Monday, February 02, 2009

Glory, Glory Aston Villa

I had wanted to write a blog entry about Aston Villa for a few days now. A few minutes ago, I heard about the death of Paul Birch, a member of the Villa squad that I first fell in love with in 1989, so it seemed more relevant now than ever.

Growing up, my dad's family got together at my grandparents house every other Sunday afternoon. My dad is one of five brothers, and they would bring their families for an afternoon of poker (the dads) or knitting (the mums.) From the early days to when I was about 10 or 11, I would play with cars or Star Wars figures or whatever. From 12-14, I would do my homework or goof around with my younger cousins (much younger - they were just 3 or 4.) But when I was 15, I would either play poker with money from my paper round, or watch TV (or not come at all and stay home.) One such fateful afternoon in 1989, I was sat watching the football on the telly. Until that point, I was pretty indifferent to football. I liked to play it, and liked Liverpool to the extent that everyone liked one team or another and they were still seen as a mighty force. I even had a HITACHI sponsored shirt for a while, but my fanship was more to do with the fact my next door neighbor and best friend Chris was a BIG Liverpool fan, and I looked up to him like a big brother for many years.

Anyway, back to my nan's house. Aston Villa were playing Everton in the big Sunday afternoon game, and I'm watching, thinking how cool the Villa players looked. Beyond the claret and blue shirts, white shorts, they had some really fun players to watch. David Platt was on the verge of the England team. Tony Daley was lightning fast on the wings. Paul McGrath was so solid in defense and made it look so easy. Paul Birch probably played that day, running around like a crazy person on the opposite wing to Daley.

I got drawn in deeper when Brian Moore, the commentator on the day said: "Cowans is through, he's got Platt alongside him... IT'S A GOAL! A brilliant goal by Gordon Cowans!" The final score was Aston Villa 6 Everton 2. I was hooked. On the drive home, I asked my dad where Aston Villa played their home games. Unlike the majority of teams in the country, they are not just known by their home town name - Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle. They are more like a London-based team - Tottenham, Leyton Orient, Millwall - named after a smaller region within a greater city's suburbs. Turns out they were from Birmingham in the West Midlands, about 100 miles or so from where I lived.

It didn't matter. On Monday morning at school, I announced I was a Villa fan. It was cool with everyone, even though the closest league team to me was Watford, the closest top-division team was Queens Park Rangers, and the fact my dad was a Spurs supporter.

That season, Villa finished second in the title race to Liverpool. In the summer of 1990, England went to Italy for the World Cup Finals. David Platt ended up in the midfield and scored a particularly memorable goal against Belgium to take England through to the quarter finals (they would eventually lose to Germany on penalties.)

That fall I started college, and thus began a period I call my "lost years." I wore a lot of black, topped with a black leather jacket over a Villa shirt. I had stopped taking my education seriously.

By 1993, I was working as a journalist and using all the cash I had to follow Aston Villa up and down the country (despite a "home" game for me being two hours on a train. "away" games in London just meant a short trip on the underground.)

For the next few years, until 1996, I hardly missed a game. I belonged to a hardcore band of fans in London and we travelled to games together. I made some great friends, experienced some amazing times and some truly spectacular matches (including two Cup Final wins at Wembley.) I was even the head usher at a wedding between two friends of mine, Phil and Julie, (who met because of their mutual love of Villa) at Villa Park.

Then, in 1999, I moved over here. Following Villa was obviously a little harder, what with there now being 2,000 miles and a huge expanse of water between Villa Park and myself. Nobody else I worked with was going out of their way to watch games on TV at Irish pubs at 10am like I was. I can't say my passion faded, but it was harder to keep it up without constant reminders.

Paul Birch's sad death, coupled with the fresh memory of the Villa game that was live on TV this Saturday was a refreshing reminder of how much the team means to me. When the crowd chants went up, I remembered being in the middle of it, arms aloft, cheering on the team. When I was at my peak of following the team, the best chant was to one of the best Villa players I ever saw (sung to the tune of New York, New York funnily enough.)

"Start spreading the news,
He's playing today,
I want to see him score again:
Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke.
If he can score from there
He'll score from
It's up to you, Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke!
De-der-der-der-der, de-der-der-der-der."

On Saturday, I got a shiver when I heard the fans singing on the return of my current favorite player, John Carew (to the tune of Que Sera, Sera:)

"John Carew, Carew,
He's bigger than me or you,
He's going to score one or two,
John Carew, Carew."

He didn't, but it didn't matter. It was a beautiful sound and took me back to the days when I would have been there, part of something that's taken place for more than 100 years and will be there when my son is my age. Yes, football is just a game, but I love it and I love Aston Villa because for all I have given to it, it has given so much back. Thank you too, Birchy.

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