Tammy Abraham’s speculated move from Aston Villa to Wolves via a return to Chelsea was the cause of much concern and frustration to Villa fans who have grown to love the on-loan striker. As the move to Wolves gets closer to ‘done deal’ territory, Abraham caught some flack as GIFs and videos resurfaced of him celebrating many of his Aston Villa goals — including some badge-tapping and kissing. What does this action actually mean? Was it more spontaneous than anything else? And why have people chosen to criticise him for it? I’ve dug deep — too deep — into the topic and immersed myself in football symbolism to try and understand.
For just over a month, speculation in regards to Tammy Abraham and his footballing future has raged. The striker, who has spent his season on loan at Aston Villa, was initially rumoured to be returning to Chelsea as a solution to their woes in front of goal. Following that, news broke that Wolverhampton Wanderers were set to move for the striker with an £18 million offer. Rumours suggested that this offer was accepted, before it morphed into a loan deal that was all but a done deal.
This news was of great concern to Aston Villa fans. Tammy’s 16 goals had for the most part helped Villa turn losing situations into wins. The striker has been nothing less than talismanic for the Villa so far - even bagged four goals in a single game (a 5-5 draw with Nottingham Forest at Villa Park).
As a loan player, Tammy was destined to leave Villa at some point. The problem? Wolves’ interest has pulled that timeline closer. If they made a deal with Chelsea - any deal - it’d cut Tammy’s time at Villa short and leave the Villans high and dry.
Tammy Abraham’s story at Aston Villa is not yet done, and while there is a chance it could conclude in the next few days, the latest news offered to fans of Villa is that he will stay at the club until his loan spell has concluded. The fairly chaotic nature of the January transfer window as peak ‘panic buy’ season means that this could yet change.
Tammy Abraham isn’t beholden to the desires of Aston Villa fans. His own desires and career must trump those of others and the path that they have laid out for him. With Aston Villa not looking at all successful in the Championship league picture as of the present, there are a number of paths presented to Tammy that he has clearly had to consider over the past few days. Abraham, as Villa’s talismanic striker, could stay and continue in that role, or he could cut ties and move. This is the freedom presented to a player in fantastic form who has no contractual obligation to play for the club he is currently representing as a loan player. It’s displayed in games like FIFA, where in The Journey game mode, your player character is almost ‘punished’ with a loan spell at a different club (ironically enough, the club you move to can be Aston Villa) and earns a move back to their parent team upon solid performances. A springboard to success and damn the rest? Maybe.
Symbolism hangs over football in many ways. The colours, kits, badges, stadiums and names. It is all brand and it is all symbol.
The English footballing subconscious is bursting with cliche, much of which can be traced back to football commentary. A match is always ‘a game of two halves’. Games are ‘must-win’. Certain players are ‘unplayable’ on their day. Managers spend transfer ‘war chests’. It can all descend into ‘handbags’. All of these phrases, injected into our psyches by commentary, are just one part of the collective English footballing vernacular. Another is the common physical language of celebration.
When goals are scored, players will slide on their knees, cup their ears, punch the air or jump into the crowd. On occasion they will kiss the badge on their chest, and point to the crest of the team that they are playing for.
As for Tammy Abraham, the clip of him tapping the Aston Villa badge has been decontextualised and thus can be taken to mean many things by supporters educated on symbolism by the footballing subconscious that they are a part of. For some it can mean pride in playing for a team. For others, it can symbolise a deep-seated love of the club they are currently representing. In Tammy’s case, could tapping the badge have symbolised to spectators that he was set to stay at the club? For an onlooking audience, that could be the case.
Why did a portion of the AVFC fanbase feel so aggrieved by Abraham’s (reported) desire to cut his stay at Aston Villa short? Does it have anything to do with a lack of control in the situation or the illusion of choice. In Tammy’s own actions - tapping the badge after a goal scored - we see his own dealings with the illusion of choice. He can celebrate each goal with intensity and passion, and reap the rewards of a passionate fanbase or he can be judged as moody and uncaring. It could be that under pressure from the subconscious actions of a footballing fanbase that adores him, Tammy tapped the badge to show his passion.
If a footballer in their role as a footballer is immersed within footballing culture, footballing symbols and footballing history — do they have much choice in what they do in celebration of a goal, or are these actions simply informed by the role they play? Are footballers simply ‘going through the motions’ and repeating the same actions, the same clichèd celebrations that have always been well received and have always been popular?
There is a clear illusion of choice here, for Tammy. As a footballer enveloped in the footballing subconscious, what other action is there to perform?
Well to answer that there are no shortage of the spontaneous celebrations that can be performed by footballers upon scoring a goal - and it is certainly of interest that Tammy chose to tap the badge. It is likely that subconsciously Abraham knew that this would be the action that would resonate the most with the Aston Villa fanbase and whether the motion was triggered spontaneously or was a pre-planned motion is something that we’ll never actually know. Showing respect or devotion to an icon of the club on his playing shirt is one way to get a crowd on board, but this could still be attained by punching the air or diving into the crowd.
Isolating the context of the most popular clip of Abraham’s badge-tapping — it occurred during a match in the Second City derby, a match in which Aston Villa faced their fiercest rivals in cross-town Birmingham City. Abraham’s posture indicates that he is facing the Birmingham City fans and thus mocking them by pointing at the Aston Villa crest on his chest. Does this mean anything other than his acknowledgement of his belief that Aston Villa are superior to Birmingham City? While Abraham has certainly performed the gesture in other circumstances, it’s odd that one of the more popular images of his badge-tapping has had the context drained from it.
If we consider Tammy’s ‘temporary’ status as a player at Villa Park, the anxieties surrounding his potential departure from Aston Villa are understandable, especially if the context and symbolism of his actions have been misunderstood. What’s more, did Abraham have much of a choice in his actions if they were part of the footballing subconscious ingrained into a striker having the time of his life?
The reason that Abraham’s potential move away from Villa is so concerning to many is that Villa have zero control over Abraham’s future. Tammy’s 16 goals for the club have energised their season, and their campaign for promotion from the EFL Championship to the Premier League. Without Tammy Abraham, Aston Villa will lack a rare type of striker - the one capable of ‘overperforming’ on a consistent basis. Abraham’s ability to finish is enough, almost on his own, to win games at Championship level.
To lose a striker of that calibre is, in short, bad news. Villa are paying Tammy Abraham well-enough, but he is still a temporary fixture at Villa Park. While he is replaceable, it will take a lot of resources to do so. You can insert a striker into the vacant striker role (if Abraham leaves), but it won’t be Tammy Abraham and his sixteen goals. Therein lies the issue. When confronted with this threat, is it any surprise that Aston Villa fans have felt so uncomfortable over the last few weeks? With the loss of Abraham hanging over an eventual defeat to Swansea City in the FA Cup, can we see one reason for a flat atmosphere on the day?
One of the narrative branches that would stem from the loss of Abraham is that Villa fail for the rest of the season as they do not have a striker capable of potentially outperforming their expected goals tally - and thus a striker who isn’t able to transform a draw into a victory in any single game.
Another narrative branch is that Villa could find their feet by signing a striker who is just as productive. Though, it has to be expected that the loss of Tammy Abraham could be enough to derail a true promotion campaign. This won’t necessarily happen, but it has to be examined as one of many paths that could be taken upon Abraham’s potential departure.
That’s a departure that Aston Villa and supporters of the Villa have no conscious control over. We must watch the story unfold under the illusion of choice. Our actions have no impact, and the ending of the story has real-life consequences on us and our wellbeing. The players on the pitch are characters in an ever unfolding narrative, and for those of us who are overly involved in the narrative, there is no other option than to get wrapped up in symbolism and pageantry. When we lose control over what we love, we can lash out at the most simple of actions, like what we may interpret as a disingenuous tapping of a badge.
As for Tammy, it would appear that there lies a myriad of choices before him, but really - these are all binary options that lead to more binary options. He chooses to stay. He goes back. He then moves. Is there a real free will involved in that unless Tammy breaks out of that path and retires from football? Do the paths laid out before him actually involve any real choice, or any free will? There are no endless choices here or endless options, just one single step after the next.
Kissing the badge, tapping the badge, pointing at the badge - these are all symbolic gestures woven into the tapestry of the game. We perform these actions almost out of no choice of our own, but because the symbols of the game inform us to do so. We point to the sky, we drop to our knees, we kneeslide, we kick the corner flag into the stands, we thump the goalpost, we scream into the crowd - and of course, we kiss the badge.
This gesture of celebration is not taken lightly. For any viewer, kissing the badge or tapping the badge can only be taken to mean one thing, and that is that the player performing these actions is ‘one of us’. The action is rooted far too deeply in footballing symbolism to mean anything else. Hope is then given to the viewer that there may be a deeper connection between the player and his audience - but for the player, is this just one of many rotating actions dictated by their immersion in the footballing subconscious?
The context of Tammy Abraham’s contract at Aston Villa and the very real situation that his time at Villa is temporary means that the action of him tapping the badge may have been taken more seriously than it was meant - if it was meant in anyway at all. As football fans, we want the narrative to be simple, we want it to be true and we want it to benefit us. We want to believe that we can have an impact in the narrative, and while this can be the case often enough it is nothing more than an illusion. An illusion created by the symbolism that the game is rooted in.