Discover more from AVFC The Obsession
'Sheds, ultras and Diegooo': A weekend in Rennes with Aston Villa
On the ground for Villa's final pre-season game.
“Bon match,” the steward said as we passed through the gate into the stadium. Clearly, we are not in Birmingham anymore.
Thanks for reading AVFC The Obsession! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
Instead, it’s Aston Villa’s first trip to Europe since the 2019 pre-season. Back then we were anticipating our return to the Premier League, salivating over what could be with Dean Smith and Jack Grealish at the helm. Now, it’s Steven Gerrard and John McGinn. If only that was the biggest surprise of these last three years.
With the start of a new season always comes the unpredictability and excitement of what will follow. Anything could take place over the forthcoming 38 games yet we choose nearly always to cross our fingers and envisage the best. Is it this suspense over the unknown that brings more than 1,300 Villa fans to Rennes on a Saturday in late July? Maybe it is just because it’s the team’s first trip to Europe in three years. Maybe it’s the promise of a final chance to see the claret and blue in action without the threat of a dropped three points and a depressing Saturday evening.
Yet here we were, dotted throughout a quiet city in northern Brittany in pockets of claret and blue. Some sat in cafes on Saturday morning nursing hangovers, others appeared topless, dangling out from windows of ancient timber-framed houses rented on Airbnb, calling the family back home on FaceTime and showing them all the weird place that Villa had taken them to this away day.
Instead of statues of club legends standing outside grounds, what about having them sit amongst the fans?
Going west out of the city centre and along the river stands Roazhon Park. Despite holding nearly 30,000 fans it was beset by ‘garden shed’ chants from the arriving Villa fans. You’d have to imagine any stadium that has even one seat fewer than Villa Park does would receive the same treatment. With fans allowed into the ground 90 mins before the start, the lines outside the away end began at least a half hour before that. For those that didn’t travel to Brisbane (and we know of at least one dedicated supporter who flew direct from Australia to France - what a life) it’s been a long three weeks of waiting to see the claret and blue live in the flesh.
Inside, the stadium is half full. The Villa fans have been tucked into one corner, the upper rows situated in the cool shade while the rest get no respite from the blazing sun. Despite the best efforts of the travelling faithful, there is one slight problem with getting their voices heard by the rest of the stadium as it turns out Rennes have ultras. These are ultras in the European sense. They have drums, ringleaders who shout into microphones, and the entire contingent sings uninterrupted from the first minute until the last, all while still having the appearance that, if they wanted to, they could absolutely kick the shit out of you.
We had extra tickets in a different section of the ground for my mum and sister, who had been unsure just how much they wanted to watch an Aston Villa pre-season friendly. But upon seeing the male Rennes fans kissing each other on the cheek in greeting and being mostly just mild-mannered Frenchmen, they decided to go for it. 15 minutes later they were a few seats away from their first experience of ultras. Bon match!
Seven minutes in and Rennes scored, the ultras section surged forward as one. A fluid motion down the rows of seats to the barriers in the blink of an eye, magnetically attracted to their players, needing to get as close as physically possible to the men who’d just put them 1-0 up.
Directly behind the goal was the centrepiece of the ultras set-up - scaffolding six feet up in the air housing two drummers and their booming timpani, beating out a variety of rhythms as a sunglassed man behind bellowed orders to the crowd. Such was his dedication that he barely watched a minute of the game.
Occupying the bottom tier behind the goal, the Rennes Symphony Ultchestra.
14 minutes in and Villa had their equaliser, a scuffed shot from Leon Bailey, relief from the Villa fans that their day hadn’t been brought a close before it had even begun. In the aftermath of the goal and the Villa celebrations fell the only moments of silence all match. After a brief pause of mourning the ultras kept it up for the rest of the match. ‘Annoying,’ is how my sister put it after suffering through 90 minutes of untranslated French chants to a marching band beat.
But what if there had been no drumming, no constant singing? It would have been a very different game. The beat of the drum dispensed with the notion this was a typical pre-season friendly. Both teams had a point to prove with one week to go until the start of the season proper, it got testy at times. A Rennes midfielder with a Fernando Torres-esque haircut was the pantomime villain for the day. At one point he complained he’d been penalised for a shove on a Villa player by recreating the motion of the shove that had drawn the foul - ‘all I did was give him un petit shove, ref!’
One attacking surge towards the Rennes box brought about the ideal spot for a freekick to be struck. There is no exact measurement for this perfect freekick placement, it’s just a feeling, a vibe to the set-play set-up that just seems right.
“If Douglas Luiz takes this I’m going to kill somebody,” muttered a Villa fan behind us. A tad extreme for a game where all that is to be won is pride, but we’ll take the passion nevertheless! Instead, up stepped Philippe Coutinho, who rattled the post, and was clearly a step ahead of the other 21 on the pitch. Even now, it is still kind of mad that Philippe Coutinho plays for Aston Villa.
This game also provided quite the introduction to Coutinho’s Brazilian compatriot, Diego Carlos. Not sure if he is any relation to the famous Roberto Carlos but our new hulking centre-back looks like he eats a Roberto Carlos for breakfast. Every single morning. He is exactly what Villa have been crying out for since returning to the Premier League. Someone mean. Someone imposingly competent. An expensive signing who wears it proudly like a pin badge rather than having it weigh him down and sap any footballing ability from his being. “Diegoooo” rings out the chant from the crowd. Already a fan favourite. The cherry on top was when he used his head, presumably as solid as many metres of granite, to smash in a late winner with ten minutes to go.
Muted celebrations followed from the players, as befitted the nature of the game, but the expectation now builds. There are areas that for sure need ironing out before facing Premier League opposition, and Gerrard will no doubt be back in a suit after a July spent wearing shorts and t-shirt as he hovers around his dotted white-lined box.
Whisper it, the wait for the new season is almost over.
Roazhan Park and the aptly named Vilain river.