“Are you here for the funeral?”
It’s 7am, and I’m strolling through customs at Birmingham International Airport on the second to last day of Aston Villa’s 2015/16 premier league season. I’ve been a Villa fan for as long as I can remember. A massive perk of my choice of university – Warwick, based in Coventry – was the opportunity to switch from regular trips up to Villa Park with a friend of my dad’s to a fully-fledged season ticket holder in the Holte End Upper. I’ve made a point of dropping back when I can over the years, even while living abroad.
My interest in the intervening years has varied from ‘makes sure I check in on the score’ (living in Asia for several years made it hard to watch regularly, and pushed things down my priority list), to being utterly besotted. Strangely, the link between quality and my interest has often worked in reverse: my most dedicated Villa years were the ones where they weren’t very good.
I vividly remember another second-to-last game of the season in which an extremely late goal from Marcus Alback ensured survival. It was tense and uninspiring, but also a heavy relief. While I’ve also witnessed that ridiculous game against Newcastle, a Europa League defeat of Ajax and a cup final that we should probably have won (the last one not in person, sadly), tense and uninspiring have summed up a large part of the whole experience.
But you can’t change your football team, right? So the customs lad summed it up: I was here for the funeral.
“Down with the Villa, you’re going down with the Villa”
Outside the stadium: bitter protests. I think Villa fans are largely realistic. There are few that didn’t think relegation was coming, after a series of finishes just outside the relegation zone in the last few years. The club has become a selling club: while they didn’t all go on to great things, there’s a lengthy list of genuinely classy players who have walked out of the club in exchange for badly-spent cash in recent years. James Milner. Ashley Young. Fabian Delph. Christian Benteke. Stewart Downing. The list goes on, and replacements have been weak at best, and include some astonishing wastes of money (see Darren Bent, the club’s record signing at £32.5 million, and out of favour quickly, largely shipped out to the championship before leaving for nothing). Protests aren’t so much about winning things – Leicester’s fairytale this season aside, precious few sides are in a position to do much of that – so being well run and interesting to watch is the height of hopes.
It goes without saying, this season Villa are neither. They’re heartbreakingly awful (or perhaps comically so, all a matter of perspective, I guess).
The final home game against Newcastle pretty much summed it up. Newcastle are inept, frankly, yet Villa are worse. Brad Guzan’s confidence might be (understandably) shot, but Mark Bunn distributes the ball like he’s chucking it for his dog between sips of a Sunday morning coffee, and not before letting the opposition all get back in position. Alan Hutton – who’s a fan favourite, because unlike pretty much everyone else, he seems to try – has a final ball that lands somewhere near where it’s aimed perhaps one time in six, while the pace of Villa’s build up play is scary slow.
Here goes. Bye bye premier league #AVFC
A photo posted by James Hendicott (@jameshendicott) on
That said, Saturday had a great atmosphere. If it was a funeral, it was of the rampaging, celebratory Irish variety. I managed to get a seat very close to my old season ticket in Holte End Upper (which says something in itself), and there was loud, rumbling defiance throughout, both in protests and in comic self-deprecation. It probably added a little spice that the rivalry with Newcastle got a bit heavy after Villa relegated them a few years back, but effectively sending the away side down did no harm at all.
Obviously I’ve known Villa are all but down since before Christmas even rolled around, even if there was still that little glimmer of hope for a month or two longer. It’s still emotional to watch a goodbye – I struggled with the first half, especially, and the idea that next season will see Villa face off against Rotherham, Huddersfield, Burton Albion and Brentford for league points.
It hurts, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t due. I’m far from confident of next season being anything special, and don’t even find it particularly far-fetched that a double relegation might be on the way. It’s all happened in the season that will have the most commercial impact of any in history.
None of that stuff matters when it comes to support. A football club is for life. But it matters for the future: barring one of those horrible, soul-destroying buy outs, Villa are destined, now, to be even greater financial underdogs. Next year my team need a complete overhaul. There are maybe three first team players and a few more young lads I actually thing deserve to stay. And I’m worried for them, because this could easily end in much, much more of a disaster.