(A post from early in my travels, a November 2014 visit to Aston Villa)
As it usually does, the singing started on the train.
Spurs fans were singing how much they hate Arsenal, though they were about to play Aston Villa, and Villa fans were singing how much they hate Birmingham, even though they were about to host Tottenham.
When we got to Aston Station, some of the Villa fans, mostly young men of course, had switched to singing about how much they hate Tottenham, and as they headed off towards the ground, a skinny, teenage boy with a claret scarf hurried to catch up, singing “We hate Tottenham” between hurried breaths. He looked every bit like a young pup trying to keep up with the pack.
It’s a good thing I had all this entertainment on the way to Villa Park, because few grounds have proved such a pain in the ass to get to. And I was set up in Birmingham, as always, with a cheap room at the Holiday Inn across from the station, tickets all ready to go, and even decent weather for a change.
But when I got to the platform for the train out to Aston, there was an absolute horde waiting for the train. I actually missed a train because there was no room, then crow-barred myself into the next one, only to have a mild claustrophobia attack, along with a strong response to the smell of stale beer and sweaty men. Good thing the train was slow and delayed due to all the football supporters clogging up the works. I made a note for future visits to consider a cab. Or walk. Or just stay somewhere other than central Birmingham.
Once I got to Aston, which is hardly a scenic wonderland, even the weather went south. I barely made it to an overpass before the skies opened up and it dumped sheets of rain.
I found myself in a growing pool of humanity, waiting to be released, next to a food cart called Taste of America – a taste which apparently consists entirely of hot dogs and “Texas Steak Burgers,” whatever those are. Brits must think our entire nation is allergic to vegetables.
Even after all this, Villa Park was worth the wait. From a distance, it seems set apart from its surroundings, and as you get closer you see this magnificent staircase.
It’s the back of the Holte End, one of the more impressive stands I’ve seen during my soccer travels. It holds 13,500 people and seems to house the most vocal Villa fans. It was actually built in 1994 – little, if any, of the original Villa Park is still standing – so I am glad to see they still build impressive structures.
Here is the empty Holte End, after the game.
And here is Villa’s American goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, taking a goal kick in front of the singing Holte during the game. (He’s in Atlanta now, probably having a lot more fun.)
There are other nice, old-fashioned touches around the ground.
But I am happy to say the inside is spacious and comfortable, and doesn’t seem to have a bad choice among its 42,000-plus seats.
All in all, Villa Park is one of my favorites among the 60-plus grounds I’ve been to in England. Apparently the world agrees; it has hosted many England internationals, three games in the 1966 World Cup, and more FA Cup semifinals (55!) than any other stadium.
A Bit About Aston Villa
For Americans, I think you could compare Villa to the Chicago Bears: one of the original League teams (in fact, a Villa man founded the League), they were great for decades but haven’t done much since the 80s. This is from Wikipedia:
Aston Villa are among the oldest and the most successful football clubs in the history of English football. Villa won the 1981–82 European Cup, and are thus one of five English clubs to win what is now the UEFA Champions League. They have the fourth highest total of major honours won by an English club, having won the First Division Championship seven times, the FA Cup seven times (last won in 1957), the Football League Cup five times (last won in 1996) and the UEFA Super Cup in 1982. The club have also produced more England national team players than any other side, currently having produced 72.
I scored myself a proper pre-game meal. (As far as I know, English people are also allergic to vegetables).
And I was ready for the game. So were the teams.
I was in the Trinity Road Stand, to sit across from the away fans, as is my custom. Spurs folks were in pretty good voice all night, keeping up their end of the atmosphere bargain well. Here they are singing, “When the Spurs Go Marching In.”
And after Villa scored the opener, their fans were in a good mood, as well – until they had a guy sent off after a kerfuffle.
That red card was the turning point, as was the introduction of one Harry Kane. At the time, few Americans had heard of the guy, but if you’re an English fan, and a Spurs fan in particular, you know all about him. He’s from the north of London, born three miles from Spurs’ stadium, and his whole family are Spurs fans. He came up through their youth system, scoring goals all along the way. He played for England at all the youth levels, and then got loaned out here and there the last few seasons.
In the 2014-15 season, he got his first hat-trick in a Europa League game, and even finished the 5-1 win playing goalie!
As you might imagine, the fans absolutely love him, and like to sing “He’s one of our own!” Here he is getting a header against Villa – right at Guzan, but the fans sang his name, anyway.
Eventually, the pressure told on Villa, and Spurs got this equalizer off a corner kick, right in front of their fans – and me with my camera, I’m happy to say.
And then Kane – who else? – got the winner in the 90th minute thanks to a deflection off the wall. And look at the celebrations! (Also look how many times this video has been viewed!)
And so it ended, 2-1 for the visitors, who sang wildly — mostly about that man — as Villa Park quickly emptied out. Here are the official highlights:
I had a completely enjoyable evening, with good weather (eventually) and an entertaining game. The guy next to me usually comes with his daughter, but she was away, so I got her seat. He said he grew up an Arsenal fan, but his kid went for Villa, and he comes with her because he loves the game. He also told me he’s been to Villa Park when there were 80,000 people in it, all standing.
The guys behind me had a real dry sense of humor and pessimism, dropping comments like, “Oh here is where they score,” and “Hey, that was actually a professional cross!” It was all good-natured fun, even with the loss.
I can’t say the same for getting the hell out of there afterwards. What a hassle this place is — and this game had only 36,000 people, short of the 42,000 capacity. I walked back to the station, saw the line for the train, and walked along it, looking for the end like an explorer seeking the Northwest Passage.
Some guy in line was weirdly yelling half his words, while expressing something I have often thought: “They will NOT PUT extra trains on, even though they KNOW there is a FOOTBALL match.” The yelled words were scary, the non-yelled barely audible through clenched teeth.
I decided to try a bus instead, but it was “heaving,” as the Brits say. Here’s a shot of a bus I let go, with the train line across the way.
Finally, I decided to get something to eat and wait for the train line to calm down. I found an atrocious pizza place filled with young Spurs fans. They had skinny jeans, product in their hair, and Harry Kane on their tongues, but they were harmless and fun.
As they spilled out of the place and into a cab, the last one, a young bloke, ran to catch up, singing Harry Kane as they disappeared into the night.