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Real eyes, realise, real pies.
A first-timer's day out at Villa Park.
“When are we going to watch Villa,” she asks on WhatsApp.
“I am going this Friday but you’re not around, are you?
“Is this your way of bringing up the Stevenage result from yesterday?”
“No lol. And no I’m not free on Friday.
“They lost to Stevenage ?? Who the fuck is Stevenage. I don’t even know where that is.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Today is a new day.”
“I didn’t know that was even a football team.
“Aren’t they in like a league where people still bring orange slices on at half-time?”
“I’m made of stone your words can’t hurt me.”
“I am right though…
“I thought everything was good now Stevie G has left. Maybe he wasn’t the problem after all. Maybe yer just shit!”
“I am this close to rescinding your invite to the home of football aka Villa Park.”
Two weeks later…
“Villa tickets for the 4th go on sale at 5pm today, you still wanna go…?”
“I only want to go if we can get one of those balti pies or whatever they are.”
“God I am excited.”
“If you’re being sarcastic that’s fine.”
“No, I am excited, I’ve never been to Birmingham before. Never been to a proper football match…if that’s what we are calling this.
“It’s a lot of new beginnings.”
Have I been gaslit over a period of weeks into buying an extra £60 ticket to sit in the second-to-last row of the Doug Ellis Stand or is my girlfriend taking a genuine interest in my own interests? There is only one way to find out for sure.
On the drive up she makes enquiries as to how some of the chants she will soon be hearing go. I then show her Hi Ho Silver Lining and explain how the crowd will substitute the ‘Silver Lining’ lyrics of the chorus with ‘Aston Villa’. “Is that it?” A level of disappointment that should see her fit right in with the other 42,000.
We arrive and park on a grassy verge a stone’s throw away from both the M6 and the stadium and once again give a teenager wearing a hi-vis a tenner in the unspoken agreement that they will prevent any chance that an incident such as, for example, the aforementioned stones being guided in the direction of my vehicle from taking place. Understandably, in a repetition of thought from a few weeks ago, a new mind pondered the exact structure of this peculiar cul de sac industry as we joined the crowds filtering through family residences toward the ground.
I enjoy taking people to Villa Park for the first time; it feels oddly personal. A place that you have a cherished history with even if you have to travel more than 100 miles to get there from home. For Villa Park’s first match back in the Premier League in 1,197 days following the Bad Times, a friend who is a Bournemouth fan got a group of us tickets in the away end. As well as having to watch a 2-1 loss from the vantage point of the opposition fans, I was consistently baited with the question of why Villa didn’t fill in the ‘gaps’ in the corners of the stadium because maybe that could help stop the atmosphere from leaking out. Another friend from Guildford upon sitting down in his seat prior to kick-off turned to me and said he had just realised that maybe he lived in a bubble.
Witton Lane was eerily quiet 45 mins before kick-off against Leicester. Fans silently circumnavigating the ground until arriving at their correct entry point. Even the Villa Chippy lacked a queue.
“Fish, chips and curry sauce, and then a chicken balti pie on its own please.'"
“What, no chips?” the shop’s custodian asked, flummoxed at the prospect, snapping out of his usual non-stop, rapid-fire rhythm of taking orders and relaying instructions to his colleague before handing food and change over.
In the spirit of Mr. Villa Chippy’s respect for no-nonsense efficiency, here are two early reviews from the fresh pair of eyes I had brought along of the Villa Park experience before a ball had even been kicked.
The pie: much better than expected.
The claret and blue specked paint adorning the walls on the stairway as we made our way up to the top tier of the Doug Ellis: nice.
The leg room when seated: bordering on luxurious.
“Just like Leicester, your city is blue,” the away support began to chant.
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“Well, Birmingham City play in blue so they’re saying that the colour of that team marks this city rather than ours.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
Take that, Leicester City away supporters. And Birmingham City, too, I guess.
The game begins, the energy of everything quietly pulsating, the nerves of the opening minutes dictated by the hushed anticipation of which version of the players and team are going to turn up today.
“This is much nicer than Torquay vs. Oxford United,” she says.
“That’s the only other football game I’ve been to.”
“What happened at Torquay vs. Oxford United?”
“They were just shouting at each other the entire time.”
The ball is fed by Leon Bailey on the right-hand side into the feet of Emiliano Buendia, who re-arranges his feet and lifts the ball over the defensive line towards the goal, smacking the bar, bouncing down out of reach of the splayed goalie, Ollie Watkins reacting quickest to poke the ball back through the keeper’s outstretched hands. Everyone got to their feet as the ball left Buendia’s foot. Those who hadn’t were shocked upright by the connection with the woodwork, then sent into raptures by the resulting tap-in.
Not Lucy though. She had been sat down the entire time until I pulled her to her feet to join in with the celebrations.
As the TV commentators 10 metres to our left in their roof-top perch watched replays of the opening change to the scoreline, I turned to get some post-goal analysis of what had been lacking to not move her from her seat.
“Well, we didn’t have time to queue for a drink beforehand and I was quite thirsty, so I was mostly focused on thinking about that,” she says. “Also, I didn’t think it was going to go in.”
The Villa players certainly had their work cut out for them, not just with impressing their newest visitor who was doing their best impression of a Tamagotchi left in a drawer for two weeks, but also, as it turns out, with the concept of defending.
Each time Leicester’s two equalisers went in, she turns to me with an understanding look on her face, somehow blessed with the inherent knowledge that this is just simply what happens a lot of the time.
We leave our seats as a player goes down injured requiring treatment close enough to the 45th minute that it should take any remaining breath out of what was left of the first half. As I stand in the queue for the bar and she goes off in search of the women’s bathroom, a groan goes up outside. A couple of seconds later, the TV screen in the cramped vestibule shows Boubacar Kamara being dispossessed inside his own half. A cheer laden with the emotion of a goal being scored rises up, but not loud enough to be for the home side. “Surely not!” the fan behind me in the queue groans before Tetê glides past Martinez and squeezes a shot off into the awaiting net.
“We’re 3-2 down,” I say when she returns to the queue.
“I know, I could hear.
“This queue hasn’t moved.”
At the bar, a team of young staff holds buckets below the beer taps as they try to fix whatever has gone wrong to ensure the misery of those sitting in the top tier of the Doug Ellis is compounded. The queue remains unchanged for 10 minutes so we give up and go back inside. There are the multi-million fees and salaries commanded by the players and managers, the agency-branding of Premier League Incorporated sneaked in at various convenient opportunities, but then there is also the Villa Park stadium experience where the beer taps are broken and a bar manages to lose money at half time. On the one hand, it’s nice to know that there is still a space for amateurism in the league, but it’s also a loose thread that makes you question just how much of the outward-facing appearance of the sport is simply smoke and mirrors.
While I spend some time looking to my left at the TV cameras and commentators filming the match, the camera operator possessing a piece of A4 stuck beneath his viewfinder with photos of every player’s face and their name just in case the director in his ear asks for someone he doesn’t know, Lucy spends time with her eyes fixed to the right, to where the Leicester fans are stood.
It dawns that as normalised as it is for those who’ve been to football matches throughout their life, this is really the only place you can watch people acting as away fans do, with that level of antagonism and living that close to the edge of violence. Occasionally I hear a laugh from the seat next to me and realise she’s watching a Villa fan in front of us give the Leicester fans the middle finger or calling them a wanker without any words but by using their hands instead.
We lose 4-2 despite an energetic second half. On the drive home, and having had my turn at ranting and raving at Ollie Watkins’ stuttering ability at being a lethal goal-minded striker, it’s now her turn to shout at the radio when they keep interrupting the Six Nations rugby commentary with updates from the Newcastle - West Ham game. “Honestly, who cares about Newcastle and West Ham.” Clearly, that’s been enough football for one day.
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