals, you know.

We had impressive ball retention and occasional chances; we were clearly the better team. The Villa fans were very quiet and there were gaps in the Holte End and the Trinity Road. Villa Park usually hosts full-houses. Seeing so many empty seats was a new experience. The Chelsea fans taunted the gaggle of noisy youngsters in the North Stand –

“Your ground’s too big for you.”

They responded –

“If Torres scores, we’re on the pi55.”

Despite our superior play, Villa had a few late chances as the first-half ended. Sturridge lost possession deep in our half and Cech did well to save a shot from Agbonlahor with his foot. The ball flew up against the bar and we exhaled a collective “phew.” Luiz was replaced by Gary Cahill just before the break.

We all agreed that we should have been well ahead during the interval chat amongst friends. A few mates from Nuneaton called by; they had gambled on flights to Barcelona too. Nuneaton is only 25 miles away from Villa Park and Andy was dreading anything but a Chelsea victory.

“All my mates are Villa – maybe a few West Brom, a few Blues, but out of 100, maybe 70 are Villa.”

I love info like this. I love the changing face of football support throughout the UK. In my home area, Newcastle United fans were very rare as a child, but they are one of the top ten supported teams in the Frome area of late.

The second-half was a corker; a roller-coaster of emotion, a classic game of heart-in-mouth football. A Mata corner was poked home by Ivanovic and it was plain sailing. Torres headed over and the Villa fans were sniggering again. They were roaring soon after as two goals in quick succession brought the score, incredibly, ridiculously, level at 2-2.

We stood in silent disbelief, but the other stands were roaring. I will not lie when I say that the Holte End did not utter a single audible song during the entire first-half. Once their second goal was scored, though, the noise was very impressive. A flare was thrown on to the pitch from the unruly home section down below me. Its sulphurous aroma permeated the early evening air.

Chelsea responded again.

Another corner on the opposite side, this time for the substitute Malouda, was flicked on by Torres just as I snapped by camera…the ball ricocheted to the lurking Ivanovic and he reacted very well to guide the ball in, past Given.

We roared – and with more intensity than with the first two goals.

Then, a Villa move broke down and the ball was moved quickly to Studge. We all saw Torres breaking to his right and we begged for Studge to release the ball. Thankfully, the ball was played with perfect pace.

One touch, moving the ball on, then a low strike past Given and the net bulged.

We roared again – and it was undoubtedly the noisiest exclamation of support from our packed section of the Witton End all day. Torres reeled away and was mobbed by players. I roared and then gathered my senses to record the celebrations on film.

Superb.

I commented to Gary that the Torres goal was just like the ones he used to dispatch with aplomb for Liverpool; head up, laces through the ball, utmost confidence, the ball in the net before the ‘keeper was able to move.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea fans were exuberant and it wasn’t long before our number nine was serenaded.

And quite rightly, too.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50768850082658

I’ve been present at all the games in which Torres has scored; I guess I’m not the only one, but I have a sneaking feeling I will be a little sad when this record comes to an end. Wink.

I hope he starts on Wednesday.

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