When the heavens opened up on Saturday morning across Birmingham, and when Villa’s own Goliath came on to make a difference against Hull, you could be forgiven for thinking that things had gotten a little ‘biblical’.
Faith and football are funny things aren’t they? We build our churches high and make our pilgrimages far and wide - lots of Villans travel from London, up north - and I know a few in particular that fly in from Dublin or drive up from Poole. Everywhere we go, Villa and other football clubs bring the faithful with them and hoist up their gods onto cloth banners and sing their names. It’s why people like Dalian Atkinson, Ugo, McGrath, McInally, Carew live long beyond their time on the pitch, or their time on this earth. We build up a lot of cultural capital and spend it on our favourite players. Football is nothing without faith.
Now, Late kick-offs are strange things. We’ve built up the idea of three o’clock on a Saturday to be this thing that’s not there anymore. All the highlights of the season are spread out across the day now to beat archaic broadcast law, so if you follow a popular club, you can expect your date with destiny to be pitched across different times throughout the footballing calendar. It might 12, 3, 5 or 7 - and half-five is my most hated time. Simply because your entire day is eaten up by ‘The Football’ - and yeah, you can have a lot of fun before hand, but if you’re watching a divisive match and you’re not getting in until 8.30 on the night, you’re going to not let stupid things slip your mind and the entire ordeal of a game can take up your mind. Midweek nights are ok, because you know - you’ve been at work, but those night games are always controversial for the same things and everything seems so much better - or worse - under those rose-tinted floodlights.
Thankfully, the rain had cleared up by the time I’d hastily left Sutton Coldfield. I’m blessed because I live right next to the station which takes you straight to Aston station, which is a five minute walk to Villa Park. I can leave whenever and make the game. This is a curse as well - because I’ll leave at five and try to get there for five thirty, burdened by my faith in the rail network.
I’ll tell you what - when you’re shovelling chips into your mouth and drinks down your gullet in a bid to get into your seat before the kick-off of the first home game of the new season, there should be other things on your mind than ‘I am going to miss the flags, the nice flags, the lovely flags’ - but honestly, that’s all I can think of. The Project B6 display is something to be proud of. A lot of people got pissy about Brigada for various reasons we won’t discuss here, but the same logic applies to B6 - a bunch of fans trying their best to improve the sights and sounds of an Aston Villa match at Villa Park. Long may PB6 live. You should donate to them as well. I got to seat 14-something with a second to spare and yeah. Villa Villa’d and scored within minutes.
The trouble with an early goal is exactly that. It’s early. It doesn’t matter who scores and how if it’s within the first ten minutes. Why? Because the story of the match hasn’t been built yet and the cheers are rather muted - they are still loud and jubilant, don’t get me wrong - but the match hasn’t evolved into anything meaningful. In fact, a goal that early creates a lot of worry - as every action that could lead to Villa’s own lead being brought back down to earth creates a massive flood of anxiety in the stands. We get so caught up in protecting, and urging Villa, to protect their lead that it sucks the fun out of everything. Give me goals, but give me lots, please.
And lots of goals is what Villa should have had - but couldn’t find their shooting boots. xG charts put us in the upper percentile of winning that game. Analysis in football is a beautiful thing, because on the one hand, it’s the reality of the match that cannot be argued with, while on the other it’s a perceived blind faith in something you might not see. For instance; five minutes after that game, I could not come to see anything positive from that game. I’d just seen Villa blow a lead and do nothing - when in fact, the reality is that they did a lot and played extremely aggressive and you’ll come to realise that if you’re of the few that think Villa sat back. In fact, we saw evidence of Villa going gung-ho when Chris Samba rolled back the clock to play as a striker. The numbers are strange, because they are both Galileo being locked up by the angry church, and at the same time the church locking up the thinker. We need to come to accept that a lot of the reality of the game isn’t perceived with our owns, because of the silly bias we have towards what we expect to happen, against what actually happens. Now, 7/10 times we would have won that damn game and yeah, if Andre Green puts that header in, we’ve won and we have a different conversation.
Our bias at games is a powerful thing - from the seats and stands of Villa Park we can focus on the performances of single players and turn harsh lights onto them. This microscopic view of off-the-ball work blinds us and makes us frantic, turning the viewer into an abusive relation to the game. No? Try this on for size:
“Why isn’t Lansbury running, surely he should be running?”
“Where’s Bacuna? Isn’t that his job, where is he?”
“Whelan is walking!”
We have massive, stellar, and unrealistic expectations of what players should be doing. Frantically sprinting into position across ninety minutes of action is not something many players do - and walking, periods of low work-rate are to be expected when the side spent 45 minutes constantly pressing. What’s not obvious from watching the game in person is just how many things were at fault with Villa to let that Hull goal in. Johnstone was beat at his near post with a tame shot, Hutton was being dragged everywhere, Bacuna and Whelan didn’t chip in to help and Elmo didn’t track back on the right while Gabby tracked back on the left. What we see live is our bias - we think Hutton is crap and Bacuna is lazy, which are just tiny fragments of the big picture. Maybe when we are at the game, we need to take in the big picture. Bacuna suffered heavily for this and was booed off - slightly unfair for your below-average player who put in a below-average performance, but what more can we expect? With so much faith poured into our club and the players, maybe we do expect our players to be a little god-like? Maybe it’s not the end of days just yet - even if the preachers saw the rains the plagues, maybe the apocalypse is not upon us? Maybe if we keep the faith, it might just be ok?
Walking along Moor Lane to wait for the post-game traffic to die off, all I could think of is how I selfishly wanted more from a game which gave me enough. Much like Whelan and Bacuna, I wasn’t looking in the right places.