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Unai Emery: An adult enters the room

Villa’s manager exudes class, tactical nous, and a genuine understanding of what the club is all about.

Aston Villa v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

An adult enters the room:

Last month, I had an unexpectedly wholesome encounter with Frank Skinner. I saw him in the poetry section in Foyles bookstore on Charring Cross Road and decided to say hello. He’d recently deconstructed a piece of work by one of my favourite poets, Ada Limon, on his podcast, and I wanted to tell him that I really appreciated his thoughts on it.

Naturally, talk turned to football. I jokingly apologised that this praise for his show was coming from a Villa fan. He said you can’t have it all. Just when I thought the interaction was over, he admitted that he’d been watching Villa’s rise up the table with a degree of envy. I told him that I’d die for Unai Emery. He laughed and said he thought I was exaggerating.

I was, but only slightly.

That’s the thing with being a football fan, isn’t it? It’s always there, locked and loaded up your sleeve, never far from your thoughts. What is meant to be a pleasant distraction from the hardship and stress of real life quickly becomes all-consuming, touching on aspects of obsession, manifestation, and positive reinforcement (aka wishful thinking.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how goalkeepers move when they do that slow fall on their side to collect a daisy-cutter. It always looks like such a satisfying example of human movement, and how a spinning ball travelling at an almost inhuman velocity rests in the palms of their hands. It looks easy, but it’s not at all, and the margins of error for getting it wrong can be catastrophic. But we don’t like to talk about that.

There are two universal truths about supporting Aston Villa:

  1. We’ve always been terrible at throw-ins.
  2. There’s a level of PTSD that comes with supporting Villa, or whatever its football equivalent of PTSD is. Too many times, we’ve seen the team crumble under late pressure to not only allow the opposition to draw level, but then go on to win. The missed chances, the confusing signings, the days we just didn’t turn up - it all adds up over the years. My friends and I refer to it as “the Villa curse.”

Often, I feel like I was lied to as a child, having watched the club win two trophies in three seasons in the mid-90s and regularly compete at the top end of the table and in Europe. I thought it’d always be like that.

Villa have only recently exited what some might refer to as their “banter era.” The cast of characters is long and it was a period that spanned almost a decade. It wasn’t completely devoid of joy and moments to remember, but it wore us down, collectively, and made you wonder if this is just our lot now, that football is passing us by and we’re going to become a club that sits in the corner, barking about the old days (we do this anyway) in a half-empty stadium that’s too big to accommodate the number of fans willing to part with their wages for tickets.

Steven Gerrard, Fulham FC vs. Aston Villa
Steven Gerrard threatened to catapult Villa into an unwanted “banter era.”
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

To be completely honest, I thought we’d re-entered it at times during Steven Gerrard’s spell in charge. I’ll admit that his permanently furrowed brow and suede hairline suckered me in at first. He spoke well, he fixed the problems in the midfield that hampered Dean Smith’s final days, and he seemed to have pulling power in the transfer market, convincing Philippe Coutinho to swap Las Ramblas for Mr Egg and Snobs, as well as picking up Boubacar Kamara on a free, which, to Gerrard’s credit, was a phenomenal piece of business.

But it proved to be a vanity appointment for Christian Purslow. Whether he saw it as a chance to get the band back together or whether he genuinely believed that one trophy in three years at Rangers signalled that he would be the next up-and-coming young British manager, is by the by now; we saw his limitations in real-time.

Personally, I’m more amazed by his ability to self-inflict needless wounds on himself. Stripping Tyrone Mings of the captaincy was a bold move that had no payoff, akin to walking up to the biggest guy in the prison on your first day and forgetting that your fist is only the size of a tennis ball. Then he cut all of the wingers loose, then he couldn’t figure out his best lineup, then he demonstrated that he couldn’t learn on the job, then he gave terrible soundbites admitting that other clubs of a certain stature should be wiping the floor with us.

The club was about to be thrown back down into the Championship by a man who not only saw Villa as a stepping stone to a job he’ll never be qualified for, but just wasn't cut out to be a manager at the highest level.

I’d never been so happy to lose 3-0 than I was that night at Fulham, but it’s been a season of new experiences.

When Unai Emery came on board in October, it was as if an adult had entered the room. A man who not only knows what adaptation means but embodies it. Emery became Keanu Reeves in Speed, Arnie in Commando, and George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven. An actual coach who actually knows his players and actually knows how to influence games as they’re happening, reacting and adjusting, shithousing, and executing.

There were bumps along the way, losing 4-2 in consecutive home games, and missing an opportunity to get a result from Wolves that would have ensured a less nervy ending to the season, and the less said about Stevenage the better, but you can’t win every game, that’s not how football works. As we know, this is Villa, we never do things the easy way.

Emery oversaw a 10-game unbeaten streak, where players like John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, and Ollie Watkins either rediscovered their best form or reached new levels. A good section of the supporters would have happily sold all three of them in January or over the summer, but they’re all indispensable now.

He exudes the kind of class that mom would love, putting the fans at the heart of everything, as if someone had told him beforehand that this particular set of supporters have been starved of love over the years, and the only man who came close to piercing their hearts was one of their own.

“Class, that!” we all exclaimed at his Instagram post, romanticising the lights of Villa Park like Keates extolling the beauty of Fanny Brawne. Football fans love a bit of class.

It’s hard not to love someone who does that, for you, for where you come from, for where you’ve expended an enormous amount of money and emotional energy. It’s human, and it’s more important than anything that can happen on that beautiful green carpet. We forget that at times.

He’s happy to be here and he wants us to know it. I want him to notice that we appreciate him, in every way we can from a distance. Especially as he’s not getting the same amount of love as Roberto De Zerbi, whose Brighton side had a 12-game head start on Emery and still only managed to finish one point above him.

Unai Emery, Aston Villa vs. Brighton & Hove Albion
In Unai Emery, Villa have found a manager who just feels right for the club.
Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

The scenes outside Villa Park before the season’s final game against Brighton would’ve looked more fitting in Argentina or Naples, it was a joy to see. Outsiders sneered, not that we gave much of a shit. “It’s only the Conference League,” and yeah, it is, but to us, it’s a sum that’s so much greater than its parts. We have, not only a stunning stadium that deserves all the tension, joy and noise a midweek game under the lights can muster, but an away following that is borderline feral, and I say that with love.

No trip to Astana, Novi Sad or even Rapid Bastard Vienna will be left lacking because this is our reward, for braving Reading after a seemingly never-ending away win vacuum, Bolton in the snow, and Rotherham (no addendum needed.) A European competition, particularly after such a long absence, may make us less consistent in the league next season, but we’re all excited, for the first time in a long time, to know that we’re on the cusp of being elevated back to where we believe we belong.

You have to savour the moments when you can. The nervous anticipation of a match against a European side we may never have heard of before, a cup semi-final, showing United no one is scared of them anymore. All priceless. I can’t wait.