Liverpool’s 2016 Valentine’s Day gift to Aston Villa will rank in the history of the Villa as one of the more obscene days to have occurred at the football club, and likely has more in common with the gruesome satanic panic of a mid-80s Halloween rather than the annual celebration of commodified love. After a 6-0 beating, wayward tweets and sorry excuses, it wasn’t long at all until the pitchforks came out and the sacrificial lamb emerged.
If football is entertainment, then it follows that there are sub-genres within football. Aston Villa certainly knew horror in 2016 in a game that, in another reality, will be viewed on late-night channels and during teenage sleep-overs. A schlocky horror show of the worst kind introduced by Elvira.
The Aston Villa fan of early-2016 fell from game-to-game in an angry stupor. Every single line-up announcement was a crushing disappointment and another wet sobering slap from reality. By February, Villa Park’s turnout was dropping, and there were spots of intact blue seating between fans. 3pm Saturday presented the opportunity for a claret and blue rendition of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, it seemed that with each passing game another season ticket holder had been plucked from the stands, having heard their number called before kick-off. Truth be told, that may have been a blessing. Villa weren’t at all competitive in 2016, and the players resembled spectres on the pitch, mere phantoms chasing memories. Villa Park stood tall as a Hill House haunted attraction, with memories of great victories buried in the psyche of the watching mournful, painfully observing another loss. The Villa faithful played out their part as the hateful villagers of We Have Always Lived In The Castle, scornfully wishing away the happiness of the luckless yet privileged Blackwood eleven on the pitch.
On February 14th 2016, Villa endured a Valentine's Day Massacre. To put it bluntly, Liverpool took the ball, scored and didn’t stop scoring. Any remnant of the celestial umbilical cord linking the supporters to the team was severed, and not just by the catastrophic defeat, but by the dry guillotine of a perceived unrequited love. Villans have always supported the team, but this squad was judged ‘not fit to wear the shirt’, and the love provided from the stands didn’t appear to flow both ways. Villa supporters closed ranks, bunkered down and engaged in a spiritual conflict with not only the football team on the pitch, but the very idea of Aston Villa FC. After all, what was left in the AV horror roadshow to support, and did anyone really care?
Six goals. Six strong was Liverpool’s lead in corners and with sixty percent of the ball, Jurgen Klopp’s team brandished Villa with the number of the beast. In return Aston Villa didn’t threaten goalmouth gatekeeper Simon Mignolet at all. True support for the team blacked out after Liverpool’s fifth goal on 65 minutes, as Nathaniel Clyne sprinkled soil upon Villa’s casket. Thin strains of optimism survived in the fractured fanbase, but for all those who proclaimed that all was still well on Summerisle, there were twice as many Villa fans burning in wicker statues built of their hopes, cash and dreams.
As Villa died, Liverpool played in an easy-to-splatter white. Jurgen Klopp leered over the pitch like a villain from the yellowed pages of a cheap charity-shop thriller.
The honest postscript of Micah Richards, the Villa captain of the time, tells a tale of a team truly hiding from a beating. Players feared the sport, and hid themselves from passes. Aborted attacks ran straight to the wing and Villa failed to entertain. A furious crowd doled out verbal beatdowns as players dropped like flies, with some injured players never returning. New signings quickly became veterans and ran through the same motions again and again, trapped in the cosmic vacuums of Villa’s relegation season. Richards’ admission shows us exactly why Aston Villa succumbed to relegation that year. Arriving in the summer, the new signings of Richards, Jordan Veretout, Rudy Gestede, Joleon Lescott and company were pitched as heroes and saviours, those with the ability to bond together and enhance Villa. The truth didn’t line up with the expectations, though. Not only were they technically incapable, they had no direction and were incapable of adjusting to a hostile atmosphere emanating from the stands. Outgunned, outmatched, paranoid and underprepared, Villa were stalked through the corridors of the season by the alien menace of relegation. By Valentine’s Day, it was game over.
This was meant to be a boyish and bloodsucking team ready to latch onto the Premier League, but it was less a fanged Kiefer Sutherland throbbing on the doorstep and more so the pissed-up Vampires of What We Do In The Shadows, leering around and bouncing between depressing sadness and turns of comedy. Truly the lost boys, they didn’t need an excuse to have the stake driven in - but one member emerged as a pincushion on Valentines Day.
Joleon Lescott - a stoic and capable defender signed by Tim Sherwood to add experience and skill to Villa’s backline - emerged as exactly that in the opening stages of the campaign. However, as the wheels fell off of Villa’s season, Lescott and the team stagnated in the sad isolation that only a losing streak can provide. Victories hid themselves from Villa, and the squad lacked the illumination to find them. Aston Villa found themselves in a nightmare that they had never truly prepared for and seemed to believe that silence and a lack of mobility might save them. It didn’t. It consumed them instead. AVFC hoped for a field of dreams, and instead a wasteland stretched out before them. With their backs up against the wall and the season crumbled, a most unfortunate incident did occur. A short while after Villa’s tour of misery against Liverpool, a single unannotated image was uploaded to the Twitter Timeline of Joleon Lescott. The rest, is history. Lescott was unaware of the dagger drawing in as he travelled away from Villa Park.
After a match in which the only highlight was the return of Christian Benteke to B6, it was safe to say that the patience of even the most relaxed Aston Villa fan was tested. Heading home from the distraction of football, Villa fans were greeted by the image of sports car on Lescott’s feed. Clouded by the fog of moody assumption, fans and pundits assumed the worst - that this image was in its existence a class-based dig at Villa fans. The presence of a sports car to prove the value and worth of Joleon Lescott in the wake of a destructive and apocalyptic footballing result.
The presence of Lescott’s art (and it is art) in unannotated forms shows a very good reason for annotated artwork to exist - because in the cloud of interpretation, wires can get crossed and false meaning can be established. A fateful coinflip of probability exists in Lescott’s statement that the image was uploaded via his pocket by accident, it either happened or it didn’t and either way, the car tweet exists in a period of space without explanation. In a haze of assumption, Villa fans found themselves lost in rage, and it would be Joleon Lescott who became haunted by Villa fans, carrying the baggage of the season as he chased the shadows through a twisting Venetian labyrinth before his cruel time at Villa came to a cruel end. It wasn’t a red-clad figure that put him out of his misery either - but the Villa support - who chanted his own human admission right back at him.
Lescott, upon relegation, had admitted to the press that relegation was a ‘weight off the shoulders’, and while this is a valid feeling indeed, it was not taken at all well. Before a match against Newcastle at home, those words boomed from the Holte End in a shaking roar, aimed with the weight of the world at Joleon Lescott. It is very easy to laugh this away - but there is a sinister side lurking under the mire. In some small sections of the fanbase, underneath the playful barbs and the righteous anger, lay a genuine contempt for Lescott. On his instagram feed he faced violent threats and his facial scars, secured during a traumatic traffic accident as a child, were mocked. The boyhood Villa fan was the recipient of some horrific abuse, as well as legitimate criticism - and the line dividing the two grew shallow rather quickly. While it might be right for some of us to think of forgiving the sorry cast of 2016, maybe we should also dwell on the cruelty doled out to Lescott - because a portion of it was vicious and close to unforgivable.
Villa’s defeat against Liverpool in 2016 was the event horizon for the club. The moment when even the pace of the speed of light cannot save you from oblivion. The gates opened and Villa were sucked in. Certain players walked away branded with that season, and Lescott is one of them. In the present day, Aston Villa take on Liverpool at Villa Park this weekend for the first time since the 6-0 defeat, and both teams have created new history, Aston Villa fought back from the brink to earn promotion in a heroic season, while Liverpool have won hearts and silverware. Villa’s nightmare is long over, but it’d be wrong to dismiss the pain that we felt in 2016 because Villa are succeeding now. Though, it’d also be wrong to hold onto the past as a knobbed shillelagh to crush our current hopes with. Reflecting back on the referenced satanic panic, in the long run there was nothing to worry about. Villa have endured a tough path since 2016, but there is reason to feel positive about the club.The past is the past for good reason, may we let it stay buried - and may the soul of 2016 lie easy, for we certainly do not want it to rise from the crypt.
Alternatively, Aston Villa fans should look forward to the weekend, dare I tempt fate? There is no chance in hell that any result against Liverpool on Saturday can feel as traumatic as it did on February the 14th 2016, and there should be no reason to hide behind the sofa. The horror is over.