This is a guest post from Brian Homer:
Death of a Collective Imaginary Friend
Its 1957 and in the FA Cup Semi-Final its almost an all West Midlands affair with Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and a small northern team called Manchester United – the famed Busby Babes.
At this point I’m 12 and I had not yet been to a match at Villa Park and watched this game on a small early black and white TV. After a few minutes the Villa winger Peter McParland clatters into Ray Wood the United goalie – both fully committed to the game. Wood is injured and McParland goes on to score two goals to win the game for Villa.
I’m hooked and later in 1957 Villa sign a brilliant centre forward in Gerry Hitchens. I still haven’t been to Villa Park but like thousands of other Villa fans I’m devastated when Hitchens signs for Inter Milan in 1961 – one of the first English players to go abroad.
Sadly I can’t remember the exact game when I first went to Villa Park but I reckon it was around 1962/63 with my friend Trevor. In that team was Charlie Aitken at Left Back who years later I met a book signing. He told a tale of always cycling to Villa Park for the matches through town and how one time his chain came off so he ran to the Villa with the bike on his shoulder arriving just in time for the game.
So this was a time when players were not on massive wages and were in many ways ordinary blokes who shared a background and culture with the fans. A time when most fans (mostly men then) worked on a Saturday morning and then went to the match at 3pm after a few lunchtime pints. There are stories of some players doing the same…
It was even a time when although people were clearly either Villa or Blues fans but the ritual was to go to the “other” match on alternate Saturdays. But that and the 70s hooliganism and the developing animosity between Villa and Blues is another story.
What it felt like was that in supporting the Villa you were joining a great big club which half of the City of Birmingham were also members of. You never thought about what that really meant, what was the exact relationship between you and the “club.” You just knew you belonged. And that the other members were fans, players and yes even the management and owners.
Fast forward and there are some fantastic highlights in amongst the usual disappointments of being a football fan. The excitement of the Villa team, whatever the state of the game or the score, pressing hard in the last 15 minutes of every game. Winning the League Cup at Wembley in 1975 1-0 against Norwich. Ray Graydon scored that goal and I also saw him score straight from a corner away at West Ham.
Following the Villa in the Third Division including a chastening 2-0 loss away at Brighton. We passed the team bus on the M1 and waved. No response just glum faces. But later that season we were at Sheffield Wednesday where we drew to win promotion. We were on our way back.
December 1976 we go into a game at Villa Park against the then best team Liverpool. No chance? We were 3-0 up after 20 minutes. We were on the old standing Holte End and as that third goal went in I jumped up and the small bottle of rum I had in my pocket flew up and shattered on the concrete. A game to savour 5-1 and the smell of rum to the end.
Of course 1980 to 1982 winning the First Division and the European Cup. And in the 90s further league Cup success and great European nights. Going to Spain to see the Villa play Atletico Madrid in March 1998 and showing our class by visiting The Prada and other art galleries in our Villa shirts. We lost that night 1-0 but what an occasion and in the return leg we saw a fantastic committed performance which we won 2-1 only to lose the tie on away goals. Villa Park was bouncing.
Despite some great visits to Wembley including last year’s semi-final win against Liverpool for the 1st five years or so the club has struggled with some real low points and very few wins at Villa Park. But yesterday against Liverpool was probably the lowest point of all. Like 1976 we didn’t expect to win and in 2016 yes we think we are already relegated but what we did expect was commitment and fight from the team.
What we got was the most abject performance that had many in the Holte to question whether we were actually playing the same game as Liverpool. Where was the pressing and commitment we saw in May 1957, December 1976, in 1981 and 1982 or in March 1998? Nowhere to be seen amongst a set of static players who seemed to think it was not up to them to go for the ball.
And what of the players, are they not still from the same background as your average fan? Don’t be daft they are above all of that. They on the whole don’t think the fans are anything to do with them. Fast forward again say 20 years and you meet Joleon Lescott – what story will he tell? How his bike broke down on his way to the ground? It will be about wheeled transport but it won’t be about a breakdown (except of common sense) – it will be about the time when he “accidentally” tweeted a picture of an impossibly expensive Mercedes. LOFu*ckingL.
So what “club” do us fans belong to in common with players, management and owners? Well, of course, its been obvious for many years that we don’t. Too much TV money in the game and glory hunting owners without a clue employing corporate clowns who talk of branding and customers have led us to a pretty dire situation. In the case of the Villa our own clueless owner, Randy Lerner bought out those few fans with a small shareholding stake in the club promising a Bright New Future – what price mid-table mediocrity now?
The fact is we have been fooling ourselves. There is no “club” anymore. Before it wasn’t really real but it did exist in the minds of fans, management, owners and players. It was a kind of collective imaginary friend you share with other fans. Very real if you could “get” it and “see” it. Invisible if you were not into football.
And now? I think my Collective Imaginary Friend is dead.
You know when its bad when Liverpool fans say nice supportive things and when an Arsenal fans says “it can only get better.” I bloody hope so as although the imaginary friend is terminal Villa is my team and I will always support them. If this was a real club we would vote the committee out and sack the staff. Its not, so all we can do is show our feelings. I’m still debating how to do that – boycott the rest of the season; join a campaign? You know what I’m not even sure its worth it – there is so much shit going down in the world.
That’s the state the owner, the management and the players have reduced us to. Now do you remember that classic game against Bournemouth all those years ago?