With the EFL Championship Playoff Final quickly approaching, I continue to find myself asking the same question again and again. Do I believe in fate – at least in the context of sports?
Probably not. In fact, as a born-again realist and pessimist by nature, the concept of fate goes against my core beliefs and probably has no sign of existence in and around my own mind. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that some slight imitation of fate couldn’t impact a sports setting in some way.
Different decisions made by different organizations – in this case our beloved Aston Villa – can potentially lead to outcomes that almost seem predetermined. Take the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball for example. A 2014 Sports Illustrated article featured the Astros, who at the time were baseball’s worst team, as a club that were undergoing a massive and analytical-based rebuild with hopes that they could compete for a championship by 2017. The 2014 article proclaimed the Astros, in jest certainly, as ‘Your 2017 World Series Champions’.
Three years later, the Astros lifted the World Series trophy in Los Angeles.
As an Astros fan, that season felt predetermined. Never had I felt something similar until Aston Villa defeated Derby in March 4-0 to spark a 10-match winning streak. I started to question whether this season was meant to be with a passion that only a love for a club like Aston Villa could invoke.
I began supporting Aston Villa in 2006, right as Martin O’Neil took over the first team. I really couldn’t have planned it better. After O’Neil took his first season to establish his reign, the club finished in the top six of the Premier League in three straight seasons, made a Carling Cup final, an FA Cup semi-final and challenged to break into the coveted top four. We all know about the slow and steady decline from there that eventually led to relegation from the Premier League and three seasons (and counting?) in the Championship. It’s been an interesting an emotional time to be a Villa fan. Of course we would love the Villa to be in the Premier League, but these last two seasons in the Championship have been enjoyable. The club is winning, the fans are turning up in droves, and the culture has shifted back to where it belongs. Monday’s final represents a more tangible bar of judgment for where the club stands, but win or lose, that special feeling around Aston Villa is back.
But back to this whole fate thing. I can go back and look at my time as a fan for examples of moments for Aston Villa that may have seemed like such a thing. The 6-4 win against Blackburn in the Carling Cup semi-finals, the last-gasp 3-2 win over Everton thanks to Ashley Young. The moments race in my mind. As do the not so nice ones. Nemanja Vidic staying on the pitch after dragging down Gabriel Agbonlahor in the Carling Cup final, Gareth Barry and James Milner leaving in their prime, and certainly relegation itself all felt as close to predetermined as possible.
But again, this season feels…different. The winning streak, Jack Grealish scoring the winner against Birmingham City after being assaulted on the pitch, and the two-legged tie against West Brom where Villa were admittedly not at their best. All of these examples fill me with inflated confidence when I allow my thoughts to drift towards the possibility of Villa being promoted next week. But just like that, my brain snaps back into its routine and loudly reminds me that fate doesn’t exist and that the match on Monday is everything but predetermined. The back and forth that my mind creates always seems to come to a rest in reality.
However, just as I snap back to so-called reality, I briefly let two other moments slowly creep back into my consciousness, tempting me once again to believe in the concept my brain so consistently rejects.
- In July of 2013, Paul Lambert – who just completed his first season as Villa manager – signs goalkeeper Jed Steer on a free from his former club Norwich City. Steer became an afterthought for me and most Villa fans despite the high potential he flexed when he signed. He went on loan six times and looked to not be in first team plans right up until Villa’s winning streak this season. But Jed Steer – who joined under the radar in the summer of 2013 – saved two penalties in the playoff semifinal shootout. Jed Steer helped punch our ticket to Wembley. Does Aston Villa advance on penalty kicks if Jed Steer wasn’t signed in 2013? Does Jed Steer join Aston Villa if Paul Lambert wasn’t selected as manager? Is Paul Lambert Villa manager if his Norwich side don’t dismantle our club in the final match of the 2011-12 season? Here’s that feeling creeping back again.
- In May of last year, Aston Villa were beaten by Fulham in the playoff final. Fulham celebrated while we grieved. Doom seemed to be waiting for us in the summer. But then, things changed for the better. Look at what has happened since. Dean Smith is our manager, the club is financially in a much better place, the organization of the front office has taken its steadiest shape since the first seasons under Randy Lerner. If we were to be promoted last season, do we stay up? Are we financially capable of spending to compete in the first division? Is Steve Bruce still our manager? You can say with almost certainty that Smith would not be leading our club, our ownership wouldn’t be this promising, and this feeling we have after marching our way through 10 wins and straight to the playoff final wouldn’t exist. Ah yes, the feeling is back again.
This piece is essentially a minor representation of the way my head has been working for the last week or so. Do I allow myself to believe? Or do I stick to my usual realistic approach towards life and sports in general? The back and forth has kept me up late and made me more nervous for the final that any previous Villa match before. But a slow, calm steady breath brings me back down to earth. Fate? What is fate anyway? It isn’t real. Honestly that’s probably right. This isn’t predetermined. The match needs to be played to determine who wins the sport’s richest game. It’s in the hands of the Villa players and to be honest -- with this group -- that’s about as good as fate anyway.
To hell with it. For me, its fate. For me, Villa are going up.