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American Born Villan

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

Month

November 2013

“I will not lie…

“I will not lie. Tonight’s game made our Super Bowl seem like the Little League World Series. The place was crazed throughout the game. My ears are still ringing, and the game is over for more than an hour. I never heard a crowd scream so loud in my life.”

—Spike Lee, after attending the Copa do Brasil final between Flamengo and Atletico-PR at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium (via SoccerAmerica, via Globoesporte.com)

Villan of the Week: Donal Neligan

Donal Neligan at . . . where else?
Donal Neligan at . . . where else?

Donal Fitzmaurice Neligan is another Villan I’ve never met in person. But when you find yourself running into someone on Facebook, sometimes it’s almost as if you can forget that you haven’t really met. And when I read this premier piece of punditry, I thought it was high time to make him Villan of the Week. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s vice chairman, soon to be chairman, of the New York City Lions Club.)

The Starting Eleven

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

I was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to New York City nearly eleven years ago. I manage software engineers when I’m not running the New York Villans.

How and when did you choose Villa?

Photobombing the trophy with the funny handles
Photobombing the trophy with the funny handles

It was my seventh birthday and I had recently become consumed by the game following the Mexican World Cup. One of my brothers cornered me and asked me to pick a team. Back then I could only name a handful due to Match of the Day being past my bedtime. My first two choices, Liverpool and Arsenal, were shot down, with the threat of a beating, by my Man United–loving brother. But he couldn’t find anything bad to say about my third choice, Aston Villa, so he accepted it under one condition: that if I was to ever change my mind, he’d kick the crap out of me. In retrospect, a beating might have been worth it, given the years of misery that were to follow.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Surviving relegation in 1995 at the expense of Crystal Palace. When I saw the scores come in on the BBC, I dashed outside and for the first and last time in my life I attempted a somersault. Landed on my arse and laughed like a maniac. To think we enjoyed the magical penalty shootout win against Inter earlier that season before complete collapse and the sacking of Big Ron . . . .

Other magnificent moments included Savo opening the scoring in the 1996 League Cup final, the 1994 final win over United, and the more recent game against Everton where Lescott equalized in the 92nd minute only for Ashley Young to snag the winner. Half the lads in the pub that day trotted off to the toilet dejected and missed the actual goal.

Shane Long stabs us in the heart with this beautiful, beautiful goal (the bastard)
Shane Long stabs us in the heart with this beautiful, beautiful goal (the bastard)

What was your most painful moment?

Waking up in a resort in Hawaii and suddenly getting a flood of messages on my phone informing me of Alex McLeish’s appointment. Also as I was typing this Shane Long just scored the opener in the Villa Brom match. Fuck my life.

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

Usually Man United but, with Fergie gone, that scalp has lost a lot of its appeal. So I’ll take Chelsea since we were robbed against them at the start of the season.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Brad Guzan. I wrote him off a couple of seasons back and by god has he proven me wrong, taking his weaknesses and turning them into strengths. Fantastic keeper.

God
God

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Paul McGrath for both Ireland and Villa. The term “different class” gets overused a lot but in God’s case it’s an understatement.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

It used to be message boards but these days Twitter is king. In terms of websites, I generally go with the BBC and The Guardian and try to avoid the utter drivel that is The Bleacher Report. Follow me @NewYorkVillans.

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

Talking tactics with the gaffer
Talking tactics with the gaffer

My best quality is patience. I always give players and manager the benefit of the doubt and a chance to impress before I slate them (yes, even McLeish). My worst quality is naiveté. I keep thinking it’s going to get better and this is our season to get back in the reckoning, only to repeatedly have my still-beating heart torn from my chest and flushed.

Where do you usually watch games?

With the rest of the New York Villans in The Football Factory downstairs at Legends Bar and Grill (33rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues), directly opposite the Empire State Building. If you ever come to NYC or know any Villa fans living in or visiting our town, send them down to us. Always a lively group of Villa-loving ex-pats and natives moaning and drinking.

What are you usually drinking?

Guinness or cider. Vodka-and-soda if I’m already hungover.

Extra Time

What is the best book you have read, or film you have seen, about the sport?

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinnissThe best book was The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss, an American journalist who traveled to Italy and embedded himself with a small team who, through a set of bizarre circumstances, had found themselves in Serie B. Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink (otherwise known as The Newer Testament) comes in a close second.

Best film is easy: I.D., loosely based upon James Bannon, a policeman who infiltrated Millwall’s firms during some of the roughest days of football hooliganism. Unlike the football-violence flick staring Frodo Baggins and the other rubbish, I.D. is quite good. Closely following it is The Damned United [Editor’s note: damned good film!] but after that there’s really bugger all in the way of quality football films beyond that. Although I do have a good one in mind—I just need to write the script some fine day . . . .

Please Give! Christmas Toy Drive for Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago

The Aston Villa, Arsenal, and Manchester City supporters’ groups in Chicago are teaming up with the Globe Pub for a toy drive to benefit Lurie Children’s Hospital. Whether or not you live in Chicago, and no matter which team you support, please consider making a contribution. Details below, as provided by Simon Leach, Chicago Lions Chairman.

It’s here folks. I have the details for the Christmas toy drive (in cooperation with The Globe and Arsenal/ Manchester City Supporters groups). As previously advised we will be donating to Lurie Children’s Hospital here in Chicago, and there are four options to make it easy for even our non-Chicago based friends to donate:

1. You can buy a gift and bring it to the Globe on match day,
2. You can buy a gift online (amazon.com for example) and have it shipped directly to the Globe,
3. You can donate money online via our specific “Just Give” donation site that will go directly to the charity, or
4. Hand me a donation on match day and we will pool all donations and purchase gifts with the proceeds.

Details of the specific gifts Lurie is looking for can be found in the attached flyer, however if you have any questions please let me know.

We will be delivering the gifts at 10 on 12/21 after our game that day and may need help transporting them to the hospital so if anyone can volunteer to drive that would also be greatly appreciated. Cash donations will be accepted up until December 30.

Finally check out the video Victoria (Man City) put together…

Toy Drive 1Toy Drive 2

Aston Villa at West Brom: Derby Day, Part Two

Shortly after my Monday post (“Aston Villa at West Brom: Derby Day”) went live, I got a phone call from my dad in Montana, telling me that my sweet, 99-year-old grandmother Laura had died. I was at work, so I shut down my computer and went home, needing some time with my thoughts, not wanting to put on a false front for my coworkers when I was feeling so glum.

My grandmother, Laura Graff, circa 1932 or 1933
My grandmother, Laura Graff, circa 1932 or 1933.

The death of someone nearly a century old can’t really be called unexpected, and yet it can take you by surprise. Just the day before I had spoken at length with my dad, both of us agreeing that, as much as neither of us wanted to hasten it, death might be a mercy. She had lost her husband, Dave, more than a year earlier. And though she soldiered on physically despite many health setbacks of her own, in recent weeks and months she had lost first her memory, then her words, and, finally, her ever-present smile. As she became less and less the woman we knew and remembered, it felt as though her spirit was taking a long, slow leave from her body.

Just a few days earlier, my dad had called me and held up the phone to her ear so I could tell her I loved her. I said some other things besides, telling her how much I missed her, how I hoped I would see her again soon. She seemed to perk up a bit, he said, but if she wanted to tell me something in return, I never heard it.

Laura was, simply, one of the sweetest, kindest, most patient people I have ever known. Though her minister husband struggled to reconcile his rigid beliefs with her grandsons’ teenage rebellion, she took it all in stride, overlooking earrings, long hair, and a band named Damning Flaw—she even came to several shows. She loved unconditionally and, because of that, we loved her back unconditionally.

Unexpectedly finding myself at home on a Monday afternoon, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I am a highly scheduled person, always busy, becoming too unaccustomed to free time. I needed something to do. So, with my wife’s parents coming the next day, I cleaned the bathroom. Not much of a tribute (Laura was, for all her wonders, a poor cook and an even worse housekeeper), but I needed something to keep me occupied. I was still processing the news, starting to grieve but unable to give in.

Then it occurred to me, instead of watching the derby that evening, or that night, I could watch the derby live—a thought I shook off at first. Watching a game at a time like this? Someone I loved very much had died, and I was already thinking about soccer?

But, I countered, if sports don’t exist to distract us, to let us defer our cares and worries—to even, at times, postpone thoughts of mortality—why do they exist?

Maybe it was a cheap rationalization, but I turned on the game. I watched as, in the third and eleventh minutes, Shane Long gave the Baggies a two-goal lead. The first goal, despite the abrupt injury it dealt us, was so magnificent it was hard to even hate it. Then again, I was numb. And I think I would have been equally numb had Benteke done the scoring for us.

I think that, in my mind, once I committed to watching the game, despite a feeling of embarrassment at doing so, I was already writing this post in my head, basing my narrative on a Villa win, with a conclusion about how something as meaningless as a soccer game can have meaning, can be a balm to a chafed soul, or some other cliched excuse for insight.

And, down two-nil at halftime, when I was darkly convinced that we would lose, I thought about how misplaced such grandiosity was, how the fan’s attempt to bargain with or draw meaning from results makes a mockery of our hopes. In the end, a team of highly paid professionals will perform as well as they can, or as poorly as they are wont to, and our psychic investment pays a dividend or a loss with the same hard illogic of the real-life stock market. I felt worse than I had before I turned on the game: disappointed in myself for watching, foolish for hoping, and the garden-variety fan’s misery at watching his team lose.

Of course, I didn’t turn off the TV. I stayed on the couch as the early-winter Chicago sky grew darker outside my windows.

The team didn’t look much better after the half. They’d had chances early on, with the free-shooting Tonev even putting one on target, but Bacuna’s careless ball to gift the second goal seemed to have shell-shocked the team. It seemed possible Villa might sneak a goal, but even more likely that West Brom would add a third. But then, with a half hour left to play, Lambert readied his substitutions—Gabby, Andi, and Delph—and I felt it. Hope.

And El Ahmadi, frequent subject of my frustration, scored a goal. And Westwood chose the perfect moment to score his first ever for Villa. And I thought we might win, and I was urging them on, these highly paid athletes who don’t know I exist, with every molecule of my being.

And the game ended a draw, which, after the way the game started, felt like a victory. I can’t imagine any Baggies fans were happy with a point.

And the game was over, and my euphoria faded, and I realized that I had spent forty-five minutes without missing Laura. That didn’t worry me—I’ll never forget her, and I’ll always miss her. It was darker still outside, and my gloom returned. But the game was a consolation, a welcome distraction. Watching it didn’t offer any deep life lessons, but it was enough.

I turned off the set and went back to cleaning.

Aston Villa at West Brom: Derby Day

An American Explains Derbies for Americans without Using “Um,” “Like,” or “You Know”

For the uninitiated, a derby is a game between two neighboring teams. (It’s also pronounced “darby,” unless you’re talking about horses in Kentucky.) Some the most famous derbies take place between teams such as Liverpool and Everton (whose stadiums are less than a mile apart), Rangers and Celtic (two Glasgow teams that embody the spiritual derby between Protestants and Catholics), AC Milan and Inter Milan (where the teams share the same stadium, San Siro, meaning that every derby is both home and away), and Boca Juniors and River Plate (two Buenos Aires teams who duke it out in the so-called “Superclasico”).

Handbags out!
Handbags out!

Barcelona and Real Madrid don’t have a true derby—their stadiums are nearly 400 miles distant—but the intense rivalry between the two cities, and a Catalonia-versus-Spain dynamic that goes back centuries (and reached its nadir during the reign of Franco), certainly make the contest worthy of derby status. Watch an “El Clasico,” and you’ll see so many players rolling around on the ground that you’ll think the war never ended.

Aston Villa is blessed with an abundance of derbies, due to the number of well-supported teams in the Birmingham area. This is convenient, as Villa’s rivals tend to get relegated with some frequency; having more than one to choose from ensures Villa are more likely to have at least one home-and-away Premier League derby—and, in some seasons, as in 2010-11, three.

Gabby stands up to Jonas Olsson
Gabby stands up to Jonas Olsson

There’s the fixture they play today, at West Bromwich Albion (West Brom or “The Baggies“—hey, it used to be “The Throstles”). A game against Wolverhampton Wanderers (usually just “Wolves”) would also be a derby—given that Wolves are currently playing in the euphemistically named League One (i.e., the third division of the professional English soccer), that’s unlikely to happen soon. Another derby would take place against what seems to be Villans’ most-hated rival, Birmingham City (“The Blues”) . . . although calling them a “rival” seems to give them a bit more credit than they deserve, as they’re currently plumbing the lower depths of the so-called Championship (i.e., second division).

A derby is instantly recognizable to any American sports fan as a crosstown rivalry, although, because most American cities tend to have only one team in any professional sport, these tend to take place more at the high school level. College sports are probably where rivalries are most intense in America: Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Oregon-Oregon State, and the list goes on and on.

There are, of course, major rivalries in pro sports—Bears-Packers, Cubs-Cardinals, and Blackhawks-Red Wings are the big ones in Chicago, where I live, and Yankees-Red Sox and Cowboys-Redskins come quickly to mind—but the sheer, staggering distance between American cities tends to cool some of the heat.

For the American fan, it’s hard to imagine the intense, generations-old animosity that accompanies these derbies, the hatred and violence that sometimes go along with them. Then again, in places where the fighting is, or has been, real, it’s not hard to see how the teams become surrogates doing battle on behalf of their fans.

MLS has, of course, imported a lot from European soccer to the U.S., starting with the awkward grafting of team names: Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, Chivas USA. And while some rivalries have grown organically—L.A. Galaxy-San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers—we’re still finding our feet on this whole derby thing. Somehow, the Chicago Fire and F.C. Dallas have been judged to be rivals, annually contesting the “Brimstone Cup.” But, given that more than 900 miles separate the two cities, a game against Dallas is likely to bring only a few dozen stalwart fans to Toyota Park, their presence made more notable by the empty seating around them. Hardly a derby atmosphere. The Fire’s more natural rivals are the Columbus Crew, who are nearer, but it’s certainly no Villa-West Brom.

Chris Herd gets a leg up on Liam Ridgewell
Chris Herd gets a leg up on Liam Ridgewell

Historically, Villa have gotten the better of the Baggies, with 4 wins, 2 losses, and 6 draws—although, in the last 5 meetings, it’s not as pretty a picture, with 3 draws and 2 wins for the Baggies. As of this morning, they’re currently level on points, 14 each, although West Brom is 11th, and Villa 12th, having scored one less goal so far this season. On form, West Brom is 8th (W D D L W D) and Villa 11th (W D L L D W). All things being equal, I (and, I suspect, most Villa supporters) would be happy with bringing home a point from the Hawthorns.

And what will the atmosphere be when I watch? I’ll be a long way from the heated derby atmosphere. I’ll be at work, and will turn off my Twitter feed and go off Facebook in hopes of avoiding the result while my DVR whirs silently at home. And, if I succeed in negotiating a complex variety of real-life tasks (kids, shopping, cleaning the bathroom for our Thanksgiving guests who arrive tomorrow), I’ll sneak off to the Globe to watch the delayed game with Simon and another guy or two—instead of watching it much later, alone, wishing I were there in the stands.

Villan of the Week: Rick Edwards

Rick EdwardsI met Rick Edwards last August, at the now legendary gathering of the North American Villans in Chicago. At the Friday night friendly before Villa’s now even more legendary win over Arsenal, Rick was the guy standing on the sidelines, displaying a dry wit as the game unrolled—I mean, unfolded. (But look at this photo and you’ll see why I might have used the wrong word.) At any rate, to me, Rick epitomizes the ex-pat Villans I’ve met: despite his deep knowledge and lifelong support of the team, he’s never one to pull rank, and warmly welcomes newer fans like myself to the fold. Villans—best fans in the world!

The Starting Eleven

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

I was born in Tewkesbury (about 40 miles from Villa Park) and moved to Chicago in 1986. I settled in New Buffalo, Michigan, a year later, where I met my wife, Brenda. New Buffalo is a resort town on Lake Michigan, about an hour across the lake from Chicago. I am a builder/contractor and have been in the trades since I left school. I enjoy the job and the satisfaction of looking at something I created.

Rick and Brenda Edwards
Rick and Brenda Edwards

How and when did you choose Villa?

My dad Pete was a massive Villa fan and he ran office bus trips to Midlands games—Villa away to Albion, Villa at Wolves, but NEVER to Blues! He gave me his cup final ticket in 1975 vs Norwich and I have been hooked ever since! He always said it was worth giving his ticket up. I was a season-ticket holder from late 1970s on and we had a bus from Tewkesbury to all home games. A friend of Dad’s (Jeff Price) was a steward on the Holte End so I would hitchhike to some mid-week games and catch a ride home with him.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

My happiest moment has to be that day in Rotterdam when we were crowned European Champions (although I watched the game at home with my best bud, Dave Gibbs, and quite a few beers). A close second, though, was the second replay of the 1977 League Cup Final—singing through the streets of Manchester, surrounded by Villans, was amazing. And that Chris Nicholl goal! I was behind that goal and it still gives me shivers watching it. And I must mention the North American Villans meet-up in Chicago as well, meeting so many of the Villa family and beating Arsenal was special indeed!

What was your most painful moment?

The 8–0 loss to Chelsea. I sat with my nephew Jake, and watching it was pure pain.

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

Chelsea! Without a doubt. I remember them as a nothing London club with crowds less than 20,000, and then the Abramovich money came in and football as I knew it was ruined. Glory hunters wearing shirts of teams they have never watched or will ever watch in person is the norm—yes, I hate Chelsea!

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Fabian Delph. I have always loved seeing a midfielder that runs at the opposition.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Brian LittleI’ve had lots of favorites through the years, Chico Hamilton being the first. Brian Little would probably be my all-time favorite, though—I was at his debut game. And a special mention to Alex Cropley, who was as good as anybody, but his career came to an end due to a shocking tackle by Ally Brown of West Brom. I was there and the atmosphere was hostile to say the least after that!

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

Facebook, the Aston Villa Loyal Fan page is one I check daily for some good discussion (mostly level headed). And News Now Aston Villa is very good with constant updates. Also Mat Kendrick on Twitter.

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

With nephew Jake and brother Craig
With nephew Jake and brother Craig

I would say a 9.5 only losing the .5 because I can not be there in person. I did drive the five-and-a-half hours to Columbus, and went to Chicago with nephew Jake and my brother Craig.

Worst quality is the distance to Villa Park (Jake will be there for Palace and Swansea, though) and the fact I can be a miserable bastard (so I’ve been told) when we lose.

Where do you usually watch games?

I usually watch at home, thanks to the new NBC deal—no more dodgy streams!
But I try and get to The Globe to meet up with the Villa family that keeps getting bigger, I’m proud to say.

Flying the flag in Chicago
Flying the flag in Chicago

What are you usually drinking?

Any decent cider. I’ve also been known to drink a few High Lifes due to them fitting my budget perfectly.

Extra Time

What is the funniest thing you have ever seen happen during a game?

Probably Chris Nicholl scoring all 4 goals in a 2–2 draw against Leicester City. But we did have fun meeting Athletico Bilbao fans and the bags of wine they carried with them!

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