Aston Villa were once a great club. Aston Villa once won the European Cup in the days when winning your domestic league was a prerequisite for gaining entry into Europe’s premier cup competition. Aston Villa also used to be joint record holders for the most FA Cup triumphs in the days when the competition wasn’t a routine carve-up between clubs that would rather be doing something else with their Saturday afternoon/evening. Aston Villa used to boast players of the calibre of Paul McGrath, Tony Daley and Dwight Yorke on their playing rosta. I used to really like Aston Villa.
I don’t really recall when exactly the club slipped into a coma of mediocrity but it must have happened at some point between Graham Taylor’s second stint in the manager’s dugout and David O’ Leary’s less than memorable tenure. Ask most people these days who they think the most unexceptional and dullest team in England are and, local rivalry aside, Aston Villa would, rightly or not, generally feature high on the list.
It doesn’t help that it’s become a running joke amongst football fans that Villa’s matches tend to be broadcast towards the back-end of Match of the Day and by that point many of us have opted to retire to a cosy and inviting bed, having left the electric blanket on to properly warm up during the more appetising fare on the show’s glossy menu. And if that’s not insulting enough to Villa fans, the FA in their craven scrabbling to settle the repayments for the re-building of Wembley, have robbed Villa Park of being the neutral’s venue of choice when it comes to hosting cup semi-finals. No more opportunities for non-Villa fans to populate the seats at the famously imposing Holte End. Not when we have the chance to see all those lovely empty corporate seats beamed into our living room direct from the Home of Football.
When I now think of the modern day incarnation of Aston Villa anonymously making it through thirty-eight matches, the lyrics of Blur’s lament for the desperate ordinariness of modern life spring to mind in the guise of a caricature straight out of Ray Davies’ songbook:
Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.
I appreciate that that’s a highly subjective view to take and I am already bracing myself for a deluge of wailing and gnashing from some of Villa’s hardcore support. Nevertheless, I can also safely say that supporting Spurs as I do, is never dull. It’s exhilarating in its turgidness and frustrating in its insanity but it is categorically never boring. But again, Spurs are my team and I have a particular viewpoint towards them that others, especially those not from London, might not necessarily share. So I understand the potential facetiousness of my rationale.
However, even the most staunchly loyal of Villa fans might be inclined to question the ambition of the club when its manager, however honest he may have been, suggested that playing in the FA Cup is more of a hindrance than a welcome respite from the pressures of Premier League survival. Paul Lambert wasn’t wrong to say what he did. It’s not as if we’ve been deluding ourselves into thinking that this hasn’t been the case for a good few years amongst most middle to low-ranking Premier League teams. But how much fun can it be for a Villa fan shelling out year after year for season tickets and all the other accompanying expenses for yet another unthrilling surge towards somewhere between ninth and fifteenth place? Has money become so pervasive that even decent football men like Lambert are happy to relinquish a shot at the history books in favour of balancing them? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. I think we all know the answer.
Of course, football isn’t just about trophies and enjoyment and a never-ending parade of feelgood highlights packages. It’s about comraderie, misery, venting spleen and being part of something bigger than you and I’m certain Aston Villa, like every club, have those qualities in abundance amongst their support. I just don’t see where football’s scope for escapism enters the mix.
Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon Aston Villa’s true metaphysical function in football’s grand scheme. The likes of Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich inhabit a high-flying world of riches and fame. A world many of us will never ultimately inhabit. We peer through the windows of this menagerie of the super rich, our grubby noses pressed up, waiting to be inevitably moved along by security when our snot begins to leave trails on the shiny shatterproof glass. But conversely many of us aren’t like the eternal paupers of the football-world either, scrabbling around with blissful ignorance in the lower leagues with no hint of promotion or relegation in sight, struggling to make ends meet, happy for a jolly day out, if we’re lucky, whenever the first week of January comes round again.
In that respect then, Aston Villa are the embodiment of football’s petite bourgeoisie, mixing vicariously with those of higher means, a once great name having to now work harder and harder to maintain its place amongst the elite. It’s surprising then that David Cameron professes to supporting the club being as they are socially inferior to his privileged upbringing. And like Ernold Same and like the vast majority of us sat in boxy offices and cramped commuter trains, Aston Villa go on doing the same thing, over and over again, gradually becoming more invisible as the years turn into decades. They’re like a Two Ronnies sketch gone wrong with a horrible twist in the neck.
Aston Villa are the most mediocre team in England because of the fact that they once tasted success. Now it seems they’re just content to stay where they are. Whilst relegation might have been traumatic in the short term for clubs like Leeds and Nottingham Forest, those experiences nevertheless allowed them to regroup and re-connect with their own identities. Should the same fate occur to Villa, it might just prove the best thing that’s happened to the club in years.
Because in the end, what does anybody want to take away from all those hours they’ve invested into watching football, or life for that matter? A stoppage time winner by your goalkeeper on the final day to avoid the drop? A madcap sprint towards the play-off final that ultimately ends in defeat but with a great amount of pride instilled? Or yet another goalless draw with Sunderland that will no doubt have Gary Lineker struggling to muster up the appropriate levels of chutzpah for us to carry on watching past half-eleven?
Aston Villa were once a great club. They might be once again. I just hope some of us are still watching.
Further reading: The Football Blind Spot: How The Game Obstructs Our Vision
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