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The last march of the Ents: A reflection of a protest march at Aston Villa

Steve Green of the Aston Villa Review Podcast takes us back a few years to try and find the root of Aston Villa's current troubles.

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Note: To bring our Dead Week to a close, we're going out with a guest post from Steve Green. Steve is the co-host of the absolutely top-notch podcast Aston Villa Review (to which you should be listening if you're not already). I asked Steve if he'd like to contribute a post for this week, and he was happy to do so. And then life got in the way and he didn't get the time to write that he had anticipated. So he sent the following along with this note: "There's something I wrote from back in 2012 about the McLeish protests. I was really proud of it at the time but couldn't find a home for it."

Well, McLeish or no, it's still excellent writing, and Steve has appended some closing thoughts to the end to bring it up to now. So without further ado, here's Steve on finding the good in a dark day in Aston Villa's history.

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I’m not a very political person. Whenever the subject comes up amongst friends I am usually the one trying to change it. I marched in protests against job cuts or higher tuition fees, though I never spoke about it, but damn it there comes a time in a man’s life when he has to speak out over what he believes in.

On Sunday 12th June 2012, Alex McLeish resigned from Birmingham City Football Club and within hours rumours were spreading that he was being lined up as Gerrard Houllier’s replacement at Aston Villa. That same night a page on Facebook was set up in opposition to this. The administrator suggested a protest march and since we haven’t had a good protest at Villa since the days of ‘Deadly ‘ Doug it’s about time we got together again.

I didn’t want Alex McLeish at my club, not because of his association with the blue side of the city, but simply because he’s not very good. Just a quick scan of his Wikipedia page is enough to destroy even the faintest whiff of hope in the most die-hard optimist. The mere idea of the Villa hierarchy considering him is beyond comprehension and the news of a meeting between McLeish and Randy Lerner is akin to hearing that your girlfriend has just cheated on you; it hurts, you’re confused, and you want answers without having to ask any questions.

So with this in mind I made my way down to Villa Park on a balmy Wednesday evening with the hope that the turn out wouldn’t embarrass the club more than anything. I arrived fashionably late with proceedings already underway, fans strewn across the steps of the Holte End as if they were posing for the world’s largest school picture. Some 500 or so fans waving banners and singing, and despite the reason for everyone being there, the crowd seemed to be in good spirits.

Steadily, more arrived and soon the rabble relocated to the main gates at the other end of the ground outside the North Stand. It was much more rambunctious down there! The presence of Sky cameras and the BBC gave validation to a bit of a singsong about how our rivals are an ideal receptacle for a bowel movement. Children scaled the gates to aim cheeky hand gestures at the security guards, and a solitary but popular bald man waved a suitcase around that was adorned with a message I couldn’t quite make out, but got a rise out of those who could.

Things simmered down for a moment, the crowd went quiet and I began to feel like we were in line at the movies - all knowing we’re there for the same reason but not quite sure as to what to say to each other. I thought I’d maybe grab an ice cream and find somewhere to perch as my blood was no longer boiling, but all of a sudden the gates have been breached and like a river after the breaking of a dam the majority of the now 1000-strong crowd poured into the car park.

Positions were resumed on the steps, posing for another photograph. I still stood outside the gates as a man crept up beside me; "That’s a mistake, that is, it’ll all start kicking off any minute now," he said. I silently shared similar doubts. He continued to bemoan the crowd, ironic because he was there too! But his anger quickly turned to the board, "They didn’t need to lock the gates, it’s our ground, we should be allowed in there if we want to!"

He was right, when I heard that the gates were going to be locked prior to the march taking place I envisioned a riot scene, but to our relief the crowd just stood there singing, proud to have reclaimed their land.

I moved in closer to try and get a picture but apparently the iPhone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (I’d only just got one at the time), producing only a dim, out of focus blur. I looked around and spotted a small middle-aged woman encircled by a fellow group of protestors. She appeared to be preaching, her face red, eyes bulging, shrill voice filling the air, leaving her court speechless. Although I was determined not to let three years of journalism training go to waste I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her, because frankly…she terrified me a little.

She made some compelling points but surely she was getting overly wound up about something that wasn’t even a foregone conclusion yet. McLeish is only in talks at the moment and by listening to her you’d be forgiven for thinking that the club had just been relegated to the Evo-stick Premier. I admired her passion, though, it was because of people like her that we were here, a true fan who only wanted the best for her club and for that, I salute her.

The crowd on the steps began to dissolve now, and as I walked back to my car I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had been a slight anti-climax. The board would surely see it but what good would it do? If reports were to be believed that Randy Lerner told Steve McLaren not to bother because of fan reaction then surely he wouldn’t have even looked at McLeish. And you can almost see the official statement now; "Despite the protestations of a minority of fans the board are proud to announce the arrival of Alex McLeish." Nightmare!

As futile as the protest seems I’m proud of my fellow Villans, they are entitled to their opinion and I’m pleased it was conveyed peacefully, giving Canadian hockey fans a lesson in how to get your point across without sparking a riot. The people here were hurt and insulted, the club’s handling of the search had been nothing short of derisory and had resulted in them losing the faith of a large section of supporters who will now watch all the good work of the previous five years go to waste under a man who had proved himself to be a relegation manager.

Addendum: Over the years we’ve seen the rise of player power, overtaking the old institution of owner power but what about fan power? People power? At the time I originally wrote this, no decision had been made but it was interesting to see how the situation unfolded and exactly what and how much power the people did hold (not a lot on both counts). With hindsight on our side, there’s an argument to suggest that finding Martin O’Neill’s replacement wasn’t where the first mistake that led to these past few agonizing years lay, it was finding Gerard Houllier’s.