In this article, I am going to detail what Villa means to me, how Villa found me, and a journey of complete and blissful sports fan solitude.
To start it all off, we need to go back in time a little ways. Come on, Villans. We love taking a trip down memory lane. Ten years down the lane as a matter of fact. It was ten years ago this year that Aston Villa found me. Ten years ago that Aston Villa found a 19 year old in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Yes, I am an American. I don’t mean to alarm you. I was unlike many 19 year old Americans… a year out of high school, working a job I never saw myself doing for more than a few years, and generally enjoying the hell out of my youth. My first love has and forever will be ice hockey. Now, I know a lot of you may think it’s just a gladiator sport where grown men act like children and punch each other in the face. I can assure you it’s not like how it was 30 years ago, and it is indeed an amazing sport that tells a lot of life lessons the more you pay attention. Something happened along the way and I started getting rather bored with watching hockey. I needed a new sports fix. I didn’t want to revert back to watching “American football” like so many of my other friends would jump in bonfire for. Where I’m from, in Pittsburgh, not liking/caring/paying attention to the local “football” team is a slight against Jesus Christ himself. It is unheard of, and usually will be met with looks that would scare Medusa herself. This type of die-hard and live-hard fandom definitely rubbed off on me in many areas of my life, and to this day has had a major impact in my life in terms of passion.
I remember the exact day I first read the words “Aston Villa”. It was October 20th 2007. I was off of work and looking for something to watch on my brand new laptop computer. What’s a better way of breaking in a new laptop that searching for streams on the internet? The words “live events” pops up on my go-to website that I have used for years -and no- the site isn’t up anymore… don’t ask.
“Manchester United v. Aston Villa”
I recognised the first name. I knew who a handful of major players were in the world of ‘soccer’, and like it or not in 2007, United were everywhere. Even in a small American metropolitan city like Pittsburgh. After identifying Manchester United by words alone, I thought to myself: “I bet this ‘Aston Villa’ is an underdog…let’s see if they can pull off an upset.” On that day, United got the better of Villa in the form of a 4-1 win at Villa Park. Throughout the entire game, I kept hearing this noise that was almost drowning out the commentator. It sounded like some sort of Gregorian chant. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, and I felt rather confused. Did something happen in the stands? Are the fans upset about the conduct of a certain player? Why are they shouting for so long? Isn’t this game 90 minutes long? You could imagine the confusion. I never saw a single ‘soccer’ match up until this point.
I’ll stop calling it that soon, I promise. Stay with me now.
The commentator kept referring to “The Holte End”. I immediately brought up a Google search and typed it in. It added the ‘e’ for me. Amateur mistake, I will admit. What I found with a few clicks was once more something I have never witnessed before. A bunch of lunatics screaming at the top of their lungs in synchronised song. The hairs on my neck only stand up when I’m either incredibly anxious or something completely floors me emotionally. It was such a powerful sound, albeit very beautiful to my ears. I wanted to know what they were saying. I wanted to know why they were even doing this in the first place…and I really wanted to know who in the hell John Carew was because he looked like a damn tree with legs.
For the next couple hours…alright, for the next 5 hours I dove right into everything Aston Villa. I wanted to know the history, the players past and present, the ownership, the types of people who support the club, what area in England is Birmingham, anyway? Basically, I took the rest of my day off and learned about a proper football team that was 3,623 miles away from my front door. It was one of the most overwhelming things I have done as a fan of the arena of sports. Coincidentally enough, I posted something about Aston Villa on my Facebook wall/timeline/whatever the kids are calling it these days. The very first person to chime in was my Uncle Jim. Now, me and my Uncle haven’t seen each other a lot over the years due to living life, but we always tried to keep in contact as much as possible. Turns out… he was an Aston Villa fan. I never knew. And he would have no reason to ever tell me about that because I was never into a proper football team. After we chatted for a while, you can tell he was very happy that a member of the family was now taking his first steps to be a member of his ‘other’ family. It felt amazing to have a point of reference. It felt like all of these questions I had were finally going to get answers other than search engine replies and child-like wonderment.
That year in 2007-2008, I tried to watch every single Aston Villa game I could. I couldn’t get enough of it. Ashley Young down the wing, John Carew being an absolute madman, Stan Petrov pulling all of the strings in the middle of the field… er… pitch. Again, everything was so new. I couldn’t even pronounce ‘derby’ right for the first few weeks. It’s like my American brain would not allow it. I don’t blame it, however. It all felt like a surreal culture shock, probably because it was a surreal culture shock. I wasn’t even sure how a league table worked. My Uncle Jim promised me it would get easier the more I watched, and a part of me believed him. Another part of me thought I was making a fools attempt at learning all of this because no one else that I knew would have cared what I was learning. Uncle Jim knew I was still struggling into the next season, and soon after brought me a paperback book I will keep close to my heart until the day I die:
“Bloody Confused: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer”
Yes…that’s the actual title of the book he gave me, It was written by a brilliant man named Chuck Culpepper. The book is basically exactly what the title says. A former American sports journalist decided to skip over the pond and have a shot at covering and more so learning about English soccer. This book answered all of the questions I had in my head. Everything from team locations, to slang used in the game, to how away goals worked…I had found my new Bible. I must have read the book four times in two weeks. I couldn’t get enough of the information inside. I was becoming obsessive. Or at least I thought I was…
The one thing the book didn’t prepare me for was the loneliness. Sure my Uncle would always be available to talk about the Villa, the Premier League, and other giants of the footballing world. But, none of my friends were into it. I felt even if I had tried to get them into English football, I’d be laughed at and the conversation quickly directed elsewhere. So there I was… a Villan in solitude. The first few years of being a Villa fan were great to me. Villa finished in 6th the first three years I started following them. I felt like they were on the cusp of something great. I felt like the club was going places, and that meant Champions League football. I wanted to see that. I wanted to be able to tell my friends about Aston Villa. I didn’t want them thinking I was mindlessly following some random team from the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t the middle of nowhere to me. It was Aston Villa. It was Villa Park. It was my home far away from home. Even if I had never been anywhere near it in person.
I scrambled over the next few years, as did the club. I started buying Villa merchandise, wearing the Villa top at every chance I had. Getting up at 7am to watch or listen to the game isn’t easy when you’re working until 12:30am every single night. But, I did it. Without question. No matter how late I stayed up the night before, or how many shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey I swallowed, I was at full attention when my alarm clock went off. I remember dating a girl at the time that would absolutely loathe that my alarm would go off at 7am on a Sunday morning. The alarm was met with her annoying nags of, “There is no way that soccer team means more than sleep. I just don’t believe it.” As fate would have it, one morning I sternly replied: “There is no way you’ll ever mean more to me than Aston Villa”… and that was the last time we saw each other.
I know what you’re thinking. “What do you know about Aston Villa?” Probably not as much as you. I have never been to Villa Park. I have never been to England. Although, I have befriended many of people that live close to Birmingham through the wonderful invention of the internet. They have all been very accepting of the chubby Yank with the red beard who adores the same football club as they do. They mostly find me peculiar, and I kind of like it that way. There are only three Aston Villa supporters I have met after years of hopping around to bars around the Pittsburgh area. One is me, one is my Uncle, and one is a man I have never met in person by the name of Adam. We have been trying to get together to watch a game for years, and schedules just never have worked out. One day, brother. One day.
The other question I always receive is, “Why Aston Villa? They’re not even any good anymore”. To be very blunt, that played a major factor into it. Obviously, seeing United dismantle Villa for my first game, I could tell United were on a totally different plane than Villa were at the time. That type of attractive football baffled me. I felt like a small child looking at a street magician and thinking, “How did he just do that?” I wished Villa could play football like that, but I didn’t want to give my full attention and heart to a club that seemed to pull it off with ease. I love a good underdog story. I will always root for the competitor that everyone thinks doesn’t have a snowflakes chance in Hell. That’s my kind of glory. And obviously…Villa didn’t achieve those heights in my history of watching the club. Alas, even with being a lonely Villan with almost no one to talk to about the club, or to hear differing opinions, I pressed on. If I had to be a lonely Villan, so be it. That just meant this was the road as it was meant to be.
One thing that really tied me to Villa was a phrase I kept reading in newly Facebook groups and on Villa edited pictures: “We did not choose. We were chosen.”
That meant and continues to mean something to me. What other explanation is there, fellow Villans? What else in the crazy world would have directed me to Aston Villa? I firmly believe Villa found me exactly when I needed it to.
Now at 29 years of age, here I sit typing this out in my 2010 away Villa top thinking about the crazy journey I have been on for ten years. Through Europa League exits, Lerner In, mediocrity, Lerner Out, Paul Lambert, Christian Benteke, relegation battles, staying up in the Premier League by the skin of our teeth, learning all of the Villa chants and songs, thinking every Birmingham City fan in the world has an extra finger on one of their hands, the FA Cup semi-finals, the relegation, RDM being sacked, the feeling of ‘what the hell is going on’…the list goes on and on. I bleed Claret And Blue from 3,623 miles away, and I don’t care who knows it. It may be lonely sometimes…it may even be on the brink of complete madness, but I wouldn’t trade the ups and downs of being a tried and true Aston Villa supporter for these ten years for any other experience in the world.
It personally brings me great pride and accomplishment to write for The Claret & View. It’s an outlet that I needed for a very long time. All of us at The Claret & View are very humbled and appreciative of the support we have been shown over the past few months. All of the kind words, harsh criticisms, opposing opinions, all of it. I am personally eternally grateful for all of the feedback, positive and negative. If you made it this far through this long-winded explanation, thank you. As you can tell, Aston Villa means a great deal to me. And although I will always be the ‘strange Yank’ who writes football columns for a blog, I will also never stop supporting the club with all of my heart.