I got in touch with Steve Green last week to see if he might be willing to write our final From the Stands report of the season after his trip to Wembley. He agreed. I had hoped it wouldn't make me mad to edit it, but it did. And that's nothing to do with Steve's writing, and everything to do with the outcome. I'll let him tell it:
Losing an FA Cup final is a lot like Christmas Day. You wait all that time for it to come around, only for it to end in a flash. You’re down because you realise you’re now old enough to receive socks as a legitimate present, but at the same time grateful you got them because you’re running low on pairs without holes in them.
However, unlike Christmas, reaching an FA Cup final is not something that is on your mind all that often. It’s a hefty piece of silverware, but most would sacrifice being in the competition for a healthier league position, and you don’t actually begin to realise its significance until your team makes it to the latter stages.
Villa have made it to five finals during my lifetime. The last time we won one I was told off for celebrating, as to not upset my Leeds supporting mother, so my friend and I stopped jumping on the sofa to run outside and cheer in peace. Surely, after the last two appearances in 2000 and 2010 we were due some success.
When Saturday arrived, I was up at 6am to begin work. Having not slept much, I tried as best I could to not think about the game, but around midday when the BBC screened its weekly magazine show, Football Focus, I realised just how badly I wanted to win.
You would think, that for a corporation that expends so much effort talking about the "magic of the cup" the BBC would afford more than a token amount of time talking about the underdog. Instead, I’d stumbled across the Arsenal show. Arsenal this and Arsenal that, Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal! Up until that point I felt confident, and as though we had nothing to lose, now I felt enraged that "real football men" all apparently knew which way this game was going.
‘We’ll show them,’ I thought.
After work, two cohorts and I boarded the tube to Wembley at Baker Street. However, we made the schoolboy error of getting on the carriage nearest the stairs, ensuring we were quickly drowned out by Goons, sorry, Gooners.
In the corner, a small pocket of vocal Villans piped up for the cause. In front of me, was a young man with the strangest, most sunken eyes I’d ever seen. Sporting a long beard and a bandana around his head, he fought back at the Villa fans by banging on the window and leading a chant of his own. I couldn’t help but dislike him, as he threatened to change the mood of the singing into something more sinister. I noticed he wasn’t holding on to the rail, and as he swayed in his drunken stupor, I prayed that the train would have to stop suddenly.
I don’t remember much about the trek up Wembley Way – I was too desperate to get inside, though I would love to know how many photos of the Arch I’m inadvertently in. It was real now. In just two hours, we could be FA Cup champions. I used that thought as a mantra all the way up to our gate.
Sometimes, though, you get an omen that things might not go your way. It could be something small, like the series of escalators leading you up to the concourse of the top tier being out of order, meaning you have to breathlessly climb the steps instead, making you think: ‘A champion wouldn’t have had to do that’. Surely, I was just being overly superstitious.
We found our seats quickly, so we could soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible, five rows into the top tier behind the goal. Draped over it was a powder blue scarf and a plastic flag. The PA blasted out a track by Muse (also known as the band for people that don’t actually like music) to get everybody in the mood. There was a sense that everybody was feeling a lot more positive once inside the stadium. The scarves were held aloft to create another mosaic, albeit one not as impressive as the effort before the Liverpool game – the claret scarves were too dark to really stand out against the muddle of the crowd.
It was thumpingly loud, though. You don’t need telling how great travelling Villa fans are. And even if I can confirm that some people apparently need to take a course on how to wave a flag properly, the electricity and anticipation was reaching a fever as two huge flags of the club’s crest and a scene of several team members celebrating a goal were unfurled on the pitch amidst fiery explosions on the sidelines.
I needn’t describe the game. You’ve already seen it. You know how bad it was. But despite the lack of action down on the pitch it remained lively in the stands. The majority sang, or waved their flags, nobody sat until half time, and even when the game had well and truly slipped away, we made sure we weren’t going to be drowned out by Arsenal fans.
However, as we went 3-0 down, I finally took my seat. The stranger to my left did the same. We’d say things, but not directly to each other. The team were lucky not to have conceded six or seven in truth, and there was so much going on that was painfully wrong with how the team were playing.
I felt humiliated. All season I’ve been defending these players to my Arsenal- and Liverpool-supporting colleagues at work. Promising them that Fabian Delph really is one of the best English central midfielders playing right now, that Chistian Benteke is genuinely worth £32m, and that Villa’s own Robin Friday, Jack Grealish, really is worth the hype.
People began leaving with ten minutes still to run. A man on the end of the adjacent row drunkenly tried to prevent the spill, but his efforts were not appreciated and on several times he had to be told to cool it. It has been reported that fights were breaking out amongst our own throughout the ground, but that was the only trouble I saw.
With five minutes left, I too, decided to move on. I didn’t want to watch Arsenal celebrate, I didn’t want to see my players on the floor, moping after such an abject display. I took a final look at Christian Benteke, said goodbye to my companion, Jamie, and made my way for the exit, luckily missing Olivier Giroud adding a fourth.
I had several offers to meet friends after the game, but I couldn’t face it. I didn’t want to revisit the afternoon’s events while the sting was still fresh. I was ashamed, too.
Sure, there is no shame in losing to Arsenal when they’ve played that well, but to not turn up, to play into their hands, and to lay out the red carpet for them just hurt far more than anticipated.
But one thing resonates with me still, and it’s the roaring round of ‘Holte Enders in the Sky’ ringing in my ears as I walked back up Wembley Way towards the station.
We’ve had to make do with our fair share of moral victories this season, and our appearance in the final will have to go down as another. At least we got there, right? That counts for something, doesn’t it? Call me greedy, but no, it wasn’t enough. Getting all the way to the final, only to simply not turn up is not only an affront to the club, but to the long-suffering fans, who have had nothing to cheer about in nearly six years. They robbed themselves, and they’ll have to live with that.
To paraphrase the late Bill Hicks: "I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I am, so that’s how it comes out".
Thanks for taking the time to write this, Steve! If you don't already know, Steve can be found every week with co-host Chris Nee on Aston Villa Review, which is essential listening for every Villa fan. You can also find Steve on twitter @doe_ray_egon.