It is not often that I get nervous about football. Why would that be? Simply because it is football, and in the big, universal scale of things, it doesn’t matter. Well, that’s what you try and tell yourself, because of course, deep down it really does matter - but only when it comes down to it. In seemingly cataclysmic fixtures that hold the precarious fate of the entire world in their balance.
While I was nervous before Aston Villa’s first-leg matchup with Middlesbrough, it was nothing compared to what I’d undergo internally before the return fixture at Villa Park. To put it bluntly, I was sh*tting it. 1-0, worst lead in football and all that. On that note, I do apologise about being slightly late with this, but as you can imagine, it has taken me a while to actually collect my thoughts and produce a piece of work about all of this.
Where do I begin?
Nerves. The bile of anxiety that rises up and opens up pits of acid within your brain, burning away at sensible thoughts. I was a bag of nerves on that day even before the news broke.
It was at my place of work that I learned about the tragic passing of Jlloyd Samuel. I’m sure I’ll write more about that at the end of the football season, because Samuel was a very special Aston Villa player to me - because he was the first one after Juan Pablo Angel that I knew off-by-heart. He was the first Aston Villa player I ever saw in possession of a football, live. When people like Ugo Ehiogu, Cyrille Regis or Dalian Atkinson pass away - it’s one thing, and it hurts even if you never saw them play because these figures are held in such high regard. When a player like Samuel passes away, it’s something else entirely, because it was me, me who knew of him. I didn’t have to be told by someone else about his playing ability. I saw him, myself.
And thus, the funeral march of Aston Villa would grow a new surname to be added to it’s sombre deployment post the traditional respectful applause. Atkinson, my lord, Atkinson. Ehiogu, my lord, Ehiogu. Samuel, my lord, Samuel. As time progresses, it will only grow longer, and longer as the Holte End rises in chorus to pay the highest respects to the newly, and dearly departed.
Walking to Villa Park that day was a different experience. Atmosphere, as described by Tom Liggoti based on his studies of the work of HP Lovecraft, is something that isn’t physical, nor even mental. It exists in an ethereal state, gliding and flitting about the senses. It’s almost like a feeling, but not at all. The warmth emulated through the area, saturating everything from the passing cars to the cracks in the pavement.
A man, in his 30’s, sat on a wall, just south of where a goalpost was inscribed into a wall with blue spray paint on Railway Road. His feet swaying and a cigarette slowly burning away in his mouth. In his hand lurked a plastic bottle of cheap alcohol. He smiled, without a care passing through his head. He screamed out to the people walking by, demanding they tell him the score. I smiled and shook my head. Could I even provide him with an answer? He didn’t mind, he just said that one resonating fact - a motto enscribed to every single football club across the world.
“It’s the Villa, ain’t it?”
Yes. It was the Villa. Not as I’ve ever experienced. Villa Park opened up to a thunderous roar. A ground-shaking welcome to their returning heroes, who had so casually stolen a victory in the away-leg of the matchup. There were nerves, of course - there was also expectancy. Villa, MUST deliver. They have to. There’s nothing else. Every clearance? A goal. Every tackle, a battle won. Every near-miss a what-if. The crowd celebrated a neutral result at home with the rapturous cheering that would greet a world-class finish.
Half-time approached, with the score level. Walking onto the concourse, I had my head swaying. I was sick. Sick with something, a being - far greater than anyone of us could understand, was clawing away at me, through me. I wanted to vomit, right there and then. How could this mean so much? It was football. The fabric of my being seemed to be in bits. It’s football. Why?
The second-half brought more of the same. Every single defensive action seemed to be a calculated masterpiece. As the final whistle drew nearer, people rose to their feet and roared, and roared, and roared.
Nobody heard the conclusion. The stadium erupted, a sea of Villa swarmed onto the pitch. Heroes found a pedestal upon the shoulders of the adoring. The odyssey, for now, is over.
Villa Park, we’ll see you again. Wembley Stadium, it’s nice to meet you.