Friday, August 16, 2013, after work
My usual Friday routine, since becoming a father, involves opening a beer, ordering pizza, and joining my wife and kids in front of the TV for a movie that, likely as not, will be an animated tie-in to some relentlessly merchandised product line.
This Friday is different. My kids are in Minnesota with my in-laws, my wife is getting her hair cut, and I am pulling on a brand-new Aston Villa home shirt. After getting my boots and shin guards out of the storage locker, I fill a duffel bag with essentials (spare shirt, water bottle, granola bars, phone, wallet, and keys) and cross Lake Shore Drive to a nearby soccer field. There I plan to play for Aston Villa—well, their North American supporters, who have descended on Chicago to mark the start of the 2013-14 season.
A month ago, I was unaware that the Chicago Villans even existed. Clued in by my friend Andrew Grant, an author and Birmingham-born Villan, I have been invited to the festivities and I am determined to meet some other fans—and also determined to play.
So you know: I am not what is known in soccer circles as a “good player.” I play a little pickup from time to time, and I coach little kids. I have never played eleven-a-side on a full-size pitch. Worse, I am probably not a very good Villa fan. I have followed Villa closely for half a dozen years and, while that’s a long time by some standards, to a dedicated sports fan it’s a mere blink of an eye.
I arrive at the field, which is allegedly turf but looks like outdoor carpeting laid over a parking lot. I can’t miss the claret-and-blue-clad players in various states of disarray along the touchline, though. Some are young, some are old, some are thin and some are stout, their accents ranging from Midwest to Midlands. Most of them look as though they’ve come to play, although one of them is having a hard time standing up.
“Where’s the manager?” I ask.
“I don’t know, it’s not my job,” says the nearest Villan with what sounds like relief. (I later learn his name is Tyler.)
I put on my boots and then make a little small talk with a middle-aged gent whose son is playing. A Brummie with no shortage of bonhomie, he lives in Arizona now and has made the trip as part of a father-son weekend.
With some hesitation, I make my way onto the pitch. I assume that most of the players will have grown up with a ball at their feet, unlike me, and I am wary of being found out. If they see me play, will I be sent to the dressing room before the game kicks off? Given that there is no dressing room, maybe they’ll just make me watch from the top of the nearby hill.
But the warmups are lackluster. The various Villans stand around the top of the penalty area, taking odd shots at a shaven-headed keeper who looks as though he could be Littlest Brad. (Bald Americans Brad Friedel, or Big Brad, and Brad Guzan, Little Brad, have made most of the starts between the sticks for Aston Villa since 2008.) His name is actually Simon, or Other Simon (for reasons that will soon become clear), and he seems to be quite good. Unfortunately, our strikers are not. As we take turns kicking balls straight at the keeper or high over the crossbar, some of the players begin casting worried glances at our competition from the Globe Pub. They’re all . . . skinny. And young. There aren’t very many of them, though. The consensus is that, if we can field a starting eleven, or fifteen, against five or six of them, we might have a chance.
Meanwhile, Peeves, a Villan with the size, grace, and speed of the Queen Mary (if she were fueled with pints of beer), takes a meandering dribble through a practicing squad of young players. The kids’ coach ignores him, though a casual hip-check against a pint-sized player can’t have gone unnoticed. We begin shouting at him to come back; eventually, he has to be called off by Littlest Brad/Other Simon.
Eventually, Simon Leach (YES: Simon Leach!) arrives, our godfather, gaffer, and the president of the North American Aston Villa Supporters. He gets us organized and soon the game is underway. I fail to raise my hand when Simon asks for starters, as I want to take still more stock of the competition before I go in.
The Globe players really do look suspiciously younger and more fit. We clearly have a few players who know the game—and some of them don’t even have beer guts yet—but I fear this will be a preview of Villa’s first game vs. Arsenal.
God, I hope not.
“One of their players is the brother of [Chicago Fire defender] Jalil Anibaba,” someone tells me.
Oh great, a ringer.
I wait until, partway through the first half, Simon the Gaffer runs off. I run on and he tells me to play “up front.” I am not a striker. I fancy myself more in the Michael Bradley mold, a Xavi or a Bastian Schweinsteiger on my better days, spraying passes from the midfield. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time studying world-class strikers from the comfort of my couch.
I stay onside, with one embarrassing exception. I try to run off the shoulders of the defenders. I get some good balls, squander most of them, although one of my errant crosses is on target and so I should be credited with a shot on goal.
A shot easily gathered by the Globe’s diminutive but capable keeper.
Did I mention that I usually play with kids?
Peeves comes on. I have no idea what position he’s playing, and I don’t think he does, either. He commits a horrific, slow-motion tackle on a slender young barmaid from the Globe team, is red-carded by players from both sides, and literally rolled off the pitch. Simon’s job is not easy.
After a dozen sprints, my thighs are burning and I am gasping for air. My sprightly thirties are but a distant memory. I sub out. Chug water. The field is big. I am tired.
We go down by one goal, then another. And still another. By halftime, it’s 3-0. Simon gives us a team talk but, frankly, I can’t remember the substance. I’m still chewing granola and chugging water. I think he might have reminded us to have fun.
In the second half, I sub back in. “Left back!” shouts Simon.
I have never played proper defense in my life. I pay close attention to the commands of our vociferous center back, who seems to know what he’s talking about. Still, we keep losing our shape, so I mostly try to frustrate Jammil Anibaba. (“Watch the ringer!” shouts our center back.) I foil a few crosses and make a decent pass from the back (to a forward woefully offside); I totally screw up and Littlest Brad makes a nice fingertip save to exonerate me.
It’s still 3-0. Who are we playing, Manchester United?
I sub out and North American Villa scores! Thanks some nice passing and a well-taken shot by some guy whose name I can’t remember. The Villans on the sideline vow this is the start of our comeback. Not one of them believes it.
I sub in again, this time as a left midfielder. The Globe’s players are young, fast, and far more physical than the 7- and 9-year-olds I’m used to playing with. And, though I have the slightest foreboding that I might be about to vomit, I’m having a blast. I haven’t covered myself in glory, but I haven’t embarrassed myself—at least, not too badly—and, best of all, I played in claret and blue.
The game ends 4-1. After handshakes all around, we board a bus for the short trip to the Globe. No sooner has it started moving than it comes to a screeching halt. Where is Peeves?
A search is made, the search is abandoned, and the biggest Villan of them all is located just where we’d expect to find him: back at the pub.
How he made it there, god only knows.
Update: The identity of the North American Villans’ goalscorer is now known: Bob Kemp, displaying the pace of an Agbonlahor, the power of a Benteke, and the surprised celebration style of a Matt Lowton, confidently slotted home to deny FC Globe the clean sheet they so badly craved.
Also, the author of this post was remiss in not acknowledging the astonishing goal-line clearance performed by stalwart defender Todd Butler. His backline heroics surely kept the game from becoming a rout.