Imagine this post begins with a string of blood-curdling, hair-raising epithets, the kind of blue language that would get your email notification hung up in even the most inattentive spam filter. That’s for not scoring at home. Against Sunderland, for crying out loud. And now that’s out of the way….
I took a cab to the Globe so I wouldn’t miss kickoff. I needn’t have bothered. I arrived with a few minutes to spare but, as nine o’clock came and went, the DIRECTV logo continued to bounce lazily across a dozen screens. The Arsenal-Cardiff game came on a couple of them, and the Gooners in the front room cheered an early effort, but for the ten or so Villans in the back room, and the two sheepish Sunderland fans, no joy. The waitress fiddled with the remote, apologized, and, while she went to call the owner, hands went into pockets and began a frantic effort to stream the game on smartphones.
Different phones displayed the game at different moments, bringing the fear that one table would see something happen a full minute before another. Phone-holders compared notes and, in at least one instance, happiness at connecting to the wifi was mistaken for a Villa goal. Finally, in the twelfth minute, the game game on, the video looking a bit like an 8-bit video game, and, one by one, the phones, and their competing audio tracks, were put to sleep. Our waitress gave a sincere apology and bought us a round—merely one reason why the Globe has such loyal patrons.
The video quality, and our trouble accessing it, caused Simon, our fearless leader, to reminisce about how much more difficult it once was to watch games, back when he first came Stateside. For years, expats have contended with “dodgy streams,” intermittent satellite feeds, and meaningful games that simply aren’t televised in the U.S. Today’s jerky, halting video, comments Simon, is still so much better than it used to be. NBC getting the broadcast rights, he concluded, is “the best thing that ever happened” for Premier League fans.
I can relate to a small extent. Only after I’d proudly chosen Villa as my team, based on a few handfuls of games, did I realize how hard it would be to actually watch them. Naively, I’d thought they were on TV all the time—I’d seen them play against Chelsea, against Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool. Unfortunately, the powers that be did not deem Villa-Blackburn Rovers equally worthy of American eyeballs. And early-round, mid-week Cup ties against League One sides? Forget about it. Why, Andrew Grant and I had once sat in this very room to watch Villa, cheek to jowl with a roomful of Arsenal supporters, craning our necks to keep an eye on a dodgy stream on a tiny screen in the corner. Even worse, at home, I often resorted to watching the minute-by-minute on the official Villa site, reading the game in one-sentence increments.
So I feel I’ve earned a couple of stripes, anyway.
Anyway, though the poor video lent a slightly unreal quality, I could see well enough to tell it was a dire game, just awful. We razzed the two Sunderland supporters a little bit, and they were good-natured enough, but, despite their pitiful position near the bottom of the table, we didn’t look much better than them. Villa were lacking flow and creativity, and once again, they looked as though they’d rather be playing anywhere but Villa Park.
It may have been a dire game, but what mades it worthwhile was the company: I watched the first half at a table with Simon Leach (chair of the Chicago Lions), Kat Stewart, Mike Reed (this coming Friday’s Villan of the Week, and a newly minted Lions Club chair himself), and a pleasant Brummie named Michael—who, as father of year-old twin girls, was probably enjoying his bangers and mash and beer with extra relish. (Make that brown sauce.)
At the half, I changed tables, joining Mark Ward, Daniel Raiff, Brian Allingham, and Cerys Ryan Hawkins—who had only come all the way from fucking AUSTRALIA to watch what was apparently going to be a nil-nil draw against Sunderland. Well, work brought Cerys to the Midwest, not the chance to watch a bleak game on varying sizes of screens with a handful of Villans, so thank god he didn’t make the trip for this express purpose. He does seem appreciative, though, saying he only knows one other Villan in his small town of Ballina, New South Wales, if he doesn’t count his wife. (Or maybe that was one other Villan in all of Australia.) Due to the time difference, Cerys watches games between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.—now THAT’S dedication.
Cerys casually asked whether I’ve been to Villa Park yet this year and I had to confess that I haven’t, that, in fact, the only time I’ve seen them play in person was when the team made the trip to Chicago, not the other way around. I’ve gradually been coming to realize that, for many fans, an annual pilgrimage to B6 is part of the bargain. Granted, many of them have family there, but not all of them do. I’ve met Americans and Canadians who simply want to be closer to the team.
I’ve dreamed of going, of course, but haven’t yet felt that I could leave my wife and two young sons for a week on such a self-centered trip. With all the expenses attendant on raising a family, Transatlantic trips to watch soccer matches aren’t really in the budget . . . at least, not yet. I do want to go, and I will go, but it will be a more complex negotiation for me than for some of the fans I’ve met. Many of them have older kids, or no kids, or are single, meaning it’s just a wee bit easier to get away. At any rate, it’s a threshold I have yet to cross.
The game ends as poorly as it began, leaving us shaking our heads. A bad Delph miss at the end, causing the midfielder to hide his face, says it all. No, actually, the fact that Lambert takes Benteke off for Kozak—that says it all. Where is the Benteke of last year? We all want to know. Villa fan pages are starting to show a lot of un-Christian sentiment, calling him greedy, lazy, and wishing him well at the top four team he’s presumed to be leaving us for in January.
I don’t agree with any of it. Goalscorers want to score goals, and if he does truly intend to leave midseason, that’s all the more reason for him to perform now. I think it’s a crisis of confidence, whether triggered by injury or by the penalty miss. And, who knows, maybe he just needs another game or two to find his touch. It’s hard to be patient but, with Weimann’s touch looking as unsure as ever, with a free-shooting Tonev yet to come good, and Gabby toiling loyally for little reward, what choice do we have?
And what happened to Villa park? Where is our home advantage? Someone says, “If you’re a struggling side you wanna go to Villa Park,” and there’s truth to it. I have to think Sunderland feels they’ve gained a point, where we have left two on the table.
We say goodbye to the Sunderland fans and they joke good-naturedly that, “We’ll see you in a few years, because we’re going down.” On Thanksgiving weekend, I guess that’s the one thing to be thankful for. Our lousy point puts us in eleventh, one ahead of the Baggies, and I doubt anyone seriously thinks we’ll be struggling to stay out of the drop zone come spring. Right?