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The young Villa fan who haunts Jesse Marsch's nightmares
A return after 1,080 days away from Villa Park
Off junction 6 of the M6, around a mini roundabout and straight into the residential streets of Aston. The road curves, climbing gradually before dipping down. We swing right into a cul de sac guarded by two men in hi-vis. One of them runs ahead of our car and meticulously guides us into a very particular area of grassy verge where he wants us to park.
All of the residents’ vehicles have been moved out into the free spaces that line the main street, meaning the two adjoining cul-de-sacs are now captive markets for those who don’t want to get stuck in the long tailback that will emerge after full-time at Villa Park this evening. “£10 please,” one of the hi-vis men commands us as we walk out onto the pavement. “Thanks, enjoy the game.”
We spend the 10-minute walk down to the ground debating the exact business model of Aston Villa Football Club’s most unofficial car park. Do the homeowners whose area we’ve clogged shut get a cut of the proceeds? Is it little more than a cartel ruled through fear and terror? Regardless, it’s good to know that despite two years away from B6 some things remain the same. The ‘Taste of America’ burger van still lurks below the flyover and the Villa Chippy still has a line that snakes around and threatens to spill out onto the street.
Having given up our season tickets in the North Stand at the outset of the pandemic, our return to Villa Park began with a simple task - where to sit.
It turns out, we’d been slumming it in the end opposite the Holte. In the Trinity Road there is the supposed ‘artisan’ coffee stall, ‘Yardbirds’ brings “all-American fried chicken” to Birmingham and ‘Pietanic’ offers - you guessed it - pies. It has been more than a century since the oceanic disaster, yet the logo of a pie-shaped ship slowly sinking beneath the waves still feels distasteful. Along with further street food establishments in the fan zone, the grasping fingers of gentrification slowly reach towards a ground that’s existed since 1897. ‘Fan experience’ is the dreaded hushed whisper you can hear carried along by the wind. ‘What do you think Grandad would make of this,” I ask Dad as we watch a band called ‘Off the Wall’ bludgeon the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ into a very dead pulp. The oldest member of our family having spent his childhood matchdays waiting for the gate to be opened at half-time in order to see his club.
Even the man selling the programmes is borderline ecstatic when explaining to one punter that he now accepts cash and card thanks to a “new-fangled bit of technology”, reaching into his pocket and producing a small white plastic card reader.
The times have clearly changed, are changing and will continue to change apace. That’s the cost of Premier League football. That’s the cost of having Philippe Coutinho on your bench.
And had you told me last time I was here that Coutinho would be warming our bench, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. That was 1,080 days ago, when we beat Leicester to get to Wembley for the 2020 League Cup Final, just before lockdown. A lot has changed since then, and only Konsa, Mings, Luiz, Nakamba and McGinn remain from our squad that day.
Our seats three years later are in the front row, in the block next to the dugout, so close that we are practically part of the game. So close, in fact, that we can see the curve of Leon Bailey’s shot in the third minute and are up cheering the goal before it goes in.
To our left is Jesse Marsch. Jesse Marsch is not having a good evening. Leeds haven’t won a competitive game since November 5th and the pressure is getting to him. Inside his technical zone, the Villa fans mostly leave him alone, but when he steps two yards outside it to the right in order to grab a bottle of water from the cool box, he enters their peripheral vision and the noise of the slam of the lid breaks the spell of the game as a hundred heads snap to the disturbance.
“Fook off ya yank!”
It would appear that anti-Americanism is the last acceptable form of discrimination on the terraces. More knee-jerk than anything else, armed with a forgetfulness that an American played his part in rescuing our club from oblivion. It reminded me of the time years ago when perusing the club shop soon after previous owner Randy Lerner began his tenure, they stocked the jerseys of the Cleveland Browns team, also owned by Lerner. “Oh look, Maureen,” Maureen’s husband said to her after coming upon the foreign shirts. “It’s the baseball team.”
Marsch’s mood hardly improves as Villa soak up pressure and frustrate Leeds for most of the ninety minutes, not helped by the fact that every time he looks to his right to check the clock, a particularly shrill child pipes up: “SOCCER!” Delivered in as whiny and mocking a tone as he can manage. Marsch doesn’t react but you imagine it will still be ringing in his ears when he retires to bed in a few hours.
Before long his frustration has reached boiling point, moaning at the fourth official over every single decision, almost coming toe-to-toe with Unai Emery after one particular fall out, the Spaniard patrolling his technical area with a presence that Marsch could only ever add to his Amazon wish list. I couldn’t quite hear exactly what was said between the two managers during the disagreement, or what the initial indiscretion was, but when Emery goes full war-mode he doesn’t seem to be a person to be trifled with.
Following a half-time where Calum Chambers managed to volley a ball into the Holte and strike a fan carrying a hot beverage back to his seat, the defender apologising for the liquid erupting all over the spectator’s shirt before ignoring the quick-thinking plea to exchange it for his, Marsch’s backroom staff have had enough of their boss’ theatrics. The American turns around to remonstrate once again but when he’s done and his gaze is back on the pitch his assistant rolls his eyes. A few minutes later Marsch finally goes ballistic, scolding the referee over a throw-in decision. Ashley Young, who has come over to take said throw-in, can only watch in bemusement, a mocking smile directed at the opposition manager. A pro for two decades, he’s seen it all, yet Marsch seems to be an amusing exception.
It may seem odd that this piece in an Aston Villa outlet has been largely about a Leeds United manager. One reason is that this was a completely new and unique experience at Villa Park, an up-close like no other I’ve had in the 20 years of my casual attendance at Villa Park. To be torn between the contest on the pitch and on the sidelines, to see at arm’s length the pace of the Premier League in 2023 and the stress of those simply theorising about kicking a ball.
But also, you saw the game. You saw the Villa team that we currently have and they are silky. Unai Emery is a proper manager with the players to match. The likes of Leon Bailey, the Emis Buendia and Martinez, Boubacar Kamara who more than once traps the ball dead, halts his motion and lets the Leeds players fall away and leave a clear path for the move’s progression. The habit of a man sat a few rows behind us is to shout “HIT ‘IM” any time a Villa player gets near a Leeds player in possession, seemingly in a still-awake coma, believing he’s witnessing Villa teams from years and lower divisions past, of a football no longer played, of players who are not capable of what happens on the pitch these days.
Of course, the finale as we hung on for three points was stressful. It always is. That’s the singular guarantee that comes with your matchday ticket. As extra time elapsed the Sky TV cameras got in position to capture the emotions of Marsch and to film the terse handshake between the managers.
A fan calls into Talksport on the journey home to tell anyone who will listen that Villa are heading for the Europa League. The presenters laugh but it’s important to soak up the fleeting joy while it lasts.