I’m a Villa supporter so I like to think I know a thing or two about broken hearts, abject misery and dodgy canteen food. As it looks like we’re finally going to be swallowed up by the hungry, angry baby that is the Championship, I thought it might be useful to take a trip to a game there to see what it’s like. I’m a child of the 90s, so I’ve only ever known the Premier League, the comforting voices of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, enforced seating and always being able to play as my team in FIFA. The Match of the Day theme doesn’t quite give me the same nostalgic chills Ready to Go by Republica does.
One day, last Saturday in fact, I get a text from my mate, Ben, who has a spare ticket in the away end at St Andrews. He’s a Sheffield Wednesday fan and I don’t particularly care for the Blues, so I think it would be quite funny to go and watch them lose to some Northern sissies, plus it’s free and I’m unemployed and have nothing else to do. After quickly getting the wife’s express permission, I text Ben back saying I’d love to and we arrange a meet up.
I don’t do many away games. The last non-friendly away game I went to was a 4-0 loss to Chelsea almost ten years ago and that was only because the travel was free. I’d take a 4-0 loss nowadays to have some of the players we had that day – Gareth Barry, Martin Laursen, Isaiah Osbourne (the Brummie Vieria, or Brummie Zidane, I can’t remember which it was at the time). We were so poor in that game that even Andriy Shevchenko managed to score.
Something I didn’t do before setting off on my Wednesday adventure was check the weather. Ben arrived decked in blue and white (he hands me an unbranded blue and white scarf which we will use to slide through the Blues fans like snakes – sneaky little snakes) and soaking wet. I suddenly decide I would rather stay at home with the wife and dog, in the warm, playing some Bloodborne. Alas, like the nameless hunter who has to fight and slash his way through the disease-ridden, monster-plagued streets of Yharnam trying to make it in one piece, so too do I have to go through a similar torture, but worse – Small Heath. In the rain.
We plan to meet at the Dragon in Chinatown, probably the worst Wetherspoons in the city centre. It’s a twisting, labyrinthine den of crap, with too many chairs, too many people, too many children (children aren’t people, not yet). Ben asks if it’s okay if we meet his mates from The Internet and then walk to the ground, in the rain. I am too socially awkward to say no, to say that I’d rather get a bus. I’m too socially awkward to ask why we haven’t just driven to the ground. Instead I just nod, try and find a place to stealthily dry my sodden jeans and wring out my soaked hat. We walk around and around, dodging people carrying very reasonably priced beers and people tucking into fresh out of the microwave curries. We don’t find his friends from The Internet, which sends a brief jolt of glee down my spine (I’m sure they’re lovely, but there’s only so much Yorkshire I can take in one sitting). We head off and I’m pretty sure it’s raining even harder now, like Mother Nature herself is daring me to quit my spirit quest.
“This is what it’s going to be like for the rest of your life with the Villa” the rain taunts as it comes lashing down on my poor, soggy hat.
“Fuck off, rain.”
“What?” Ben says, looking a bit confused.
I shrug and ask if it’s this way, pointing in the vague direction of Digbeth.
“Well, as long as you can get me to the Rainbow, I’ll be able to guide us to the ground from there.”
Ben said he’d been a few times. He’s made the appalling mistake of assuming I have any knowledge of this part of town. I know roughly where I want to go, but I was hoping he’d be leading the way. Bloody northerners. I break into a panicked walk that I try to disguise as a confident, knowing stroll. We end up taking a wrong turn, get drenched by a passing car who thought it would be hilarious to drive through a massive puddle (to be fair, it is hilarious), and then I realise we’ve taken a long cut to Digbeth. We finally spot the coach station, Ben makes a little Northern yelp of recognition, and it’s off to St Andrew’s we go.
We talk about how this is what life is like when you’re a travelling fan in the lower leagues. Ben seems happy enough, apparently happy to trudge along in the rain, which is getting worse and worse. The ground as we approach Mordor becomes craggy and misshapen, much like the faces of the people wearing blue and heading towards the match. My shoes are starting to leak now, my jeans are soaked up to about my shins. We don’t seem to be making any progress as the areas we’re walking in become less and less familiar. Have I gorged myself at 2am at that McDonald’s before? Is that the Dunelm Mill I feign illness for so I don’t have to be with the wife when she’s looking at pillows for the seventh time that month? Then I see it. A blue and white tin shed, like something handmade in a retrofuturistic Brummie favela. Like the default, generic stadium in an N64 football game. I expect some trouble between us and the Blues fans, just because of their reputation, but it’s fine. A few of them are shouting incoherent ramblings, mostly about imagined glories and empty threats, but it’s nothing worse you hear walking down Trinity Road.
We pass through the away gates after a brief groping from security and head through the concrete, practically subterranean path to the stand – like we’re kegs of moonshine being smuggled into a prohibition saloon. There’s a lone canteen open and it’s a bit cheaper than the Villa, so that’s nice. I’m starting to hear lots of northern patois now and Ben, who I’ve known for a good year or so, has suddenly transformed into the most northern man in the world. He’s even walking like a Yorkshireman. We find our seats and Ben greets a few people. I don’t know if he knows them from the away games or if it’s just a weird, friendly thing Orcs like him from the north do. The ground looks about 2/3rds full with huge patches of blue seats staring out at the soggy fans and the soggier players warming up.
The police are approaching now and look pissed. They’re telling some of the Wednesday fans to move and I can’t tell why. They’re sitting too close to a massive flag that’s splitting the stand we’re in and it’s then that I realise we’re sitting right next to some Blues fans. I wonder if they can smell the Villa in me, but they just sit and chew their burgers, waiting for the match to begin. The police are demanding the fans move, who don’t understand why. I don’t know what the Wednesday fans are saying and they sound no miserable than usual. I wrap up, thankful that we’re just under the stand’s roof and wait for the match.
Wednesday are reassuringly shit. They have some promising build-up but can’t do anything with it, which is just like the Villa, but without the promising build-up. The goalie is stretched off, which takes about 10 minutes, and it looks like it’s going to be nightfall before we see a goal, and then in the 51st minute (probably) of the first half Clayton Donaldson scores and the Wednesday fans… grumble a bit. Then they start getting behind the team. Something had seemed weird about this crowd and I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but now I know what it is – no one is suicidal. No one is flinging their balti pie to ground and screaming Paul McGrath’s name just because there’s a wayward pass or a scuffed shot. The atmosphere at Villa Park, rightly or wrongly, has been toxic for years now, and that’s fair enough, you pay your money, you do what you want. I still don’t see how being a dire misery arse, cursing the players every second will elicit a performance, but whatever, this is why I’m only loved by the fans on Football Manager.
Second half is over, we join the queue of exhausted, starving Wednesday fans at the canteen. I order a coffee, Ben gets some chips. We drink coffee and eat chips and discuss being in the Championship. He seems happy enough with their lot. I think the problem with being a Villa fan is that we’ve fallen for our own bullshit. We believe we’re this amazing team with a grand history, which is true to a point, but no one really cares about that. We talk about being a sleeping giant, but we’re practically comatose, a sleeping giant forever rolling over and hitting the snooze button.
Wednesday are a team transformed in the second half and the crowd get behind them. The Blues fans, the 30 seconds after their goal aside, are pretty quiet, but Wednesday’s lot never give up and will them on. Sure, Wednesday fuck up occasionally, some of the players falling over on the sodden pitch, others like former Villa hobbit Barry Bannan runs a lot and passes a lot but doesn’t seem to achieve a lot, but they appreciate him trying. A few changes later, including ‘Big Dave’ Atdhe Nuhiu, and Wednesday suddenly looking like the Premier League team their chants promise they’ll be next season. They score twice, including one absolutely phenomenal goal, and Blues are done. Game over, 2-1.
We head back, more walking (which I hate), more rain (which I hate), but I’m not leaving a football ground thinking I’d wasted my money (I didn’t pay for the ticket, but if I had…) and I want to go again. We pass a child decked out in a full Blues kit crying which is the only thing which manages to warm my heart in the freezing rain.
I’m a bit annoyed about missing the Villa actually win a game, but not as much as I expected. If this is what the Championship is going to be like next season I’ll happily snap up a season ticket. Wednesday win their next match 4-0 and I start thinking about arranging trips up to Sheffield. It feels weird, though, like cheating on your wife, but worse.
Are we going down? Definitely, but I’m not really bothered about being in the Championship any more. I mostly don’t mind the idea of the walking and the rain (I’m hoping someone will just drive me next time). I want to go to Villa Park and not have it feel like a chore. I’m bored of having every game feel like a waste of time and money. Life’s too short, the bank account’s barren. I just want to have fun again. Fuck doing a Leicester, I want to do a Wednesday.
I gave up on this article a few days after the game, not being able to face thinking or writing about football. Then we got relegated. The Villa game, which I had a ticket for and skipped to see the Wednesday game, is the last game Villa win this season and they go on a (as of Monday 18 April) 10 game losing streak. All hope is gone, but the memories of the Wednesday game and the idea that maybe, just maybe, we might have a new owner/team next season fills me with a horrible, sick feeling – hope.
Thanks to Ben for the ticket and for the Wednesday fans being proper nice lads.
The rare double edit – This has been made hilariously out of date thanks to Bernstein and King resigning. So now I’m just back to being miserable. Unless this is the prelude to a Cameron/Prince William/Kennedy/Ray Ranson takeover.
The even rarer triple edit – Well, we were relegated. I don’t know about you, but my eerie, Nostradamus-esque prediction about us going down was downright eerie. Should’ve put a tenner on it. Turns out we got Wednesday at Hillsborough on the first day of the season, for just £45, or 35 trays of St Andrews chips. Here’s another prediction that i’ll edit in September – we’ll win 4-2, a Gabby hat trick sealing the deal.