“I’m Villa till I die,” said the short, round man from Aston. “Bloody hate Blues, hate Baggies. Villa for me, through and through.” There he stood, on Witton station, Villa sweat shirt over Villa shirt. Villa tattooed on his knuckles. “I’m ******* happy. I’ve just bought a cup final ticket and I’m chuffed.”
He wasn’t the first Villa fan I came across that morning. Hundreds of them queued for tickets for the May 30 final. “I was at Wembley in 2000 and we should have done better against those jammy bastards Chelsea,” said a woman from Perry Barr. “30 years I have followed Villa. It’s about time we won something again.”
Another Villa Park veteran agreed. “You from Arsenal?,” he asked. “You sound like you are.” I admitted I was a Chelsea fan and he sneered. “Bloody hate Chelsea. Bloody cockneys.” I explained that I was no more a cockney than someone from Coventry was a Brummie. “They’re all cockneys to me,” he laughed. “And it works the other way,” I laughed. “Everyone north of Watford is a northerner.”
Surveying the scene and looking up at Villa Park’s quite huge stands, you can understand why Villa are one of that ever increasing circle of “sleeping giants”. It’s a sphere that includes clubs like Newcastle United, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday (and possibly United), Leeds United and Wolves. Mostly, these clubs are by-products of industrial revolutionised Britain, and although some are more “moribund” than merely snoozing, they are still big names that are ingrained in football’s history. Villa was England’s first “super club”, dominating Victorian and Edwardian Britain and pivotal in the creation of the Football League. Not for nothing does William McGregor, founder of the Football League and Villa’s driving force in the late 19th century, have a cul-de-sac named after him across from the club’s ground.
Villa’s struggle to win a [permanent] seat at football’s top table in the modern game mirrors, in some ways, Birmingham’s own fight to win credibility as Britain’s “second city”. It is often overlooked in favour of more “noisy” metropolis’ such as Liverpool and Manchester. In football terms, the battle for power has shifted between London, Merseyside and Manchester. It has been hard work for Birmingham to keep pace, despite having, at times, three clubs – Villa, Birmingham and WBA – in the top flight.
When Villa won the league in 1981, they did so with an exciting team (despite being managed by Ron Saunders) and a year later, they shocked everyone by beating Bayern Munich in the European Cup final. For the first time in decades, Villa were back among the winners. My friend from Witton station remembered it well: “Big Gary Shaw fan, I was. He was terrific. But his knees got him. To be fair, I never thought that much of Withe, always felt he would be here one minute and then off somewhere else, but he linked up brilliantly with Gary. I cried when Gary had to call it a day. I remember the tackle, I think against Forest.” Withe actually played 182 games in the league for Villa, scoring 76 goals. Shaw, meanwhile, appeared 165 times and scored 59. 1980-81 was their golden season.
Villa fans are waiting for some development around the sale of the club. The current owner, Randy Lerner, is not particularly popular, but who would be a club owner these days? Lerner put the club up for sale a year ago, but Villa fans seem to think he’s asking too much. But there’s been a lot of activity on this front over the past week or so, and the FA Cup final may have helped accelerate discussions. There are a number of offers on the table.
Some Villa fans believe that if Lerner goes, it will mean substantial investment into the club and a chance to compete with those “bloody cockneys”. But Tom Fox, the club’s CEO, recently told The Guardian: “Even if he wanted to, an owner could not come in under the current financial regime that exists within the Premier League and invest as much money as Randy [Lerner] has in the club. It wouldn’t be allowed any more because of the profitability and sustainability rules.” Villa fans might like to be reminded that Lerner, for all is apparent detachment (something that is hotly denied, by the way), wrote off a lot of money that might have been owed to him.
At least they are pleased, though, that Paul Lambert has gone. “He was an arrogant bastard,” said one fan, waving his cup final ticket at his pal. “He never seemed to admit we had a problem,” said Dave from Walsall. “Even when were getting beat by the likes of Hull, he was talking as if all was well. He lost more than 50 games in 100, what sort of record is that?. I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did.”
Tim Sherwood has, at least, salvaged some of the club’s pride, will lead them out at Wembley and has all but secured Premier status. “He’s done ok. I quite like him,” said my man at the station. “If he wins the cup, he can build on that and if the club gets new direction, perhaps we can have a stab at Europe next season. As long as we finish above the Baggies, I will be happy,” he grinned. “I’m bloody ready for Wembley now.”
We parted with a good luck message. I told him I wanted Villa to win the cup (bringing London rivalry into the equation). “What’s your name, mate?,” I asked as I got on the train to Birmingham New Street. “Me, I’m Paul, but just call me Villa’s number one fan,” he replied, lifting his knuckles up to show me “Villa” in club colours.
I’ve always found it hard to commit to a football club the way some people do. I deplore comments like “football is more important than life and death” and refuse to let the antics of a group of young, testosterone-fuelled men govern my well being. It enhances life. But for “Villa’s number one fan” (I wonder how many of them there are?), the trials and tribulations of the Midlands’ top club mean everything to him. I will look out for him at Wembley.
Thanks to the handful of Villa fans who indulged a “bloody cockney” on a busy morning in Birmingham…