The night’s forecast showed likely thunderstorms at Allianz Field in St Paul, Minnesota following a sweltering and wet week of joyless training. For Aston Villa Football Club, however, the storm has been raging for weeks.
What could’ve been.
After a demoralizing playoff loss to West Bromwich Albion mere weeks ago, the club crossed the Atlantic for what was supposed to be a mirth-filled week of humid Midwestern American debauchery and found the heavens thundering back the state of the club: the dark skies that were once foreshadowed on the horizon had finally opened and the club was rent from years of bad luck, blunders, mismanagement, and alleged outright fraud and corruption.
For many long-suffering American fans this week, and this night in particular, were the first time to see the club they’ve loved from afar. Dreams of welcoming a Man Like Jack, triumphant after leading his boyhood club back to the destined land—his club’s birthright. Prayers to be able to serenade Dean Smith for the spark he struck for a club desperately in need of all-consuming fire. Wishes of seeing Tyrone Mings’ smile and pounding the badge on his chest bellowing in front of the fans. Visions of John McGinn racing from one corner of the pitch to the next, never knowing less than top gear, an elbow tornado on the pitch out of the darkened clouds.
Instead Villa fans made the trek—they would never have not—to see a club that exists as the shell of it’s former self—if it is deemed able to exist at all—wondering what tonight and this week would have been if only Jed Steer’s deflection of James Rodriguez’s early goal had deflected even an inch higher and ricocheted out of goal in the first leg of the playoff tilt between the Claret and Blue and the Baggies.
What could have been? Would Jack Grealish be in London after a Lilywhite years-long pursuit? Would it be Callum O’Hare in the clubs lifeless new kit intro photoshoot or would a returning Villa hero show off the clubs new marketing to incredible fanfare? With so many loanees and players out of contract, how would Smith and Christian Purslow rebuild basically the entire first team? What could the club have done with a nine-figure loot crate falling from the sky? What would the energy of the fans be like in the soggy Twin Cities?...
...Luckily...we don’t have to worry, but these thought have been kicking around in my mind for the last few weeks while preparing to make my first trip to see the Villa in person. Checking Twitter over the last few days made me wish that I could have moved my travel schedule up a few more days to take in more of the atmosphere or even be within the general locale of the excitement for just moments longer.
Yet I’m still plagued with questions of what this trip would have been like without Jed Steer’s wonder save, or absent Anwar El Ghazi turning all the right cards in the final against Derby County, or with only nine of those ten consecutive wins. The razor thin margin that this club played with this entire spring still leaves me with a fluttering stomach wondering how this could have even come off. Should I keep pinching myself? Is it real that James Chester, my favorite Villan in my short fandom, is here within shouting distance, jubilant in his ascendancy with the club he led through the doldrums?
I’ve felt my share of agony and ecstasy in my years following my favorite clubs. Championships won and championships lost. Some of my favorite players retiring as wizened heroes with rings on their fingers or legends to their names, whereas some leaving before their time to taste glory or ignominy in another clubs’ colors. The one thing that has always been a constant has been the questions before the fact of what life and fandom would be like on the coin-flip outcome of a mishandled pass, the bounce of an oblong ball, a deflection off a post, a roll of a puck, or a hanging knuckleball that gets deposited a country mile away.
The weirdest thing has been that the questions remain almost as a covenant brokered between the nervous anxiety that trilled moment-to-moment before those divergent points and the psychosomatic responses post-relief or post-devastation. At only a memory the heartbeats return. They come again when you watch throngs of the Claret and Blue-adorned stateside gathering and hugging and you wonder what the scene would have been had Jed Steer’s fingers not redirected a sure-thing goal just an inch higher than did—or any other inflection point that for whatever reason burrowed into your cerebral cortex.
Luckily, in this case at least, we can smile at a present never realized, and when the grey clouds scream and alight, and when the rain picks up we feel it’s just water.
And our satisfied smiles know that that’s all it will be.