By Tom Nightingale
Here we go again, then.
On Saturday lunchtime in Birmingham, Aston Villa host local rivals West Bromwich Albion in the first leg of a play-off semi-final series that means so much to so many. The city itself, of course, will be figuratively alight this weekend and again on Tuesday evening at the Hawthorns – it’s safe to say, you don’t envy the police and stewarding staff who are called upon that night.
A chance at promotion on the line, and the winner of what is bound to be an unyielding 180-minute scrap gets that chance.
The Championship play-off final is often monikered the richest game in football, but its monetary prize is a fraction of the total reward. Villa (and Albion) fans have had to suffer the ignominy of seeing their respective historic, proud clubs fall off the global radar in recent times and for many Villans abroad, promotion is the golden chance for the club to become relevant again.
This is not intended to be autobiographical, but some personal background may be useful.
I have supported Villa since the age of seven and held a Holte End season ticket for several years as a child and teenager. Then, life intervened. First, university limited game attendance to the (admittedly plentiful) holiday breaks, and then in 2015, my now-wife and I decided to try our postgrad luck in Toronto, Canada. We’re still there now, and in the intervening four years I’ve returned to Villa Park maybe half a dozen times.
As fate so often decides to have it, the last game I attended was back on February 15 – the dismal 2-0 home loss to Saturday’s opponents. It was the last time Villa would lose until last weekend against the champions. I was just delighted to be back on the Holte.
A more positive result against the old rivals, this time over two legs, would bring Villa back within touching distance of a promotion which means emigrant fans will not only be able to watch the team play week upon week again, but they will have the club back where it should be – in the conversation.
When I arrived in Canada, in the summer before the club’s relegation, Villa’s name carried great weight. The first time I attended a football match after moving to Ontario in 2015, at Toronto FC’s BMO Field, I wore a Villa shirt (home Acorns 2009-10, if anyone’s interested) and was stopped numerous times by fellow fans or neutrals to talk about the club.
It probably helped that Villa were only the second non-North American team to ever play the burgeoning MLS franchise, winning a friendly 4-2 on the shore of Lake Ontario halfway through TFC’s debut season in 2007, and have therefore been trivially tied to the city’s recent football history ever since.Embed from Getty Images
Villa’s historic footballing status and the successes of the early 1980s and the ’90s, combined with the UK’s status as a prolific exporter of citizens, means Villa fans are everywhere – at least if my own experience of living in an overcrowded, immigrant-fueled North American metropolitan area is anything by which to judge.
There is a branch of the club’s official Lions supporters groups in Toronto, but that barely scratches the surface. In a country in which football does not get top billing, Villa is still a name that often at least vaguely registers with even casual watchers of the sport.
I’ve been lucky enough to work in football media in Toronto and have spent much of it shouting in claret and blue, but even that isn’t particularly unusual. I’ve learned there’s a Villa presence across the industry, including a number of sports network analysts and hosts.
Once again: Villa fans are everywhere.Embed from Getty Images
Fading From View
The lamentable fact in 2019, however, is that outside the significant emigrant population and their offspring, mention of Villa can draw a blank expression unless that person has been following football for several years already, such is the extent to which a club falls off the charts outside the UK upon relegation. You could argue teams such as Huddersfield are recognised more than Villa by newer football watchers simply by virtue of spending the last two years in the ubiquitous Premier League.
Rarely has the phrase “the oxygen of publicity” felt more apt. Villa’s global renown has suffered dearly over the last three years, though there has been an inevitable resurgence since Grealish – a name that receives recognition this side of the Atlantic – returned to lead the club-record winning run.
The truth is, the club needs to be in the Premier League to facilitate the level of fandom that’s possible in the UK, and that has nothing to do with fairweather watching. Below the top flight, the coverage is sparse. There are odd showings on subscription services, the hit-and-miss AVTV, and when games are broadcast live in the UK you can generally find them, although the user experience is hardly ideal.
Odd extraordinary snatched moments break into the public consciousness – John McGinn’s volley vs. Wednesday, cabbage-gate, the assault on Jack Grealish at St. Andrew’s – but aside from that, there’s little to be found unless you know where to look.
Supporting your childhood team from abroad is tough, but it’s far from fickle fanhood. You don’t want to have left the club’s geographical centre, and once you’ve put thousands of miles between yourself and Villa Park you slowly and understandably lose that feeling of closeness, of being steeped in claret and blue.
The crushing disappointment after the loss to Fulham at Wembley a year ago was only deepened by the fact that had Villa won that day, every league game this season could have been watched with ease (the five-hour time difference can be difficult, but it’s far harder for those on the west coast or even further afield). But far more than that. I could have talked about Villa every day at work without drawing blank stares.
They would have been a part of the conversation again around the world, outside of the circle of the fan base.
So, again, in 2019. For Villa fans abroad, in addition to all the natural supporters’ emotion, the play-off push holds that certain selfish importance. Of course, there’s the love for this club. I, like most Villa fans, want this desperately for everyone who has contributed in some way, and I’m sure all supporters have their own personal reason for wanting the club to succeed.
I miss Villa, watching each and every 90 minutes, the all-consuming manner of fandom that is ubiquitous back home. Promotion would unlock that again.
The club deserves it, the staff deserve it, we deserve it.
Let’s do it.
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