Sardines. That’s what we were. Rammed in together on the 2.10 train that heads to Lichfield via Aston from Birmingham New Street. The songs rang out as we drew closer to Aston station - similar to those of last year but with new names. Instead of ‘Stuck in the middle Ayew’, we were treated to a simple rendition of an elongated ‘ohh’ followed by ‘Ross McCormack’. The world’s greatest lyricists might look down upon this, this rather primitive stanza - where syllables bulge out the side like a dress that doesn’t fit - but, well; that’s football.
There’s something different about Aston Villa this year. There’s an aura that hasn’t been there since the 00’s, there’s an actual sense of optimism and hope, the same hope that defined Martin O’Neill’s shot at qualifying for the Champions League back in 2009, the same hope that spurred Villa on to survive a premature relegation in 2015. Yes, some of the redesigned menus and signage in Villa Park likely helped with that as something simply seemed different.
Rudy Gestede stood alone as a giant. A constant presence on the turf of Villa Park. Jack Grealish turned into Zinedine Zidane for a day and Leandro Bacuna performed well.
I can barely describe the feeling that shook through me as Rudy Gestede powered home Villa’s first goal. It was art. Rudy has come in for a lot of criticism from Villa fans and after some slight boos rang out at the announcement of his name, it only took two goals to forge those boos into songs of love.
Rotherham? It was a high point of 2016 and there’s surely more to come. Me and my father walked out of the Holte End serenaded by the call of Villa fans. It was everything that had been missing.
Then, on Monday morning, Aston Villa hero, Dalian Atkinson died at the age of 48 following an altercation with police in the middle of a street. This was followed by a call from my girlfriend - her grandmother, in ill health, will no longer be supplied with medication as her condition deteriorated. I was called up to the hospital at 1am in the morning of Tuesday the 16th of August.
This terrible news as sandwiched in between two football matches to start the football season off.
After a day spent at the glistening, energy-sapping hellhole we call a ‘hospital’, I headed to Villa Park on Tuesday as the sun set the evening sky ablaze.
There’s nothing else to say, you know what happened. You saw McCormack and Gollini and you’ll know my mind was elsewhere. I guess with the circumstances of Dalian Atkinson’s death, everyone else’s mind wasn’t exactly at Villa Park that night.
A voice returned to Villa Park that I’d not heard in a while, and as I say goodbye to someone, I’ll be saying hello to that return.