For a large part of my life, Aston Villa have sometimes looked a better, more comfortable team away from home. Steve Bruce’s tenure and recent seasons aside, Villa have often enjoyed more breakout instances of success on the road than they have playing at Villa Park. Martin O’Neill’s Villa outfit of the late 2000s were renowned for their pace and potency on the counter-attack, and for two consecutive seasons earned more Premier League victories on their travels than on their own patch (something that is extremely rare for any team in any league). Paul Lambert (commiserations, Ipswich) also generally saw his side put in their better performances at other grounds. Villa beat Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates on the opening day of the 2013/14 season. Eight months earlier, the same score line had been reached after Liverpool were played off the park at Anfield by Lambert’s men, and again at Wembley stadium in 2015.
But while O’Neill guided Villa to their first league win at Old Trafford in 26 years, he could never get the better of Wigan Athletic when they came to B6. And while, Villa under Lambert looked a threat every time they went to Liverpool (never in fact losing there), they would often look devoid of ideas when welcoming Stoke or Fulham to Villa Park.
There is no doubt a number of factors that have led to this recurrent pattern over the years. First and foremost, of course, is the football itself. Some teams are simply better suited to playing away, where the opposition are more likely to take the game to you and leave space in behind. O’Neill’s team, with the creativity of Ashley Young and pace of Gabby Agbonlahor, and the energy of James Milner and Stewart Downing, was certainly one of them.
The importance of the away supporters and the lift they give the players is a factor that is perhaps overlooked. Villa’s travelling fans are up there with the best in the country and this can be no hindrance when Villa play away.
That leaves the home support, and the degree to which the atmosphere created at Villa Park is supportive or toxic. In terms of numbers alone, Villa’s home crowds are impressive and commendable after years and years of disappointment on the pitch. The problem is this: travel to any football stadium in England and you will be hard pressed to find more moans and groans than you do at Villa Park come one minute past three o’clock on a Saturday.
We’ve heard audible discontent at the first misplaced pass of the game, numerous grumbles at more patient build-up play and, on occasion, even boos at half-time when the match is still goalless. What’s more, there is seemingly always a need for a scapegoat. Glenn Whelan, who on three or four occasions during his Villa career would have been a sensible pick for man of the match, can do no right in the eyes of some supporters and if it’s not him it will be someone else. There is always a fall guy at Villa Park.
With this in mind, it is reasonable to infer that a few Villa players simply do not or cannot enjoy playing at Villa Park. They are afraid to try something, afraid to be more expansive, and perhaps this is a major reason for the team looking static and pedestrian at times. Countless players have looked shot of confidence in claret and blue over the years and, while there is a fair argument that a strong backbone is important for any man pulling on an Aston Villa shirt, so much of the unease that is generated by the fans is unhelpful. What are the merits of creating an atmosphere at Villa Park in which the 11 on the pitch will struggle to play to their full potential? The height of counter-productivity was probably reached earlier on in the season when Orjan Nyland catching a cross was met with ironic cheers from the Holte End. This wasn’t the Villa side that were relegated in 2015/16. It wasn’t Joleon Lescott. It was a new goalkeeper that, less than two months into his Villa career, was already being hounded out by a sizeable portion of the 13,000 fans in this historic stand looming over him. It is questionable ‘support’.
The most frustrating point to be made is that Villa Park can be incredible. Atmospheres created for the visits of Birmingham City, for cup games in the latter stages of competitions and for the high-stakes league matches are arguably unmatched throughout the land. This is no surprise given the presence of a ‘Kop’ stand that is larger than that at Anfield. On these big days, the lift the Villa players receive and the advantage which they inherit are incontrovertible. It would be naïve and unrealistic to suggest that these atmospheres should be present at every home game but the disparity between the mood for the Second City Derby and for a meeting with another Championship team is greater than it should be. Because, most weeks at Villa Park the atmosphere is one of expectance and impatience that can quickly descend into anger and vitriol.
Under the current regime at B6, patience from the fans is as important as it has ever been. Dean Smith, Christian Purslow and co have a long-term plan that involves bleeding the youth and building a successful team slowly and sustainably. Thus, it is not an overnight process. The youngsters that emerge from Villa’s academy need to arrive in an environment that gives them the best chance to develop and flourish. Of course, they need to be ready for first-team football and at least show signs of being good enough in the long-run, but they mustn’t be discarded after their first poor performance. Smith eluded to the difficult atmosphere that Callum O’Hare played in after he brought him off during the FA Cup defeat to Swansea City. O’Hare and other prospects need to be given time and the chance to play with the full backing and encouragement of Villa Park.
It is worth mentioning that sometimes the negative reaction is completely justifiable (after the capitulation at Wigan for example). Boos at half-time and ironic cheers at caught crosses, however, are not. This isn’t to say that fans shouldn’t be able to voice their opinions/feelings. It would be wrong to deprive any paying supporter of that right. But it is not a political debate. Moan if you like, but know that it doesn’t help the players and that it doesn’t help Aston Villa. Instead, try being a supporter – something that all those inside Villa Park on a matchday profess to be. We all have a part to play.