It’s been a long, sometimes joyful and often arduous journey. It’s almost over.
We’re finally coming to a conclusion.
A sea of claret will swarm upon the west end of Wembley Stadium, an army of white will trot inwards towards the east side. Aston Villa will face Fulham in their 49th Championship game of the current season at Wembley Stadium in the Championship Play-Off final.
Make no mistake - this match is gargantuan in its scope, it’s dripping with narrative, and there is so, so much meaning to be trimmed from it.
It could, and bare with me here, be bigger than any other match Aston Villa have played in the past twenty or so years. Some will say it’s bigger than Rotterdam 1982, when on the 26th of May Aston Villa claimed the European Cup trophy after beating Bayern Munich.
Check the date. We’re 36 years removed from legend. A generation, or two, away from “Oh it must be!”
And it is.
However, right now, we don’t have Spink, Withe, Mortimer or Shaw. In fact, many have never had them. While they certainly deserve their place at the very top, they aren’t alone - and they never will be - but plenty of people, current Aston Villa fans will only ever know them by name.
With victory in a single match, Aston Villa could seal a return to Premier League football for the next season. Failure in the play-off final simply invites the shroud of the unknown to hang over Villa Park. Questions will spring into the fore. Will Villa be able to hold onto key members of their team? Will they be financially stable? Will they have to get rid of Steve Bruce and his team to rebuild again? They are all uncomfortable questions, with meandering open-ends that are unsettling to confront right now, when we are all brimming with nervous optimism - but we are only 90 minutes away from debating them.
That doesn’t have to happen if Aston Villa can secure victory, as with this victory comes the chance of long-term stability. Villa haven’t enjoyed that for about eight years. It’s not just about winning and sealing promotion, it’s about moving away from long-held fears into long-term optimism. That’s a feeling that newer Villa fans will have never felt. Not truly. Even Villa’s best-side in recent history has been taken apart, slowly and brutally on the largest stage. Any hope for joy came with a stinging caveat that this isn’t at all real, because you might win a few games and finish 6th, but you’re going to be dismembered when it comes down to it.
Truth to be told, those memories might be mine. I was too young to see Villa win trophies. I was barely old enough to appreciate players like Paul Merson and Juan Pablo Angel. The first Villa player I ever saw in possession of the ball was Jlloyd Samuel, and the first substitution that I remember was Stephen Cooke being brought on by Graham Taylor. Even when things came good, and Villa reached nose-bleed altitude, punching above their weight, there was always the caveat - that this would end, and it would end harshly.
All these players get folded into legend and tucked away. Angel, Laursen, Mellberg, Carew, Milner, Benteke. Others will have their time - we’ll look back fondly on Robert Snodgrass and John Terry and James Chester, no matter the outcome of this season.
However, if we are to fight-back and win a place in the Premier League, this victory, for a generation of Aston Villa fans across the world, will be the single biggest victory since they started following the club. A certain player who could cement his place in the Aston Villa hall of fame is Jack Grealish. Grealish has been defined as an old-school player, and that’s true in more ways than one. He looks as though he was frozen in 1937 to be brought off the ice in 2013. Socks down, hair slicked with pomade, not the fastest, but the trickiest. The one who will throw it all down to leave it on the pitch. No tattoos (that we know of), and a strong jaw. You’d find him in black and white in a card shoved down the back of a cigarette packet, with his knee raised and his foot planted on a brown leather ball. It’s ironic that the man Villa’s future seems to revolve around is so steeped in ancient semiotics. He’s football, both as it was, and as it will be.
And if Grealish is to lead Villa to victory, 36 years to the day since Villa’s greatest triumph, don’t dismiss the fact that there are thousands of fans who will hold a coming play-off triumph just as highly. Snigger at that fact, but at least it’s something real. Something that I don’t have to be told about.