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American Born Villan

Aston Villa, From Chicago to the Holte End of the World

Month

October 2013

“Talking about …

“Talking about Villa and talking about going down—shouldn’t be in the same sentence. You shouldn’t talk about Villa and, they’ve done well to stay up. Last year they did do well to stay up. Villa doing well to stay up is an embarrassment.”

—Dion Dublin on “The Game” podcast, live from Birmingham (October 24, 2013)

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Aston Villa 0 – Everton 2: Too Much F—ing Perspective

Aston Villa 0 – Everton 2: Click here for highlights–er, Lowlights

Tim HowardAnother bright start—a bright start that, in this case, lasted about an hour—followed by another home loss. (According to Soccernomics, playing at home is statistically good for a one-goal advantage, so apparently we avoided an 0-3 humiliation.) Another game in which we had chances we failed to finish—although I can only shake my head at Tim Howard’s save of Benteke’s penalty. Benteke could arguably have hit it harder but it certainly was well placed. And against ANY OTHER TEAM I would have been pumping my fists just like the U.S.A.’s number-one keeper after he made the save.

But.

Alex McLeishSo we lost a game in which we played well, which feels like some measure of progress compared to seasons past in which we were so uninspired, so abject, that it was hard to think of Villa as “my team.” (And yes, I’m looking at you, McLeish.) But there are no points for if-only.

There’s a scene in Spinal Tap that offers one of my favorite throw-away lines of all time. Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls are visiting Elvis’ grave:

St. Hubbins: Well, this is thoroughly depressing.
Tufnel: Well, it really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?
St. Hubbins: Well, it’s too much. There’s too much fucking perspective, now.

For the rest of Saturday, I felt depressed by the perspective the game had put on things. Losing to Everton, a team with a history of drawing or losing at Villa Park, painfully illustrates the difference between the two sides’ start to the season. You could argue that we should be an Everton, a well-managed, mid-budget team perpetually lurking around the middle of the top half of the table. You could argue that we will be—but don’t try that this week.

Sunday I felt a bit better. I tried to broaden my perspective to include the whole Premier League, not just two teams. Now, call me crazy, but I’ve been basically optimistic all season. I saw bright spots even in our 0-4 loss to Tottenham in the League Cup. Yes, we lost soundly, but I still held on to the sense that we were better than the scoreline showed. I kept my head up when they beat us again 0-2. Hey, they’re a side with Champions League ambitions and money to burn after selling Gareth Bale to Los Blancos (and, while he’s shooting blanks, it’s Andre Villas-Boas who’s laughing all the way to the bank).

Andreas Weimann scratchingLosing at home by two goals to Everton was, I’ll admit it, harder to take. It’s a game we certainly could have won, and, given the teams’ head-to-head history, I expected at least a draw.

But.

Perspective. Let’s take a big step back. Then another. Aaaaaand another—careful, you just spilled that guy’s drink.

We’re nine games in. In league play, we’ve faced: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Manchester City, Hull, Tottenham, and Everton. Our first three opponents currently occupy the first three spots in the table (interestingly, in that very order). And SEVEN of those nine are currently in the top half.

You could argue that they’re in the top half with our help, but still: no one would argue that Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Tottenham, and Everton won’t finish in the top half at the season’s end. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we have just 6 points after 9 games last year—and without having played the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man City?

So we’ve got 10 points. November’s schedule includes West Ham (currently 15th), Cardiff (currently 16th), West Brom (12th), and Sunderland (19th with a bullet!). Nothing is certain. But if the team stays mentally strong, results are bound to improve. Some of those chances are bound to fall. Benteke, getting fitter, will find his game. And Luna might even find his way back to his position when it counts.

That said, if we don’t pick up at least seven points from the next four games, then I’ll be starting to worry, too.

Villan of the Week: Ann Fuller

Ann Fuller
At Villa Park, in front of her favorite player’s kit the day before a 2-1 win over Sunderland

Did you know that women support Aston Villa, too? Yes, it’s true! (Not that you’d know that by reading my previous Friday posts.) I am pleased to introduce you to our first female Villan of the Week, the Reverend Ann Fuller. A supporter since 2007, Ann has forged a strong bond with the team and helped others do so as well, both as the founding chair of the Florida Lions and . . . well, read on, you’ll see.

The Starting Eleven

Where were you born, where do you live now, and what do you do for a living?

I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and now reside in Melbourne, Florida. I am a community minister associated with two Unitarian Universalist congregations.

How and when did you choose Villa?

I’ve been a player and fan of the sport as long as I can remember, but didn’t really start following the EPL extremely closely until we were able to regularly get matches on cable television in the U.S. Before that I was pretty much restricted to absorbing as much international football as I could. I chose Villa at the start of the 2007–08 season, so I’m quite the newcomer to the AVFC family. I wanted to follow a top team, but not one of the massive bandwagon clubs. I liked the American connection with Randy Lerner and Brad Friedel, but was particularly drawn to Villa’s community engagement and philanthropic connections.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

A Very Villa Wedding
‘Til Death Do Them Part: Married to Each Other – and a Team

Personally, I had a blast officiating the wedding of a fellow Villa supporter. On the pitch, I’m happiest when Villa win against Chelsea since my twin sister insists on supporting that whiney club.

What was your most painful moment?

Whenever I find out we have Phil Dowd officiating an upcoming match. I also didn’t much fancy the drubbing we experienced at the hands of Chelsea on 23/12/12. I lost my shirt with that one . . . literally. Never bet your kit!

Which team would you most like to see Villa beat this year?

Chelsea by at least five goals (see above).

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Brad Guzan. Again, it’s that American connection, but two of my children are goalkeepers (the thirteen-year-old will be following in Guzan’s footsteps some day, the kid is scary good) and I think Guzan’s a good keeper to watch for his excellent skills and sportsmanship. I have really enjoyed watching him excel in both the Villa and U.S. nets. I’d like to see him have as long a career as Friedel.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

At Villa, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Martin Laursen and was saddened at his untimely retirement due to injury. I was a defender when I played (also ousted from the sport by injury), so I tend to observe the back line closely when watching a match. I just always admired his play and wished I could have had his set-piece brilliance when I was on the pitch.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

Ann Fuller and Alan Perrins
Ann with Supporters’ Club Liaison Alan Perrins

I typically go straight to the club’s official website or click through links shared by various groups on Facebook. I can also rely on my sister to send me anything negative or embarrassing about Villa. I stay pretty plugged in.

Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?

I’m incredibly loyal. I’d still be a Villa supporter if they were playing in League Two . . . but that’s never going to happen. On the other hand, I have a tendency to assume the worst possible outcome and really should have more confidence in the manager and the squad at times. I overcompensate when preparing for disappointment. On the other hand, that means I’m often pleasantly surprised.

Where do you usually watch games?

I usually watch games at home with friends and family. We’re quite fortunate to get every single EPL match televised now. The time difference and having to record matches to watch later due to schedule conflicts, means watching one live at a pub is a rare treat.

What are you usually drinking?

When it’s 7:45 in the morning it’s going to be coffee or tea. If I’m watching after 10:00 I’m likely to have a glass of white wine or a hard cider in my hand.

Extra Time

Who do you think has been Villa’s best-ever manager, and why?

The history geek in me loves George Ramsay and he has a record that speaks for itself. As for the managers who have held the reins at Villa since I’ve become a supporter, I’d have to say I’m keeping my eye on Lambert to become one of Villa’s top managers ever. I think he’s certainly got the potential if he has the right kind of support.

Birmingham, Are You Listening? Mumbling My Way through the Aston Villa Songbook

“To stop being me for a little while and to become us.”

Yankees Fans
Fans try to keep themselves entertained at a Yankees game

American sports fans are, by and large, pretty woeful in the crowd-response department. We have the clap-clap routine we do for DE-FENSE. There’s “Let’s go TEAM NAME, let’s go!” (And repeat.) In basketball, there’s the kind of rising vocalization we do, often accompanied by a frenzied waving of inflatables, when we’re taunting other teams’ players shooting free throws. And, in the world of baseball, the intellectuals who occupy the bleachers at Wrigley Field routinely taunt each other with a stimulating back-and-forth debate: “Right field sucks! Right field sucks! Right field sucks!” The devastating reply? “Left field sucks! Left field sucks! Left field sucks!”

And that’s when you catch us on a good day. All too often, American sports fans behave like the bearded, bespectacled, tattooed hipsters at a concert, responding to the full-throated roar of heavy metal with rhythmic but disinterested head-nodding or an appearing-to-be-indifferent toe-tapping. (You wouldn’t want to do both at the same time. People might think you were into it or something.) When it comes to coordinated efforts, fan displays that draw on the jaw-dropping number of people packed into the stadium to produce a spectacle for the ages, we have . . . well, there’s “the wave,” in which people stand up and sit down again. And there’s YMCA, which refuses to die.

Mostly we drink beer and sneak looks at our phones.

American soccer fans, inspired by the traditions of foreign leagues, can be somewhat more lively, with their giant flags, their tifos, but still, they lag behind in one essential area: singing. For years, I heard at Chicago Fire games was “Ole, ole, ole, ole!” and, later, “Fire Fire Fire.” More recently, I have seen crumpled photocopies of fan songs littering Section 8, which shows ambition, but still, it’s hard to imagine the ultras passing out sheet music in, say, the Holte End. (Am I the only one who always wants to add another e? Holte Ende looks so . . . quaint.)

“Listen to them singing!” the British announcers say, pausing their commentary so we can do just that, hear the fans in full throated glory as they sing . . . whatever is is they’re singing. To the uneducated American ear, too often it sounds like, “Whoa, whoa, wub wub wub . . . blargh . . . hooah!” I’m sure it’s majestic live, in the theater of soccer dreams, but it loses something when translated through the two-inch speakers of my TV.

Another impediment to understanding is the American fan’s lack of context—and context is everything, right? One of the appeals of European soccer is its rich tradition and history, but if you’re a new-ish fan who great up in, say, Montana, and you don’t know that the manager of the other team dove in the box when he played for the opposition during a decisive cup loss two decades earlier, it’s utterly baffling as to why he would be singled out for approbation the moment he reaches the touchline. Sometimes I find myself thinking like a cryptographer, imagining that, if only I could pick out a single word, the whole sequence would unlock itself.

Anyway, back to singing. I like singing. My sons don’t like my singing, but tough shit. They’re likely to be serenaded with anything that’s stuck in my ear, from Neil Diamond to “Black Diamond,” from Fountains of Wayne to Wayne Newton. (OK, I’m lying about Wayne Newton; I only used that for the neat symmetry. But I’m dead serious about Neil Diamond.) In my younger years, I spent a dozen years singing for probably two dozen bands, and, while I’ll probably never take the stage again, I find something euphoric about exercising my vocal chords.

Bloody Confused, by Chuck CulpepperWhen I began following the Premier League, I was fascinated and mystified by the chants and songs. What were the fans saying? Who started the songs—was there some kind of a conductor, or did each one start spontaneously, rising in volume as more and more voices joined in? Were the songs old or new? Did fans ever make up songs on the spot and, if so, how the hell did that work? I gained some insight from a great chapter in Chuck Culpepper’s entertaining book, Bloody Confused (which I really ought to reread), but very little insight into the Villa songs.

When I watched Aston Villa beat the Chicago Fire 1-0 at Toyota Field the summer before last, I could hear actual Villa fans singing actual Villa songs—but the fans were few, and they were on the other side of the park. Curses! Foiled again!

Brian Eno once read a wonderful essay as part of NPR’s “This I Believe” series, in which he talked about the physiological and psychological benefits of group a capella singing. For those of you who remember Eno as a platinum-dyed androgyne, it may be seem odd to invoke his name in the arena of sports, but I think it’s a perfect analogy. As Eno said:

“When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings—to stop being me for a little while and to become us.”

That’s a perfect description of what it feels like to be a fan. And it feels good to sing with other people, whether you choose “Keep on the Sunny Side,” as Eno suggests, or “Who the fuck are Man United?”

There is something that feels kind of ancient about singing a capella, singing in a crowd, something that recalls sailors at the oars and workers in the fields. Sadly, in the U.S., singing is an activity reserved for crap TV talent shows, where, alone under the spotlight, warbling would-be idols shit all over songs we know and love. And how often do you hear American men singing if they’re not in a cabaret? I say it’s time to reclaim public singing from the idols and the divas, to restore it to its rightful place as a manly and womanly act.

Villan Singing
A Fan With a Song in His Heart

At the fabled Gathering of the North American Villa Fan Clans last August, I finally had a lesson in singing. And I learned these things:

First of all, the melodies are not original. Which makes sense. If you want to suddenly strike up a tune with thousands of people from many different backgrounds joining in, the last thing you want is to have to hum the tune, or say, “No, it goes to an A-flat there.” So most, if not all, soccer songs are sung to recognizable tunes—or tunes that were recognizable when the lyrics were first coined. I’m sure there are 18-year-old fans who have never heard of the song “Guantanamera,” although they do know the notes. An interesting fact, and something I’d like to learn more about, is that many English fan songs are sung to melodies that originated in the Americas.

Secondly, the tunes are highly adaptable. The aforementioned “Guantanamera,” for example, makes frequent appearances in the canon of soccer songs. And, once Christian Benteke makes his inevitable transfer to a Champions League team, we’ll be using it for another player whose name breaks down into five syllables.

Lastly, some songs are invented on the spur of the moment, but this is rare: clearly, most of these tunes have been hanging around, in one form or another, for some time. Why so little in-the-moment invention? I can only surmise that it’s hard to make up clever things after your fifth pint of lager.

A Villan’s Songbook (As Understood by a Yank)

Oh Birmingham“: Yet another variation on the ever-popular “When the Saints Go Marching In,” this one is ruder than it seems if you don’t know the British meaning of “fanny.” (Although the clearly audible “tits” keeps it from seeming polite.)

A Villan About to Sing
The one on the left is about to start singing. The one on the right doesn’t know the words.

“Top of the League”: I confess I didn’t recognize this tune. And, clearly, it’s a song Villans aren’t used to singing. After we beat Arsenal in the season opener, and were, briefly, top of the league in more than just alphabetization, a fan near me asked another, “How does that top of the league song go?”

Yippie Yi Yay, Yippie Yi Yo“: ” . . . Holte Enders in the sky.” While we Americans clearly yearn for an older country’s sense of tradition, there’s a little bit of a trade going on here, with the co-option of an American song about the imagined Wild West making a transatlantic hop to give soccer fans a bit of rugged flair. It’s a fair swap.

Gabby Agbonlahor“: “Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Agbonlahor . . . he shoots, he scores, he shoots, he sco-o-o-ores.” Given his great speed and poor finishing, more often heard with the alternate ending of “he’s fast as fuck, he’s fast as fu-u-u-uck,” when he’s taken down by a panicked defender and awarded a free kick. What’s surprising about this one, once you get past the sheer surprise of hearing “Karma Chameleon” at a soccer game, is that a bunch of guys drunk on lager feel no compunction about bringing back a tune made popular by a mincing, androgynous pop star. Some might call that progress.

“Christian Benteke”: As discussed above, this is to the venerable tune of “Guantanamera.” So an unofficial anthem of communist Cuba celebrates the skill of a highly paid athlete competing in one of the world’s most commercialized, commodified sports leagues. It’s a funny game, innit?

Went to Rome to See the Pope“: I believe this is a song sung by Man City and Liverpool fans about Man United; however, as with all songs, it is adaptable and comes in handy when you see a morose table of supporters in Rooney shirts drowning their sorrows in beer. Borrows the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which itself borrowed the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

You Only Sing When You’re Winning“: Hands down, my favorite song, because of what it suggests: win or lose, we will sing for our team and inspire them to lift their heads up and carry on. It was especially fun to sing this at dejected Arsenal fans on the first day. Sadly, from the comfort of my comfy chair at home, I have seen many occasions where the fans at Villa Park fall silent when the lads fall behind. Let’s not be that guy . . .

Paul McGrath, My Lord“: OK, so this is one where the newbie American feels a bit like he needs to go to school. A tough center back who played 252 games over seven seasons for Villa, and who played brilliantly for some of the clubs best sides despite knee problems, this song, to the tune of “Kumbaya,” appears to celebrate his ability to play despite his ongoing weakness for alcohol.

Birmingham, Are You Listening?“: When I first heard this song (“We’re walking along / singing our song / shitting on the city as we go,” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland”), I imagined that it was some kind of hooligan anthem, a song sung by droogs as they streamed out of an away ground, laying waste to parked cars, bus stops, and shop windows as they merrily rioted their way to the train station. As it turns out, “the city” actually refers to “the City”—Birmingham City, one of three teams that can lay claim to Villan hatred (the others being West Brom and Wolves). So long as we’re metaphorically shitting on a team, not literally desecrating a municipality, I’ll withhold judgment.

Aston Villa v Tottenham Hotspur: My Preview

I would have expected this one to be a walk in the park until I heard that Spurs replaced their coach. Lasso is out, replaced by a guy named Andy or something. If he knows the offside rule, we could be in trouble.

Villan of the Week: Todd Butler

Todd Butler at the Aston Villa Motel
This really ought to be a worldwide chain of four-star hotels, right?

In person and on Facebook, Todd Butler is a bit of a cut-up, one of the only guys I know who can get away with referring to himself in the third person. (For example: “Todd is buzzing. Not because of alcohol but because of Villa’s three points! Todd has already emailed work saying Todd won’t be there Monday due to celebrations!!!”) Yet when asked to be my Villan of the Week, he presented a thoughtful side that is purely first-person. Get to know him, and, if you know any Villa supporters in his area, let him know!

The Starting Eleven

Where were you born, where do you live now, and what do you do for a living?

I was born and raised in Welland, Ontario, Canada. It’s about fifteen minutes from Niagara Falls. Apart from a couple of years in Ottawa for university I’ve lived in the area my whole life. I’m a truck driver. All local driving so I get home every night.

How and when did you choose Villa?

AVFCSOTCI ended up choosing Villa the way I chose all my sports teams: whoever was doing well and being televised at the moment. My dad loves sports but only had one true team love which was the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. He passed that on to me but all others were up to me. I watched the 1982 European Cup at my uncle’s via his satellite dish. If I was a couple years older I might have been a Nottingham Forest fan! You might say I’m the first glory hunter!

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

One of my happiest moments was during the F.A. Cup of 2012 when, at halftime, we were beating Arsenal 2-0. I was at the stadium and tried to call my dad just to explain the experience that I was having. He couldn’t hear a thing over all the singing and chanting that was going on. The happiest full time moment would be our 7-4 aggregate win over Blackburn to send us to the League Cup Final. Absolutely EPIC!!!

What was your most painful moment?

My most painful moment is a toss-up between the aforementioned Arsenal game, where we lost 3-2, and the League Cup Final loss to Manchester United. I was sitting in a pub across from Wembley that is owned by Black Danny and they ran out of beer. Most of the game Man U should have played with ten men.

Which team would you most like to see Villa beat this year?

Truthfully I’d like us to beat all the teams we’re supposed to but if I had to pick one I’d say Chelsea. They’ve hammered us too often of late.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

I know this is going to be a popular answer, but: Christian Benteke. To find a pure striker such as him is Paul Lambert’s best move ever.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Olof Mellberg

Martin Laursen

This is a toss up between Olof Mellberg and Martin Laursen. Both were pure quality for Villa and gave it their all. I had the privilege of being at Villa Park last year on a cold, rainy Tuesday night when Laursen showed up and the crowd wouldn’t, couldn’t, stop singing, “Give us a wave Martin, give us a wave.” We kept singing it and he kept waving.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

I rely on AVTV, Facebook, and Mat Kendrick on Twitter. I don’t tweet myself but he’s on top of everything to do with the club. I also read all the major London papers to see what they’re saying.

Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?

I would say my best quality is that I make the trip over to England twice a year to watch and support the boys in person. My worst quality is I expect too much against the lesser clubs and not enough against the bigger clubs.

Where do you usually watch games?

I would love to say I watch most of the games at the Oxley in Toronto, where the Toronto area supporters go. I do go there a few times a year. Unfortunately, since I’m a four-hour round-trip away from there, I watch the first half at home and the second half at my local pub, Ye Olde Squire. Ontario Liquor Laws say no alcohol until eleven a.m. That’s why I watch the first half at home.

What are you usually drinking?

At home I’m drinking Brava. At the pub I’m drinking Strongbow or whatever cider they have on tap.

Todd Butler
Todd enjoys a rare pint of beer (with Gzegory Cleve)

Extra Time

Finish this sentence: “Being a Villa supporter in Welland is like being a . . .”

. . . needle in a haystack. There are a lot of footy supporters around but most are Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool. I do know a couple of guys who support Newcastle and Leeds, though. I’d love to find other Villa fans in Niagara.

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