The loneliness of a long distance Villain

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I recently received a giant box of photographs and paraphernalia from Ireland. As my brother has been sifting through the family home following my mother’s death last summer, he’s been collating keepsakes that he thinks might mean something to me. Of course, the arrival of such a parcel is a mixed blessing. There is joy at having such wonderful mementoes of people now gone but there are tears too at communion and confirmation pictures where parents look young and vital and indestructible. Leafing through the stuff is emotionally draining enough that you have to do it in shifts.

My most recent excavation yielded, amongst other gems, a pair of Aston Villa scarves. One of them is a dreadfully thick machine-knit claret and blue number with the club name running through it at an angle. The moment I saw it, the second I felt it in my fingers for the first time in decades, I remembered a January morning in Matthews’ sports shop behind the Opera House when my mother bought it for me. I might have been 10 that day and certainly believed I had just taken possession of the coolest item any supporter could have. Now, I regard the same item with the reverence of an antiquarian fingering a long-forgotten relic.

The second scarf is more glamorous and flimsy number. It’s designed not to keep out the winter cold on the terraces in a football ground in the English midlands but to commemorate a triumph. The words “League Champions 1980/81” are emblazoned across a white background. My father sourced that one from some Villa fan who drank in Flannery’s, our neighborhood pub, and, for much of my teen years, it was tacked on the bedroom wall, a monument to the first team not representing Cork that I ever fell in love with.

I can still recite the first XI from Rimmer to Withe though my favourite players on that title-winning side were Tony Morley, the dashing winger, and Gary Shaw, the starlet so talented that he won both the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards in one season. Injury would ensure he never turned into the star he was supposed to become but when I was introduced to him in the Villa Park press box decades later, I still felt a frisson of excitement. He wasn’t Jimmy Barry Murphy or anything but he was definitely a minor deity in my childhood world.

My passion for Villa was born of bitterness. My brother Tom was three years older and, like almost everybody else where we lived, a Liverpool fan. Liverpool were a logical choice for kids of our generation. They were exciting. They won things. I recently researched the exact date I chose Villa over Liverpool. It was December 17th, 1976. I was a month shy of my sixth birthday and my father had just broke the news to Tom that Villa had trounced Liverpool 5-1, a result that also yielded what devout fans claim was the best half of football in the club’s history.

When I witnessed my brother’s anger and dismay at Liverpool’s loss, I tried to compound it by declaring I was a Villa fan. I just wanted to be able to rub it in that little bit more. Never mind how pathetic I must have sounded. Any way of scoring points against him was legitimate. So, I was a Villa man, or boy at least. It was the most ridiculous and costly decision I could have made. For one hour of glory, I opened myself up to a lifetime of hurt, punctuated by brief and fleeting occasions of glory.

I was too young and too naïve to know that the victory over Liverpool was an anomaly. A once in a lifetime result. I grew up witnessing every single one of the myriad triumphs my brother enjoyed with his Anfield heroes. Even when Villa emerged from nowhere to win the title in 1981 and then, even more improbably, the European Cup the following May, my brother and all the Liverpool fans knew these were mere blips. Normal service would eventually resume and Villa would be removed from the top table. So it proved.

Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Anybody can support Liverpool or, in more recent years, perennial winners like Manchester United and Chelsea and Manchester City. Following Villa demands commitment to suffering and an acceptance that glory, when it comes, will almost certainly be followed soon after by anguish. It wasn’t that long after Villa humbled Bayern Munich that the club slid out of the top flight altogether.

Still, we’ve had some good times. The first ever game I saw in England was Villa versus QPR at Loftus Road and I still get chills when I remember the away fans kumbayahing his name and bowing when Paul McGrath sidled up for a corner. I was at the old Wembley twice in the mid-90s to see a very Irish-themed Villa side triumph in League Cup finals. Even the last Premier League game I attended five years ago was at Villa Park when the mighty Manchester City were put to the sword/narrowly defeated 1-0 thanks to much good fortune.

Now, Villa have departed the top flight again after many years of neglect by the owner and a series of terrible managerial appointments. The worry is not that they will spend time out of the Premier League, it’s that they may never come back. I will be able to watch Villa next season on BEINsports who show Championship matches each week but this club is so riddled with mismanagement that the concern is they may keep dropping down the divisions over the coming years.

Still, it won’t affect my allegiance. Supporting a club is like marriage. In sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Some day soon, with a wry grin on my face, I may be ordering a new Villa scarf commemorating promotion from the Championship or winning the League Two title. We live in hope.

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