Aston Villa v AFC Bournemouth
Premier League: Saturday 9th April
A stroll from Witton Train Station towards Villa Park reveals words from Villa ‘legends’ about the club. That one of these quotes is from Tom Hanks says something about Villa’s current predicament. Unfortunately, to paraphrase quote-happy Louis Van Gaal, the players are not ‘horny’ but they are more ‘Randy’ than willing ‘Lerners’.
Aston Villa’s progress over the past twenty years is like the recent evolution of the Curly Wurly: shrinking, increasingly brittle and not as good as you remembered. From the early 90s days of Taylor, Atkinson, Little, Gregory etc until Martin O’Neill left in 2010, I had always considered them a ‘big club’. I have had two Villa tops over the years (the away Mita Copiers one circa 1992 and a more recent 97-98 AST home top) and have always had an illogical soft spot for the club. It was, therefore, slightly saddening to sense the toxicity in the air at Villa Park.
In the aftermath of the Brussels Airport attacks, there was a high degree of uncertainty about whether my flight to Birmingham would be rescheduled at a different time, different airport or just end up cancelled. Checking the Brussels Airlines website on the Tuesday indicated all Birmingham flights leaving late afternoon from Antwerp. This would have led to either cancellation or a highly immoral ‘sickie’. However, by Wednesday, I received a text message from the airline saying ‘your weekend of football and debauchery may proceed as planned’, which is Belgian for ‘your flight will leave as originally scheduled.’ Although, at my age, debauchery now means having a starter with my dinner.
It takes one hour to fly from Brussels to Birmingham. It took a little over two hours to get from the parking of Brussels Airport to the departures area: sign of the times. To be fair to the people at the airport, the temporary measures and installations have been set up fairly quickly and the usual moans in the queue are, understandably and rightly, somewhat muted.
My accomplice from Roma, Dortmund, Leverkusen, PSG and various Anderlecht games, Shug Temple, was at Birmingham Airport to taxi us of into the depths of deepest darkest suburbia to his well-appointed house. There is a shuttle service from the airport (advertised as taking 9 minutes) into the shiny Birmingham New Street Station for those sans chauffeur.
Shug had procured tickets from the Aston Villa website (https://www.eticketing.co.uk/avfc/) although, given their current predicament, I reckon they could normally be bought at the gate. The prices ranged from £23 to £37 although I’d expect that this inflates against more ‘glamourous’ opposition than Bournemouth.
The city itself is full of interesting bits and pieces but the Town Planning people seemed to have a very neoliberal, hands-off approach to maintaining the functionality and aesthetics balance. Victorian structures and modern curiosities, such as the library, have decrepit granite-grey car-park style buildings as neighbours. The city is vibrant and interesting but I wouldn’t go for a city break without another purpose. Britain’s streets are increasingly awash with bland, homogenous chain pubs and you’re never far from a Wetherspoon’s, All-Bar-Wank, O’Neill’s or the like.
On the Saturday morning, we bussed it into the centre for a scrumptious cooked breakfast in the stronghold of real ale and obesity that is the Wetherspoon’s. While I was there, it occurred to me that the distinction they make between breakfast and brunch is not so much the time of day but the manner of serving the potato. Breakfast stops at 11, when brunch takes over, and the only difference is that the hash browns are replaced with chips.
After visiting a few pubs on our itenary that weren’t open when they should be, we sauntered off to a couple of watering holes next to Aston University for a couple of pre-match pints and to catch some of the West Ham v Arsenal game on TV. Villa park is about 25 minutes walk from there, so maybe 40 minutes walk from New Street Station, although it never quite feels like you’re heading in the right direction.
The stadium is a throwback to when a football club was the heart of a community and is in a residential area rather than around the perimeter of a town. Coming in from the Holte End direction, there are a couple of burger stalls – we had one pre-match and it came with a liberal serving of year-old cooking oil – and the club shop. There is a bar under the Holte End stand although I was informed that it was a season ticket holders only hangout.
The red bricks, stained glass windows, unevenly proportioned stands and narrow turnstile entrances all give a nod to the history of the club – Villa Park is no Billy bookcase. The street outside the Doug Ellis stand would, I’d imagine, be a much busier place were the club not in free fall.
Once through the turnstiles, we ascended some steps that reminded me of a fire escape to the upper level of the Doug Ellis stand. It may not be a priority but given that the Premier League is dripping with vulgar money, a lick of paint here might alleviate the feeling that you’re clocking on for a shift in a Soviet factory. As my perpetual frame of reference, it reminded me of Anderlecht. Once we were up the stairs, we went for our £4 Carlsberg that was all kinds of bland and can’t be consumed within sight of the pitch (grass and beer is a deadly combination). Holed up under the stand, watching a game with a beer in an ambience of Pukka Pies, farts and anticipation is nonetheless preferable to the puritanical dry approach in Scotland.
We had great seats – Shug had done well – and an excellent view of the pitch and the bizarre events that were to follow. The asymmetry and individual nature of the four stands is appealing and Villa Park does feel bigger than its 42785 capacity. The steward was quite militant in telling everybody that no pictures could be taken once the teams came out, ensuring that the corporate stranglehold on all things football remains intact. Made me glad that I left the camera at home, although that was more from fear of leaving it in a bar than prohibitive stewarding.
I’ve been to a few games where fans have booed their players at full-time after an inept performance. It is, however, a bizarre spectacle hearing fans booing their own players when the starting XI is announced. Particularly unpopular were Joleon ‘I’ve got a new car’ Lescott and Leandro ‘I want to play for a Champions League club’ Bacuna. Bacuna should go and join Skonto Riga then – that’s about his level.
The teams came out and the home fans launched a few grumbles in the direction of the players. It’s a funny situation. Some fans want Randy Lerner, the owner, to leave. Randy Lerner wants to leave – the club has been up for sale for a few years and has been continually downsizing during this period. However, he wants to find the right buyer for the club and not just the first billionaire who rocks up. However, the brunt of the blame for the current predicament is being shouldered by the players. In some cases, rightly so. Moderate reputations, big wages, mediocre performances.
The travelling support from Bournemouth were much more buoyant. Their first season in the Premier League must be viewed as a success given the disparity in resources between them and other clubs. Their biggest challenge next season may be to hang onto the manager.
Aston Villa v Bournemouth
The pattern for the game was quickly established. Bournemouth pass the ball around comfortably, making Villa chase around. Then, when the move breaks down, Villa lose the ball in the twilight zone that is their midfield. Bournemouth are a well-coached side who know their roles within the team. They played like the home side for most of the match. Dan Gosling dictated the play there was always movement off the ball.
Jordan Ayew was an isolated figure for Villa and the occasional dribble from Sinclair produced either an overhit cross or a clearance. On this performance, Villa’s playing squad needs completely rebuilt. Disappointingly, their best player was probably Lescott in spite of his affinity for blunders. When Cook finally scored for Bournemouth, the goal itself was a little fortuitous but nonetheless entirely deserved.
In the second half, the match continued in much the same rhythm in spite of the introduction of dyspraxic giraffe Rudy Gestede. And then, on the 53rd minute, something happened. I’m not sure if it was premeditated or someone just came up with the plan on the spot but, radically, Villa fans started singing and supporting their team. All of a sudden, I felt like I was at a proper live football match. Bournemouth fans, who had been singing for most of the game, responded and it felt like the equilibrium was restored.
Although Villa didn’t necessarily play any better afterwards, there was a noticeable increase in fight from the players and they looked less resigned to defeat. However, this did little to disrupt Bournemouth’s fluidity and when King’s goal came on the 74th minute, the inevitable was confirmed. From this point on, Bournemouth played a lot deeper and allowed Villa more of the ball. When Ayew’s goal came, against the run of play, it was difficult to tell if the Villa fans’ cheers were ironic or genuine.
When the whistle was blown, we were able to evacuate our bladders far more quickly than we could the stadium. The narrow stairwells foretold this a few hours ago so we were prepared, unlike Aston Villa’s expensive new badge.
Witton train station is about ten minutes walk from the ground and this takes you into the City Centre. We stopped off at a pub just next to it to let the crowds disperse. The pub had that disused abattoir feel to it and seemed like a meeting place for the underage drinkers to compare fake eyelashes and trainer whiteners.
A cramped train journey into the centre was accompanied by the soundtrack of a red-faced man lauding the disabled access facilities at Villa as it meant he could insult the players from close proximity. The same character then shot down his own primary school aged son for having a harmless opinion about a player and humiliated him in front of the whole carriage.
Upon arriving at New Street, we stumbled upon a sports bar showing the game. The Post Office Vaults bar is a jewel of a hovel about ten minutes walk from there with the best beer selection in town with toilets similar to Renton’s relief in Transporting. Being an infrequent visitor to Britain these days, I was surprised to see laughing gas being sold in bars. The quantity of measurement for its dispensing is the SI unit of balloon. Being honest, I think I was laughing more at the balloon suckers than they were laughing themselves. Made me feel like a relic with my pint!
I have some sympathy with the Villa fans. Watching them deteriorate is similar to monitoring the decline of a very elderly relative. However, Villa fans need to believe that their dying mammoth of a club can be reincarnated. There were a few half-assed homemade banners of discontent. That’s not how you do it – mobilise, unify and do it properly if you’re going to do it at all. Otherwise get behind the team. You don’t see spray-painted pillow cases with slogans at Dortmund! Now that relegation is certain, they need continuity and rebuilding and they need to give whoever they entrust with this task time to do it. Ship out the likes of Lescott, Richards, Flabby Agbonlahor etc and bring in players, perhaps unproven, who are hungry for success and not money.
However, the fans should remember that players and coaches can make a team good but only fans can make a club great.
- Quality of match: ***
- Stadium character: *****
- Stadium atmosphere: ****
- Hospitality: ****
- Ease of access: ****
- Things to do around the stadium: ***
- Overall: ****