No thriller at the Villa
StartSelection:0000000199 EndSelection:0000006605 On my way to the former industrial heartland of England, my mind takes a poetic turn as I ponder the rolling hills around these tightly packed Midlands cities. A couple of hundred years ago, all would have been verdant woodland before the industrial revolution buried it beneath tons of soot and detritus.
However, for every action there is a reaction and, in the case of the Black Country, while the land died there arose a particular breed of Englishman, one who had learned to laugh and spit in the face of adversity, his oily hands and rugged demeanour belying the Shakespearian forefather within his soul.
Back in the day when The Secret Fan raved like a loony that the Midlands was THE place for a top night out, with the best nightclubs and the friendliest people, a remarkable fact was in evidence – the ingestion of chemicals and booze had a direct correlation to the bleakness of the surroundings. In the old “work hard, party harder” ethos, these people could party all weekend like it was a constant 1999 and still turn up for a stint at the lathe on a Monday. [*Fftd, see last page]
Now, post-credit crunch and banking crisis, I wonder if the heart has been finally ripped out of the heartlands or if, despite all, there remains any vestige of that happy breed. An afternoon at Villa Park is what I need …
As I have mentioned elsewhere, when I was a lad, part of the traditions handed down from my dad included the belief that there are only a handful of sides that regularly play attacking football. These included Wolves, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Villa. [*Fftd]
The old man has been gone for a long time and there is probably more chance of his resurrection than sustained good quality football at Villa Park. Villa have had a so-so season doing nothing much in the bottom half of the table and something tells me this old-fashioned footballing side should be capable of so much more.
The trek to Villa Park is never the most inspiring and today’s windblown rain and the fact that there is little to battle for gives the afternoon a desultory feeling. I am anticipating an evening of flat vowels and even flatter football. The weather contributes to a general downbeat feeling and, inside the ground, it is the away support of Stoke City that is making the most noise. There are rumours about extending the stadium to accommodate 51,000 but tonight there are barely 30,000.
Before the game, I get talking to an affable local – well, he was in the next seat – and I am interested to hear his fond memories of times past. No mention of the present. Maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised as nothing much exciting has happened here since the days of Ron Atkinson and Graham Taylor and the start of the 2010 season when Martin O’Neill departed.
The only notable exception came this year, with the arrival of Robbie Keane and the quote of the season from Marc Albrighton: “We’ve got a lot of strikers that offer you something different,” he said. “We’ve got Gabby who likes it in behind, Benty likes it in the air on his head and Robbie likes it pulled back for him.” That must have enlivened the changing room somewhat!
Robbie has long returned to warmer climes and on a bleak rainy Midlands Easter Monday who could blame him? Today’s opponents, local-ish rivals Stoke, are a team that has held its own since promotion in 2008. Manager Tony Pulis has worked wonders with a limited budget to establish the “Potters” as a club worthy of Premier League recognition.
Meanwhile, Alex McLeish, his counterpart at Villa, has struggled to string together any meaningful results and it is easy to imagine that, without fresh blood in almost every department (and a massive investment of money), this time next year could easily see Villa facing departure from the top flight for the first time. [*Fftd]
The teams trudge on to the pitch already looking tired. For the moment, they are two clubs going nowhere. Stoke are safe and Villa would have to be drastically unlucky to drop so this evening’s game is all about pleasing the fans by looking heroic without suffering injuries. Bore draw, methinks.
The first anodyne half-hour makes last week’s awful contest I attended between Ipswich Town and Barnsley seem like a distant fond memory. The home fans had even lost the will to moan until the impressive Austrian, Andreas Weimann, stunned everybody with a shot that left Asmir Begovic clawing at nothing. The Stoke players, obviously not relishing the half-time bollocking from Pullis, up the tempo, mainly relying on Rory Delap’s long throws and set-pieces. Villa look like a side who would be quite happy to have the game end now.
Pulis comes across as the affable all-round nice guy on telly but has the reputation of a martinet who brooks no argument and the City players take to the pitch for the second half like schoolboys leaving the headmaster’s study. Whatever they have been threatened with (detention?) seems to have an effect and their desperation turns a game of football into a wrestling match with Sky High Peter Crouch joining the fray on the hour.
Ten minutes later, Jermaine Pennant, at the heart of every Stoke attack, swings over an inviting ball from the right and Robert Huth climbs all over James Collins to nod home. The ref, along with the rest of us, appears to be having trouble keeping his eyes open! Both sets of players seem to have their eyes on the clock and the game fizzles out with honours even.
I reflect on a boring non-event. Something is rotten in the state that is Villa, surely an historic club deserves more. Better they burn out than fade away. On today’s showing, Weimann is too good for them and most of his team-mates too bad or past their sell-by date.
At least the stoical home fans retain that bleak Midlands sense of humour. As I leave the ground, I hear the best chant of the day: “Paper the cracks and bring the filler, We’re not rich, We are the Villa”.
They deserve so much more. [*Fftd]
NB: I have included *Fftd (Feel free to disagree) where suitable. I encourage readers to do just that.