By Eamonn Smith
A Dutch Tale
400 Villa away fans ventured to Holland to the northern city of Groningen to witness Villa’s only European away day of the year outside Wales. While a few fans would have grabbed a cheap flight to Amsterdam and then a train to Groningen, myself and three fellow Villans took a 16-hour round trip driving across France and Belgium to get there.
Groningen proved a decent destination; with a picturesque city centre full of nice bars with street seating areas, busy market stalls and very welcoming people awaiting the travelling support upon arrival.
On the day of the fixture, Villa fans who made the trip enjoyed the warm weather, having a drink and soaking up the local atmosphere which on the whole was very laid back and relaxing. We crossed paths with many fans, some from different parts of England, and it was good to share experiences and stories about the Villa with them.
As kick-off approached, we started the 25 minute stroll through Groningen to the Euroborg stadium from the city centre, passing an overwhelming amount of people on bikes (the Dutch love their bicycles!).
Tunnel of Doom
As we got nearer to the away end, we were diverted away from the ground to a tunnel, which goes under a canal, and brings fans right up to the away end. It seemed a very strange practice for such a preseason game, and despite being labelled a friendly it definitely didn’t feel like one.
Old School Euro Trip
A heavy police presence and multiple stewards in the vicinity of the ground gave the sense police were expecting trouble from Villa fans, which was never the case. This was felt even more so when we entered the concourse and walked out to the 22,550 seater stadium, and found ourselves surrounded by perspex barriers and netting. At this point, it really did feel like a trip back in time to following Villa abroad for competitive European nights in the days of football hooliganism in the 80’s.
Also, the away end felt removed from the pitch and players, a bit like sitting up in the gods at Newcastle’s St James’ Park. Nonetheless, when the teams walked out onto the turf and started the game spirits were high in the Villa end.
After conceding two early goals in the opening eight minutes to Tjaronn Chery, the atmosphere was somewhat subdued in the Villa end, as we were increasingly witnessing a toothless performance. It was almost a relief to hear the referee blow his whistle for the first half’s conclusion.
As the second-half began, the Villa fans started to make their own fun, as the right-side of the Villa allocation challenged the left-side to make some noise. Cries of ‘Left side give us a wave’ could be heard, which lightened up the deflated atmosphere.
Villa fans were finally treated to a terrific Charles N’Zogbia free kick 15 minutes before the end of the game, which was one of the only high points in a lacklustre performance. It lifted spirits, as did the appearance of young Villan Jack Grealish.
Leaving the ground to make the walk back into the city centre, Villa fans seemed to be separated into categories. Only if you had a hotel key or reference could you get back into the city centre! Which all seemed very over the top.
Fans travelling back to Amsterdam on the train were put on a bus and given a police escort to the station, however those heading back to the centre had two blokes on a mountain bikes to protect us from these so called Groningen trouble makers! It was all very amusing as not once did we see anyone looking to cause trouble. On the whole the police did go over the top on their preparations for this fixture, protecting us from a problem which wasn’t really there.
Although we witnessed a very disappointing performance on the field, off the field, Groningen offered up an enjoyable experience of watching Villa away in a different city abroad. A very worthwhile Villa away day trip.
Home Atmos Rating
5/10 – The home atmosphere was somewhat subdued, mostly down to the fact that it was full of families with young kids. Home supporters only found their voice a few times in the match, with shouts of ‘Groningen, Groningen’.
Follow Eamonn on Twitter – @EAmonn_Smith