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American Born Villan

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

Month

December 2013

All I Wanted for Christmas Was a Few Good Games

Stoke City 2 – Aston Villa 1

Christmas travel didn’t go as well as it could have. On Friday evening, my wife, sons, and I found ourselves at a ticket counter in Chicago’s Midway airport, being assured by a trainee agent that we were certain to miss our connection in Denver. We could always go home and try again Sunday, she suggested cheerfully. As that would have meant missing my brother and sister-in-law’s cocktail party Saturday night at their home in Salt Lake City, my wife and I decided to be bold and board the plane. Given that air travel is seemingly governed by random chance, we decided to take the long odds that our second flight would be delayed as well.

Well, it departed ten minutes before we landed, leaving us and all the other Salt Lake City–bound passengers stranded for the night. Again we were offered a Sunday alternative, Salt Lake by way of Los Angeles, but again we declined. We got our tickets refunded, our baggage sent up to the carousel, and rented a car. Given our short ride on the Denver airport’s underground tram, we were now officially entering the land of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Or, you could argue, we were one one rental van and one polka band away from going Home Alone. (Either way, we were in John Candy territory . . . Candyland?)

We left Denver the next morning in dense fog, and I would spend much of the day white-knuckling it through unpredictable combinations of snow, black ice, blinding sun, blowing snow, and extreme elevation changes. We must have seen a half-dozen wrecks. And so, though my mind strayed occasionally to the game being played at the Britannia, it was most often on more important things, like delivering my family to the place where Brigham Young said, “This is the place”—alive.

Villans at the Britannia
Villans at the Britannia

Outside Buford, Wyoming (elevation 8,000 feet, population 1) my wife checked the score for me. When she told me the result—Stoke 2, Villa 1—I allowed myself a few modest expletives, bowdlerized for the young ears in the back seat, and then returned my attention to the road. I’d hoped we would give them a game and earn a point on the road. Stoke, after all, is the stereotypically difficult away game. And though the loss was disappointing, I reasoned that our streak of three losses in a row was merely a correction after our five-game unbeaten streak. And, surely, we would get back on track against the relegation-bound London team coming to visit on Boxing Day.

Aston Villa 0 – Crystal Palace 1

Nathan Baker and Howard Webb
Nathan Baker and Howard Webb

My brother doesn’t have cable, and due to my own unplanned change of cable providers back in Chicago, I found myself lacking the account number and password I needed to watch the NBC feed on my phone—so I turned to Twitter. If there’s a less enjoyable way to follow a game than by spending ninety minutes hunched over your phone, constantly refreshing your feed so you can learn about the botched chances and missed opportunities of a nil-nil draw via the sarcastic remarks of a seemingly random group of people who actually are watching it, let me know. Maybe if a nearsighted mumbler were reading the tweets for me?

As incensed as I was to be settling for A LOUSY POINT taken AT HOME against a team WHO SHOULD BE RELEGATED, still, it was a point—never hurts to get going in the right direction, right? But then, in the 92nd minute, this:

@AVFCOfficial: #AVFC 0-1 #CPFC - Goal to Palace. Dwight Gayle curls it past @BGuzan. #AVFCLIVE

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck.

At least my kids weren’t listening.

But, hey, two days from now, still time to salvage something against Swansea City, a team coming off two losses and two draws. Although I couldn’t help but think it would be safer to play them away . . . .

Aston Villa 1 – Swansea City 1

Home at last! After a late-night arrival, and some belated Christmas-present opening in the morning, I settled in to watch the game on my own couch with a strong cup of coffee. Nothing like a seventh-minute goal from Gabby to settle the nerves, right? Villa so often start strong, and so often have nothing to show for it—this was, after all, Villa’s first first-half goal at home this season—that I felt an unfamiliar feeling in my chest. It it wasn’t gas, and it wasn’t the first signs of cardiac failure . . . could it be hope? That, having at long last scored a goal, we might get, dare I say it? A second goal?

Brad Guzan wonders where it all went wrong
Brad Guzan wonders where it all went wrong

No, must have been gas. Or maybe I’m dead now and haven’t yet realized it. After their bright start, Villa again retreated, started giving the ball away, hoofing it desperately toward the only landmark visible on the visitors’ half of the field, Mount Kozak, only to see Swansea come roaring right back at them. In the end, we were lucky to get even a point, as the Swans were certainly better value for their money. Lamah’s goal in the 36th minute certainly didn’t seem as though it would be the last.

And there you have it: one point out of nine, with two of those games played at home. Against teams that currently sit 12th, 11th, and 17th. But then, what do you expect from a 13th-place team like Villa? Given a tweet I recently saw about Lerner’s spending being 15th in the Premier League, maybe we’re overperforming?

Reasons for Pessimism

Let’s just say passing, possession, shooting, creativity, leadership, management, and ownership and leave it at that for now.

Reasons for Optimism

I’m still working on this. Let me get back to you after New Year’s.

Villan of the Week: Nicole Ferguson

At Toyota Park for the friendly against the Chicago Fire (August 2012)
At Toyota Park for the friendly against the Chicago Fire (August 2012)

In getting to know last Friday’s Villan of the Week, Brian Hanna, I learned that his wife, Nicole Ferguson, has an extremely interesting Villa story of her own. (And no, I’m not taking sides as to which side of this team of two is the “better half”!) Villa supporters haven’t had anything to applaud this holiday week, so let’s give a cheer to those who really deserve it: the fans!

The Starting Eleven

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

I hail from Joliet, Illinois. I now live in New Lenox, Illinois, returning after six years in Brum following my marriage to last week’s Villan of the Week, Brian Hanna. I’m senior editor for a very small publishing company in the south suburbs.

How and when did you choose Villa?

Nik and Brian
Nik and Brian

Villa chose me. In 2006, I married into a family of dedicated Villa fans, including my husband, father-in-law, brother- and sisters-in-law. Bri and I met in Dublin Airport two weeks before Christmas in 2004. We’re both huge U2 fans and that was the major connection for us. We married in 2006 after a very long-distance courtship and I moved to the UK a week later. I attended my first match on New Year’s Eve 2005, at home against Arsenal, while I was visiting Brian over Christmas break. I was hooked immediately. The energy and atmosphere in the Holte End, where we stood, is like no other place on earth. The intensity is palpable.

Brian, Nik and girls in the Holte Pub for their youngest daughter's first birthday party
Brian, Nik and girls in the Holte Pub for their youngest daughter’s first birthday party

One day after fleeing a job in a publishing firm outside Birmingham that had driven me to the edges of misery, I interviewed for a temporary maternity cover position as sales coordinator in the Hospitality & Events department at AVFC. I got the job straight away (and found out two weeks later that I was pregnant myself—oops). But it was such an awesome fit that temporary turned into permanent, and I absolutely loved it there.

I miss those folks dearly; my Villa colleagues are some of my best mates now, and a couple have even made the journey all the way over to see us.

I also copyedited/proofread the matchday programmes for Rob Bishop in Mar/Comms (before they outsourced it; it’s now a subpar publication, in my opinion, because it doesn’t have the personal touch that it used to have), as well as the marketing publications for H&E. In addition, I worked matchday hospitality in the Holte Pub and the Directors Suite. Doug Ellis used to comment on how short I am every time he’d walk in. That was a sweet gig because we’d get to see the high and mighty of the celebrity circuit prance about!

In the Trinity Road stand with our eldest daughter during her first match in 2011I am terribly proud to have worked for Villa and will always feel like I’m still part of that family. One of the greatest perks was the free season ticket—two, actually. Bri had one and his dad had the other, and every once in a while, I got to go, too!

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Nik and Brian's eldest finds the real action at Villa Park: coloring at mommy's desk
Nik and Brian’s eldest finds the real action at Villa Park: coloring at mommy’s desk

Taking my eldest daughter to her first match in 2011 when she was three years old. She had a blast—met Hercules, had chips and curry sauce with her daddy and grandad, the works. She made it through the whole first half, which we didn’t expect, and then went up to my office to color at my desk for the second half. It felt like an initiation, a rite of passage. Villa has always been such a large part of our family life that it was important for Bri and I to take her there to show her firsthand what a matchday is like.

What was your most painful moment?

My last day at work before moving back to the States. It was the same day that the news of Stan’s illness was announced, and it broke my heart. The atmosphere within the whole club was very somber that day. Second to that would be the day Martin O’Neill left us in the lurch. I had such indefatigable faith in him as a leader and he truly let me down that August day.

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

The same as every year: Man United. Although, admittedly, Ferguson’s departure and their subsequent suckitude has taken some of the shine off a potential victory over them.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

I’d have to go with Benteke. How many times has the guy saved our bacon?!

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Stiliyan PetrovI’ve always had a soft spot for Petrov. He is such a stand-up guy and his heart and soul were always in the game, even when the productivity might have been lacking. He was a solid leader and I’ll always miss his presence on the pitch.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

Once upon a time, it was the office! But these days, I have to settle for avfc.co.uk and Facebook.

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

Brian and Nik at Wrigley Field (September 2013)
Brian and Nik at Wrigley Field (September 2013)

I grew up a die-hard Cubs fan. Failure is a way of life that you learn to embrace. As a result, you never expect greatness—although you live in perpetual hope. I still reflect with glee on the glory days of finishing sixth in the table under O’Neill. However, life as a Cubs fan has also embedded a fierce loyalty in me; no matter how crap they are, Villa is still my team and I still love them despite the poor performances and threats of falling into the abyss that is the lower leagues. I’ve often noted that football fans can be a fickle lot; they could do with some Cubfandommery.

Where do you usually watch games?

Matches are generally on in the background at home when they’re televised, but our kids are 5 and 3—there’s no chance in hell that both of us are going to get the chance to watch an entire match uninterrupted. And I do try to stay awake for MoTD on Saturday nights, but that’s generally an exercise in futility. I’ve been to the Globe a couple of times and would love to get up there more, but it’s tricky with the kids—we have to leave quite early in the morning to get to the pub, and it involves having to drop the kids with family the night before.

What are you usually drinking?

At the Globe, coffee typically morphs into cider sometime around the second half.

Extra Time

If Villa were a band, which one would they be?

UB40. Birmingham staple. People either love ’em or hate ’em. Line-ups change, but they’re always around.

Villan of the Week: Brian Hanna

Brian Hanna
At Toyota Park for the friendly against the Chicago Fire (August 2012)

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that the Villans of the Week run the gamut, from a Canadian who usually cheers alone to a native Southerner who founded Florida’s first Lions Club—from fans with little history to fans with lots of it. And, every now and then, we even profile someone who grew up in Birmingham and followed the team of his father. (Before global TV, that would have been practically every Villa fan, right?) So, this week, meet Brian Hanna, a guy I met at the Globe and who clearly knows the words to the songs. (Click here for a picture of Brian demonstrating his vocal prowess.)

And stay tuned for next Friday, when you’ll get to know Brian’s wife, Nik—making them the first married Villans of the Week!

The Starting Eleven

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

I was born in London UK in 1971 of Irish parents. After moving between Ireland and the UK for a couple of years, we finally settled in Birmingham in 1975. I moved to New Lenox, Illinois, in 2012—my wife is originally from there. I work for an aluminum company, making large tool boxes for trucks.

globe1
At the Globe for Villa v Newcastle with wife Nik (center), Becky Starkey (left), and Hayley Lingard (right)–the latter two Nik’s former colleagues in AVFC’s Hospitality and Events Department

How and when did you choose Villa?

With father Bernard, brother Andrew, and eldest daughter before her first match at Villa Park (aka "Mommy's work")
With father Bernard, brother Andrew, and eldest daughter before her first match at Villa Park (aka “Mommy’s work”)

I came to be a Villa fan like most other people, I guess. Villa were the team my dad started following when we moved to Birmingham in the 1970s. My first game was a League Cup tie in September 1978 against Sheffield Wednesday. Villa won 1-0 and I spent the game watching through the gap in the fences at the front of the Holte End.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

That would be the 1994 League Cup Final. Me and my sister had managed to get tickets and it was Villa’s first Cup Final appearance since 1977 v Everton. We were playing Manchester United, who were chasing the treble, so Villa fans turned up thinking they were going to enjoy the day out—amazingly, we beat the mighty Reds 3-1 that day. It’s just an amazing experience to see your team win at Wembley, and I’ll never forget it.

What was your most painful moment?

With sister Sandra and father Bernard at Wembley in 2010
With sister Sandra and father Bernard at Wembley in 2010

The FA Cup final against Chelsea—the last Cup Final at the old Wembley. Villa had beaten Leeds, Everton, and Bolton in the semifinal (also at Wembley) on their way to Final. I think our hopes were high. Benito Carbone had been a star for us, including an amazing goal in a 3-2 win over Leeds in an earlier round. But the final was one of the worst in living memory, Gregory’s Villa never turned up and we lost 1-0 to Chelsea. The feeling on coach on the way home was awful, such a missed opportunity to win the FA Cup.

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

It’s always nice to beat Man United, but I think this season I’d love to beat Liverpool. I never really disliked them in the past, but just recently they have gotten under my skin, mainly due to Luis Suarez, a great talent but a horrible person.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Christian BentekeMy favorite player from the current team would be Christian Benteke, the Beast. His goals pretty much kept us up last season. He’s such a big, strong, powerful, and fast centre forward, when he’s on there’s no stopping him. When “Seven Nation Army” comes on the radio at work, to my coworkers’ amusement, I burst into song: “Oohhh, Christian Benteke!”

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Paul McGrathIt has to be Paul McGrath, GOD, number 5. He had two bad knees and didn’t train much but what a defender! His reading of the game was unbelievable. He also liked a pint or two, a hero on the Holte to this day. They still sing about him.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

The Villa website or BBC, or just floating around the Villa pages on Facebook. There are always people on there keeping you up to date.

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

romatchMy best quality is that I’m passionate about my team, and even moving 4,000 miles away from Villa Park hasn’t changed that. I’ve always backed the team, even during the bad times under O’Dreary and McLeish, and I would never boo them even when we stunk the place out. My worst quality is when we lose, it kinda spoils my weekend and I can be hard to be around when I’m like that. I remember one game when we threw away a 4-1 lead away at Spurs to draw 4-4, going down the garden to kick the shed in anger.

Where do you usually watch games?

Chicago VillansWhen I can, as a member of the Chicago supporters club, I try to get to the Globe to watch the Villa games, but it involves a 100-mile round trip and I don’t get up as often as I would like.

What are you usually drinking?

My choice of drink is either Magners Irish cider or a pint of the black stuff, Guinness.

Extra Time

If the Premier League table were a restaurant menu, which item of food would Aston Villa be?

Stodgy mash potatoes that weigh down your tummy and make it hard for you to get up.

Brian's eldest in her very first Villa kit (this photo appeared in the matchday programme for Villa v Sunderland in September 2008)
Brian’s eldest in her very first Villa kit (this photo appeared in the matchday programme for Villa v Sunderland in September 2008)
Brian's youngest enjoys classic British cuisine in her Villa kit
Brian’s youngest enjoys classic British cuisine in her Villa kit
Brian's eldest at her first Villa match in September 2011
Brian’s eldest at her first Villa match in September 2011
The Hanna girls ready for sports day at school
The Hanna girls ready for sports day at school
Brian's first tour of Villa Park, with his expecting wife and his sister-in-law
Brian’s first tour of Villa Park, with his expecting wife and his sister-in-law

Aston Villa 0 – Manchester United 3: Ashley Young Didn’t Even Have to Dive

Christ, Villa can be a frustrating team. They came out looking brilliant, pinned the Red Devils back, got a couple of shots on target, nothing amazing, but still, still, for a moment, you could believe that this would be the day when Villa Park would once again become a fortress, when we would once again show everyone we’re headed in the right direction—that, on our day, we can beat anybody, even a mid-table team on a poor run of form, even the second-best team in the city of Manchester missing some of their most formidable players.

Danny Welbeck scores his first
…and there it goes…in the back of the net.

And then, against the run of play, in the fifteenth minute, Danny Welbeck put one in. And then, a mere three minutes later, he put another one in. And, unlike the many games where we’ve come from behind, or fought hard and stayed in it, we were just out of it. You could tell it was over, that a third goal for the visitors was more likely than a goal from us. I found myself hoping not for a win, not for a draw, but for Benteke to get a goal, one lousy miserable goal, to give us a sign that he might pick up the team and carry them as he did last year.

Not a chance.

I had made it to the Globe in time this week (yes, I set my alarm), and was gratified to see about 10 Villans, all wearing the colors, a much stronger and more unified turnout than the Man United fans scattered around the pub (I counted three red shirts). Though our spirits fell too soon, Chairman Simon lifted them again with gifts of Villa swag (including poster books for my sons) while, against one wall, wrapped presents under a twinkling tree awaited distribution to the Lurie Children’s Hospital. The gift drive is a combined effort of the Villa, Man City, and Arsenal supporters, all of whom meet at the Globe, their cooperation a reminder that some things are a lot more important than the score of a single game. Also discussed was the news that Villa owner Randy Lerner had gifted a million pounds to Acorns, keeping the team’s bond to the children’s hospice strong as ever. (Many of the newer, American Villa supporters have cited this as one of the reasons they were originally attracted to the team.)

As I devoured my F.E.B. (Full English Breakfast) and washed it down with a pint of Robert the Bruce, however, I couldn’t help but make a Christmas wish for myself—for six points in Villans’ stockings, come the end of Boxing Day.

Reasons for Pessimism

How long have you got? Since our hard-fought victory away to West Brom, we’ve lost away to Fulham and at home to Man United, giving up five unanswered goals in two games. We look porous at the back, clueless in midfield, and toothless up front. Even our go-go guys, Gabby and Andi, haven’t been causing problems for the other teams’ defenses. Losing early, we still sat back, letting them hold the ball. At the pub, Villans were growing for blood. None of us would have minded losing if we had seen our team really fight for it, sending the visitors home with a few bruises as souvenirs of their trip to Villa Park. Gabby’s late-game barge of De Gea notwithstanding, we never threatened in any way.

For the second time this season, Guzan gave up a goal when holding his ground against a striker—when he arguably should have moved forward, closing the angle, maybe even winning the ball from his feet. (Not that he should have been put in that position in the first place.)

We just failed to execute fundamentals. As Liverpool-Tottenham got under way, Andrew Grant offered wry commentary that just about summed it up: “Look, the guys on their team are all wearing the same shirts, so they know who to pass to . . . Look! On that corner, each of the defenders marked one of the players on the opposing team!”

Reasons for Optimism

The defense was weak, but we were missing Vlaar, who would have helped. And Herd impressed the previous week, too. If he hadn’t picked up an injury in training, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him starting again, and it might have made a difference.

We were also without Delph, who would surely have helped win some midfield battles.

Albrighton was a bright spot, albeit a lonely one. He worked hard, ran at defenders, and tried some interesting balls that didn’t quite work—but could have. I hope he gets another start.

Luna, despite whatever weaknesses he may possess, has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like that.

Shit match,sorry to the villa fans!!!

When the season is over, no matter how Villa played or the way we felt about them while they were doing it, the season will be judged on the numbers: goals scored, games won, and our position in the table. Last year, after 16 games, we had 15 points, were in 17th place, and had a goal differential of -13. This year, after 16 games, we have 19 points and are in 11th place with a differential of -5. Our next four games are Stoke (away), Crystal Palace (home), Swansea (home), Sunderland (away). Even given our maddeningly inconsistent form, it’s entirely conceivable that we could start the new year with another 6 or 7 points. And, so long as we’re better than last year, we’re headed in the right direction.

James Richardso…

James Richardson: Who’s your upset tip? There’s always an upset, there’s always a Stoke beating chelsea.

Barry Glendenning: I’d say Villa to beat Man U.

James Richardson: And I’m not even sure that still counts as an upset.

Football Weekly Extra, December 12, 2013

“We want to get…

“We want to get back to winning and there’s no better place to go than Villa Park on Sunday and hopefully get another three points .”

—Ashley Young, providing perfect bulletin-board material to inspire the current members of his former team (quoted in the Birmingham Mail)

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