Just imagine it: you're out on a lovely late-summer's day, wandering through Disneyland. Sure, it's crowded, and there are those terrifying anthropomorphic dogs and mice strolling about. You'll have to deal with exceedingly long lines and strollers banging into your shins. And man, $17 just to leave the car in the parking lot?
But to be honest, you're kind of looking forward to getting a cheesy photo with the Disney princesses. And there's always the off-chance you can wedge a stick into the wheels of a baby buggy when the parents aren't looking. You're optimistic that this will be a great day, one that will provide warm memories throughout the dreary winter months and allow you to bore your coworkers silly with animated tales of how you saw Mickey beat up Goofy.
Standing in line.
While waiting to board the rides at Disneyland, the company kindly provides all sorts of distractions, including hiding Mickey Mouse images in and around the waiting area. This is to distract you from the fact that you are about to get on a ride that could very well kill you.
Aston Villa did much the same in the build up to the 2013-2014 season. All signs pointed to danger ahead: a fixture list that included Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in the first month. Preseason games all ending 1-1. Christian Benteke handing in a transfer request after a mere year at the club.
But Paul Lambert was bringing in a whole mess of youthful players, so this had to be a fun ride. Right?
Aleksandar Tonev (Lech Pozan)
Jores Okore (Nordsjælland)
Leandro Bacuna (Groningen)
Nicklas Helenius (AaB)
Antonio Luna (Sevilla)
Jed Steer (Norwich City)
Libor Kozák (Lazio)
Please keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times.
Sit down, buckle up, and try not to think about the fact that going over a 60 foot drop could very well kill you.
The excitement bubbled over and out after Aston Villa went to Arsenal and came back with a 3-1 win - after going behind in the early minutes. Benteke seemed happy to be alive, bagging a brace, and Tony Moon scored on his debut. My, my, what a wonderful day.
Then we entered a long, dark tunnel. Forced to play Chelsea just days after Arsenal, thanks to some sort of fancy European commitments the opponents had, Villa had no idea they'd be going up against the hosts' Friend as well. Branislav Ivanovic should've been sent off; instead, he scored the winning goal. John Terry finished it up with a handball, so Villa were stuck with a 2-1 loss.
A little light shone through after Villa beat League One side Rotherham United in the League Cup. Alas, Villa went out in the next round, getting their ass spanked by Tottenham. Jan Vertonghen, in particular, seemed to enjoy exposing Villa's weaknesses.
The Cup exit wasn't the only pain Villa faced in September. The first match, a loss to Newcastle, saw Okore injured in the first half-hour. We'd only seen the Dane four times in the regular season, but we were already certain he was better than both Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark combined. Sigh.
It just got better: in Villa's win over Norwich, Kozák scored his first goal for the club. But he was only on because Benteke hurt his hip, keeping him out for a month.
Aston Villa came back to beat Manchester City 3-2, with two goals inside two minutes. Bacuna proved that at least one player on the side had the ability to execute a free kick decently, while the photo of Andi Weimann celebrating in front of an ecstatic Holte End circulated far and wide.
Why are all these animatronic creatures singing at me?
When you climb, eventually you're going to crash back to earth. And possibly find yourself surrounded by those willing to mock your pain. Wait, what's this they're saying? "Four games without a goal, four games without a goal, look at Villa, four games without a goal!"
Up, up, up.
The high point of the season may have been November, when Aston Villa didn't lose. Granted, they played just two games and drew two of them, but they didn't lose. Plus, they came back from 2-0 down to draw with the evil Baggies, and that's always fun. The excitement continued into the first game of December, when Villa beat Southampton 3-2, coming back twice before Fabian Delph wrapped things up with his first goal for the club, a stunner from distance.
The win over the Saints made it seem as though Villa would continue to climb towards the stars. Instead, someone upset the cart and we all went crashing down.
Four losses in a row, to such notables as Fulham, Crystal Palace and Stoke City. The month of December concluded with a 1-1 draw with Swansea. In total, Villa gave their supporters a whopping two goals as Christmas presents. Thanks?
Is there...is there water leaking into this cart?
Villa were lucky to come away from the Stadium of Light with all three points, but since Gabby Agbonlahor had managed to score in two consecutive matches, it seemed, once again, like the prevailing wins were changing.
Then we looked down and noticed that, while we'd been drifting idly through a calm inlet, watching bunnies frolic on the banks, water had filled the bottom of the boat, rising up to cover our shoes.
The very next day, Aston Villa announced Kozák would miss the remainder of the season with a broken leg. The Czech had scored four goals in fourteen appearances. Too bad no one had fooled him into thinking the Premier League was actually the Europa League.
Three days later, Villa were kicked out of the FA Cup. By a League One side. Again. Our boat had somehow crossed from Frontierland into Fantasyland, only to breakdown inside It's a Small World. When those boats stall, the dolls don't stop singing, you know.
They don't. stop. singing.
The painful punch was followed by an expected win from Arsenal at Villa Park, but we celebrated the fact that Benteke scored because we thought maybe it meant something. Then he scored again when Villa visited Liverpool, putting the side up 2-0. Of course the hosts came back and got a draw, but outplaying Liverpool for much of the match brought our hopes up again.
West Brom came to Villa Park and tried that annoying trick of going 2-0 up within ten minutes. Not in our house, Albion. Villa came back to win 4-3 in one of the most thrilling matches of the season, and Villa fans teetered on the edge of ecstasy.
Someone forgot to pack the life preservers.
But if you get too close to the edge, you might fall over, and after January 31st, Villa supporters were pushed over a seemingly endless drop. The winter transfer window prompted plenty of frustration: the need for a creator was obvious, but failing that, the simple addition of someone who could put the ball in the net would work. Instead we got Grant Holt.
Ryan Bertrand came in as well, which was exciting for about two weeks.
Then came another four-match losing streak, with Villa only able to score one goal in 360 minutes. Holt's presence in the dressing room was talked up while he continued to provide absolutely nothing on the pitch, and Villa slipped down to 13th. Which doesn't sound low until you realize 13th was just four points clear of the drop.
Aston Villa may have well ended up forever mired in the muck of relegation had Chris Foy not come along to bail the team out. Sure, Villa beat Norwich 4-1, but the Canaries were utterly pathetic. The real work was in beating Chelsea 1-0, with the Blues reduced to nine men by the end of the game, and José Mourinho whining for days about unfair dismissals and how Nemanja Matić using his hand to get the ball into goal was completely legitimate and clearly every referee was against Chelsea.
In reality, Delph's goal was a wonder and the visitors had totally lost their heads. Unfortunately, Villa lost theirs soon after.
Wait, how'd we end up in the Haunted Mansion?
The wait was long, the cart was rickety and a bunch of water filled the boat after we crashed back to level ground. But Villa fans were thrilled to see light once more (and be free of taunting voices singing about how plenty of sunshine, was coming their way). Now it was time to find the exit, and quickly.
But we'd payed a lot of money for this ticket, and so felt it would be a good idea to take in a few more rides before exiting the park. Foolish. The room we were in began to stretch, a voice challenged us to find a way out, and a bloodcurling scream was heard.
Locked into our Doom Buggies, we are taken, seemingly at a snail's pace, past portraits of our final days. There's Stoke scoring twice inside four minutes, leaving Villa Park with a 4-1 lead. Then we're forced to watch a montage of Manchester United scoring their four goals, while a pathetic little plane flies above and the crowds laugh and laugh.
Then the buggy spins to leave us face to face with fate: a diorama depicting Benteke getting injured in training. Lurking above are grotesque, distorted images of metal hoops, plastic cones and brightly colored bibs, all cackling while watching their evil plans bear fruit.
Without Benteke, Villa limped toward the exit. Hugo Rodallega scored for the first time since January 2013 to make sure Championship side Fulham picked up all three points at Villa Park. After losing to Crystal Palace, a goalless draw with Southampton was something to be celebrated. Particularly in hindsight, as the next week saw yet another 4-1 loss, this time to Swansea.
Of course, now that we know the end of the story, walking back through this path of horrors isn't quite as terrifying. But at the time, it seemed as though one wrong step would take us to hell - or, at least, the Championship. Fortunately, there were other sides far, far worse than Aston Villa. Including Hull City, who Villa beat 3-1 while actually scoring all the goals.
Those goals proved to be the last of the season, as Villa went on to lose 4-0 at Manchester City and 3-0 at Spurs. It was a fitting way to close out the season.
Mad Tea Party
Except it wasn't really over, was it? Villa fans were, understandably, tired of being stuck in the same old cycle. It's slightly strange to realize now, but the majority of this season was better than the last. Still, Villa wound up in 15th, exactly the same place as last season. Even worse, Villa were playing some dreadful football, of the sort that brought to mind back to the horrors of the McLeish era.
Now, at least, there's the possibility that someone will step in, throw the emergency switch and take us off this madly spinning ride. But until then, we need to try and make sure we keep our lunch down.