By Bobby Mohr
FEB. 14, 2016 – BIRMINGHAM, UK | A steady stream of Aston Villa supporters cascades down the stairs under the bridge from the National Railway stop, Aston, into the main body of fans flowing down Lichfield Road toward Villa Park. The sun is shining in Birmingham, but it’s cold and windy too. Therefore the omnipresent sky blue and claret scarves are wrapped snug around the chins of fathers and sons, all hoping the Villa aren’t about to be annihilated again. From my aloft seat on the coach I can scout that the river of home support snakes to the right, revealing the ground in all its ironic aplomb adjacent to a row of red brick council housing. It’s the kind of neighborhood an American might presumptuously associate with the English, rustic but quaint. But it’s the sort of area most Brits would describe as “run-down.” Saddled up next to the North Stand is lonely fenced-in basketball court whose hoops are missing nets. Under the backboards stand wide black rectangular walls constructed from cinderblock and erected to stand in as make shift goals for a playground kick-about. They’re littered with ugly graffiti tags. One of which stands out in scribbled white letters: “Up the Villa.”
When I descend from the bus, it’s not difficult to crack that we’ve parked in the lot for the traveling support. Coach after coach of Liverpool supporters are expelling their passengers, all men, who hurriedly mark their territory the way a dog would do on curbs, behind hedges, or apathetically out in the open for all to see. Everyone I’ve spoken to hasn’t given Villa a chance in the fixture - not my friends, not the coach driver, nor the barman at the pub near my hotel outside Derby. With only 16 points in the entire season and uncomfortably crushed in the Premier League’s bottom position, optimism is at a premium. I’m too young to remember a first division without Aston Villa. In fact, many other fans surrounding me on my walk to the Trinity Stand are too; the Premier League is all they know. But a Premier League sans Aston Villa is a very viable reality next season. And you can feel the impatient anxiety slipping away and the melancholy acceptance of second tier football setting in amongst the Villa faithful.
The ground isn’t quite at capacity but plenty have turned up - some hopeful, some foolish. My seat is high up on the second level next to our coach driver, a lifelong Leicester City supporter, Mark, who loathes every part about being sat at Villa Park while the table-topping Foxes are away in London at Arsenal. When we left the coach Leicester had been a goal to the good, but by the time we sat down they had been pegged back, 1-1. However, when the whistle to kick off the match we were attending sounded, Leicester had lost, signaled by a muffled roar from the Villains around us as their Midlands neighbors dropped vital points in the title race. Nevertheless, I decide that the best watch for the game I was present at would be generated if Villa scored early. They’d beaten Norwich the week before, so if any leftover confidence could spark a quick start, they’d be fighting for something to hold on to. But if the away side struck first, heads would drop and the floodgates would be suspect to burst open.
Sure enough, after a quarter of an hour Liverpool score. Coutinho cuts inside on his right foot from the left flank and delivers an inch perfect cross for the often absent Daniel Sturridge to nod into the side netting before performing his trademark dance in celebration. Apart from a few groans the home crowd falls silent, as if they’d been un-willfully anticipating this sad inevitability. Then, as predicted, the away end erupts in a chorus of LIV-ERPOOL, LIV-ERPOOL.
Soon after, the visitors get another. This time it’s James Milner, a former Villa player, who elects not to celebrate… either out of respect or pity, no one is sure. At the site of this, some fans get to their feet and start heading for (a.) the bathroom, (b.) a much-needed pint, or (c.) the exits. If it were me, I’d be heading to the food vendors. The waft of vinegar on hot English chips teasing its way around the terrace is making my mouth water. But with halftime approaching quickly, I’m gifted a hot chocolate because someone nearby has bought one too many. Cadbury chocolate is legend in the States and I’ve been instructed to bring a slab of the stuff back home by my girlfriend. That’s why I’m so disappointed when I take my first watery sip of scalding-hot liquid. In consolation it keeps my hands warm.
The coach driver’s mood has improved in the misfortune of Aston Villa. The dream scenario would be to have his dear Leicester City win the league and have Villa go down in last position. That’s not so farfetched. Apart from the Liverpool fans across the pitch in the northwest corner, he’s the man in attendance most enjoying the match for the score line. But when the players reemerge from the tunnel a second wind of sanguineness materializes on the ground’s famous Holte End. Whether they start singing because one goal could turn the tide of the match or rather to portray their solidarity with the club through the good and the bad, the chorus is put to an abrupt end when Emre Can snatches Liverpool’s third. A cringe-worthy giveaway and two passes is all it takes – 0-3 – and the density of the crowd begins to thin. Some fans shout obscenities on their way out, undoubtedly falling on deaf ears.
The second half gets ugly, out of hand even as Villa concede thrice more. Divock Origi, only on the pitch for 30 seconds, scores with his first involvement. Kolo Toure powers a free header passed the goalkeeper from a corner only after former Southampton man Nathaniel Clyne poked in his own rebound in a scramble. The spectators dissipate with every goal let in. For some the threshold was four, for others, five or six. For me, if you’re going to watch up until five, how’s that any different than six? But I know little of the Villains’ struggle this season and what they’ve had to put up with. The only animated moment still to come is when former Villa goal threat Christian Benteke replaces Roberto Firmino, who had been enjoying the slaughter by resorting to party tricks. Benteke receives a warm standing ovation. The want in the eyes of the fans that remain is visible after failing to trouble Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mingolet at all. ‘Toothless yet defenseless’ sums up the performance. The Holte End halfheartedly serenades a dismal performance when the fourth official holds up the board for stoppage time. I can’t see it from where I’m sitting but I’m sure it’s merciful. Liverpool’s notorious You’ll Never Walk Alone drowns out the final whistle and that’s my cue head for the stairs.
Outside the ground, the school of bustling supporters starts swimming upstream from where they arrived, all the while complaining and commiserating with faces like bruised elbows. Back on the coach, we’re made to wait. The Liverpool supporters, now in full party mode, will be held in the away end until it’s safe to release them back into the wild. So for the time being we’ll be parked in. The warmth of bus is a comfort from the biting wind, and when we finally set off up Witton Lane back toward Lichfield Road we pass the basketball court again on the left. The graffiti scribbled on its far goal now takes on a far more satirical meaning than before. “Up the Villa” is a taboo phrase for a club that’s going down.
I know it. My friends know it. The coach driver knows it. Even the barman at the pub near my hotel outside Derby knows it. And perhaps most harrowing, the Villa fans all around me… they know it too. Aston Villa will be relegated this season.