[quote_center] ‘Aston Villa fans are very loyal supporters and to them ‘protest’ is something of a dirty word’.[/quote_center]
For the past week the press built up that a big ‘protest’ was going to happen in the Holte End at the start of the Aston Villa vs Liverpool game. After the game, the papers read that apparently this ‘protest’ failed.
Last Sunday, MOMS was approached by two other Villa websites The Villa Blog and avillafan.com about whether it would back an initiative of a 10 minute demonstration, where supporters would be encouraged to take their seats after the first ten minutes of the game had lapsed. Essentially it was to show the custodians of the club an image of a not so ‘Bright Future’, one of empty seats, it carried on its current trajectory.
After the Leicester City defeat, my patience had worn thin of the Groundhog Day routine of Villa’s scoreless games, needlessly dropped points, lack of genuine communication between club and fans, absent ambition and the apathy it bred in supporters.
Something had to be done, but nobody was acting.
Loyalty and Protest
Aston Villa fans are very loyal supporters and to them ‘protest’ is something of a dirty word. What’s the biggest bit of protest bait you could dangle in front of a Villan? Answer: The idea that a Bluenose manager who had just relegated Small Heath was coming to manage the club.
Even that only brought out around 350 supporters to the steps of the Holte to protest and the attempted protests that followed while Big ‘Eck was in charge failed (hence why MOMS did the newspaper ad).
With that in mind, MOMS advised anything like this would unlikely get the kind of supporter backing they were imagining and would need a bit of time to plan properly. Plus, who were we to tell the fans what to do?
But I was reminded it was still the January transfer window, so in terms of having any impact, now was the best time with the iceberg of relegation having appeared on the horizon.
[quote_center]’You could hear their producer’s enthusiasm dampen down the line, when I explained the reality of what had actually been proposed.'[/quote_center]
The ACTUAL idea
The idea was on ice, until the next day, a young disillusioned Villa fan and his friends, whom having witnessed in-fighting at the Leicester game, had taken the time to email a handful of Villa sites. He articulately expressed how sick they were of the current situation and suggested there should be an ‘8 minute’ demonstration, one minute for every completed season under Randy Lerner’s ownership.
It was shorter than the 10 minute idea, which was the first bonus. But it also unknowingly served up further symbolism. The remaining 82 minutes was the number of the year of the club’s finest hour.
So that was the three Villa sites’ idea: a visual demonstration that showed two visions of Villa’s future. Eight minutes of empty seats m’lord and 82 minutes of full-on support (as opposed to berating of players and booing of team, which currently goes on in the Holte).
Villa supporters were understandingly frustrated on a number of fronts, so we just proposed an invitation that supporters could voluntary do, if they were not happy with what was going on with Aston Villa at the moment.
It was not an organised protest against Lerner and/or Lambert (or even Tom Cleverley!).
Plus, it also offered a second part that all fans could join in, whatever they thought of the first part, so that once at least we wouldn’t have a toxic environment on the Holte (well, at least until Liverpool would score).
It was just an idea. Take it or leave it. But it was a decent idea in theory and importantly there would be no waving of the metaphorical pitchforks.
We were still in the middle of the January window, so we all agreed to just do it.
The Daily Mail had contacted me a day before we announced the demo to do one of those ‘fan’s view’ pieces and comment on the malaise and predicament Villa found themselves in. I informed them there was going to be a demo proposal issued the next day, and the online editor said they’d run a news story on it. The Birmingham Mail was also informed to expect an announcement of interest at 9am, which the three sites had already tweeted to Villa supporters on our social media accounts.
Now, you expect a bit of press to raise awareness, but after the two Mails reported it, it spread like wild fire. Blanket newspaper coverage for a whole week followed, all the nationals ran pieces on it and continued to mention it every day in their coverage after Lambert was questioned about it.
It was on the back pages of three national papers on Friday (doesn’t happen much for Villa) and the likes of Sky Sports, BT Sport, Talk Sport, WM Radio all discussed it and BBC One’s Football Focus even mentioned it.
When I say ‘it’, I mean the ‘protest’.
Our voluntary two-part demonstration suggestion had been abbreviated by the press into a ‘planned eight-minute protest’. While we took the time to point out what was actually intended to the likes of Sky Sports, WM Radio and some of the newspapers, they obviously didn’t want that to get in the way of a good story.
While the pundits discussed it, telling supporters what they should do despite not having a clue about the reality of what was happening, interesting only WM Radio did any proactive journalism, to clear up what actually was planned. You could hear their producer’s enthusiasm dampen down the line, when I explained the reality of what had actually been proposed.
I’m not going to lie, this Protest Press Monster that the media had created was much bigger and better than our proposed demo, when it came to getting the message of Aston Villa’s plight and supporter concern out there to the world.
Some cynics told us that Lerner wouldn’t hear about it or that nobody outside Birmingham would care. The Protest Press Monster soon proved them wrong as it crushed their reservations under foot as it marched on.
The media spotlight on Villa was perfect timing, falling in the middle of the January transfer window. The pressure of it, might introduce a sense of added urgency to the Villa board to make those signings to appease fans and more importantly avoid the relegation iceberg on the horizon.
Of course, the only issue was the fallout and the accusations of failure we’d get, since the media and anyone gullible seemed to think there would be like 15,000 empty seats on the Holte come 3pm. Nobody seemed to actually factor in Villa fans reservations to protests in the past, most recently with the low numbers already mentioned that ended up protesting against a perceived antichrist figure like McLeish.
Any supporter who knew their fellow fans, knew that such a mass protest was a far-fetched concept.
I’d personally tried to explain in the build-up to some fans there was no ‘protest’ per se, but some thought I was just arguing over semantics (i.e. a ‘protest’ and a ‘demonstration’ are the same thing), but they weren’t the same thing – there was the reality and then the media expectation.
Even before the match day itself, in terms of communicating supporter concern over the state of club to the whole nation, it had already been a huge success.
Blackout and Surf’s Down
After such massive press coverage it was interesting to see what happened on the day.
What hasn’t been reported, which TV footage proves, is when the teams took the pitch the Holte End was around 75% full and the pre-match Holte End’s giant surfer flag wasn’t even released.
The club resorted to turning off the live TV feeds on the concourse in the Holte to flush anybody potentially demonstrating out onto the stand, and the stand rapidly filled up as a result.
Certainly, on the day, it seems more Villans than perhaps expected (by me anyway) were going to do the demo. Why would the club refrain from surfing the flag and undertake the mean-spirited action of turning off the screens?
Some supporters have since informed MOMS that they wanted to demonstrate their frustrations for eight minutes, but didn’t want to miss seeing any of the match. Fair enough. It was a totally voluntary action, so if they couldn’t now see the game on the TVs, you can’t blame them.
Fare play to the 300-odd supporters who were counted on the upper Holte, who stood firm and continued making their principled stand despite the concourse blackout (there were more in the Lower Holte).
The three Villa supporter sites simply sowed the seed of an idea to allow supporters to show their concerns about the club’s direction. What it turned into thanks to the mechanics of modern football, sent the message louder and clearer than we could have ever first imagined.
More importantly it shook the tree of Villa supporter apathy. The opinions flowed, some of those who didn’t support the idea of the demo expressed respect of the intent, while others suggested other ideas to take action.
The ball of supporter dissatisfaction with the recent state of the club is finally rolling, it’s now up to us all to make sure it’s buried in the net.
PS – Please do a better job than the team of burying the ball in the net…
PSS – Villa CEO Tom Fox will be attending the AGM of the Aston Villa Supporters Trust on Feb 19th 7.15pm for a Q&A session with members at Villa Park. See the AVST for more details. Don’t just leave it to others, your club needs you. UTV