My son has been growing more interested in football over the last eighteen months. I told him recently: “You don’t’ get to choose your club, your club chooses you.” After a dramatic pause, I added, “Aston Villa have chosen you.” Nice. But then I wondered why my son supporting Aston Villa was so important to me?
Supporting a football team gives access to an identity, a sense of belonging to a tribe and rich family and social traditions. Aston Villa are my club. My Grandfather came to Birmingham from Ireland to help Britain rebuild after The Second World War and lived and worked in Aston. My Dad and his three brothers, all Villa fans, grew up there. My parents even met at Villa Park. From Nanny’s house, we could hear the roar of the crowd on Saturday afternoons and see the floodlights, the lamps cleverly arranged in the shapes of an A and a V.
The magic was imprinted on me forever when my Dad took me to my first game at Villa Park. I was seven and cannot remember who we played, but I had never seen or heard such a large crowd of people. Replica kits were still just for kids then, but nearly everyone wore a claret and blue scarf. Police horses (which I have never seen before) clopped past. I felt intimidated, that anything could happen. I queued with up my 50p at a turnstile for juniors. When my turn came, I used all my strength to push through, wondering if I would get trapped forever inside the heavy, clanking, mechanism. I emerged into the warm clothing and sharp bodies of the crowd. Although aware that I could not go back through the turnstile and was now moving as part of that crowd, I felt safe somehow. Then, as we climbed the seemingly endless steps of the Holte End, I saw lots of boys like me, standing on milk crates or sitting on the uprights. It’s that electric tingle of shared excitement and belonging that I have felt ever since.
Football is a universal language that you take everywhere with you. It gives you a common reference point in life and an instant connection with others. It can help you form your views on wider race, sexuality and gender issues. I know that wherever I am, whether with a taxi driver in Rome, or a stranger on a train in Berlin, I can ‘talk football’ and make a new friend or at least have a nice chat.
Football has shown me a lot about myself and other people. When I met Helen in 1996, Villa had just won the league cup again. A lifelong Arsenal supporter, Football is a big part of Helen’s Dad’s life and it helped us bond. Arsenal became my second team and we immediately went to every Villa and Arsenal game at Highbury and The Emirates Stadium and Villa Park for many seasons. I remember Helen sitting stoically beside me through many bitterly cold afternoons. She witnessed the December 1998 Skydiving Santa who hit the stand roof and fell to the ground near us. Far from a tragedy, Flight Sgt. Nigel Rogoff began his own inspirational journey that afternoon. He lost a leg, but made a full recovery, fell in love with and married one of his nurses. In 2017, he was part of the first all-amputee team to row across the Atlantic!
I went to a lot more matches after passing my driving test in 2004. I took different people as my Personal Assistant. For many, it was their first time pushing a wheelchair and It was interesting to see how the day played out depending the part football (or drinking!) played in their own lives. I found that many were driven by an aggressive expectation of winning, of constant improvement and achievement, they seemed to take defeat almost personally. I hadn’t encountered this approach to football (or life) before and simply dismissed it as toxic masculinity. My own approach is passive and non confrontational, I like to observe thoughtfully in silence, no singing or shouting for me. I call it the Arsene Wenger, or the ‘continental approach’ to watching Football. It’s all about control for me. I learned that while we all watch football in our own ways, winning should matter. As long as no one gets hurt, getting so emotional about football can be a useful form of release.
Moving to Birmingham from Oxford in 2006 for work did not feel like a big step for me. I do regret being so selfish. Before my ‘free-transfer’ to Birmingham City Council’s Housing Department in 2008, the most important thing my new team wanted to know about their incoming boss was which football team they support. We had a few Departmental Conferences in Villa Park’s cavernous Holte Suite. I loved being there as much as some colleagues hated it! – that’s how important football is in Birmingham!
I have some great memories at Villa Park. Watching a match in a corporate box, tense European nights, thrilling derby games against Birmingham City, a Stadium tour with Bella, Father’s Day lunch with my Dad at the Cornerflag restaurant and a charity auction with Paul Merson. The most memorable goal I’ve seen was not scored by a Villa player, it was Paul Scholes’ sublime volley for Manchester United in 2006. There were trips to Wembley for cup finals (which we didn’t win) in 2000 and 2010. There were special times with Arsenal too, Thierry Henri’s first game, Real Madrid’s Champions League visit with David Beckham and going to, but almost missing the final in Paris in May 2006.
I’ve very nearly met some players and ex-players! In late 1997, Dad arranged with the Club for us to meet Dwight Yorke before a home game. We got stuck in traffic and when we eventually got to the North Stand Reception, we were told that he had waited for as long as he could, but had to go to get changed for the match. Seeing Sasa Curcic flounce past with his gold wash-bag only slightly made up for the disappointment. My only other brush with fame was years later, former player Stan Collymore stood next to me at the bar in the Holte Pub. No, he didn’t recognise me!
There have been bad times too. I wrote in my October 2021 post Eng-er-Land: Tackling Uncomfortable Truths how 2016 was a very low-point for me. Two seasons of poor form and our eventual relegation played a big part in this. Football is not perfect and has only slightly improved over the last 40 years. There is wider representation in the game now, but there is so much more to do. The influx of money has pushed many supporters out and made the game largely uncompetitive. I am disappointed with its increasing dependency on gambling. I would like to see drafting process, like the one used in American football, so every team can sign the best young players, a global wage cap and mixed football teams.
My 7-year old son’s recent interest in football, our return to the Premiership in 2019 and the promise of an exciting future for the Club, has convinced me that now is the right time for me to bestow the very great honour of supporting Aston Villa upon him. My brother and I took him to his first game this month. He was unusually quiet, I expected to be subjected to a constant barrage of questions – I think he was overwhelmed by all the noise and excitement and slept in the car for most of the way back. For better or worse, Aston Villa have chosen him now. There might be dark and frustrating times ahead, but perhaps some trophies and definitely a strong sense of identity and belonging that will help him in life. After all, doesn’t every good relationship have highs and lows?