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American Born Villan

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

Month

February 2014

Villan of the Week: Lindsay Williams

Lindsay WilliamsLindsay Williams learned to love the Villa from her father, a dyed-in-the-claret-and-blue fan himself, and, while she admits she didn’t have much choice in the matter, she couldn’t be happier with the outcome. (I ask you, how many little girls want a new Villa shirt instead of a Barbie?) Now that she’s living Stateside, she spreads the word to the Yanks, and happily reports that she’s converted more than one. A player herself, she takes inspiration from the divine defensive skills of a Villa legend. (But not, thankfully, his drinking habits; on match day, she prefers a cup of tea to a pint.)

The Starting Eleven

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

I was born in Kingstanding, Birmingham, United Kingdom—I lived about four miles from Villa Park! About 7 years ago, when I was 23 or so, I came to Maryland, chasing my American Dream. Honestly, I was done with the UK and thought I would give the great U.S.A. a go! I do truly love living here, but there is nothing like moving and really seeing how much you love and appreciate your home—I’m still proud to be a Brit. I currently live in the town of Glenn Dale, Maryland, where I am an office manager, but have decided to go back to school to become a counselor. The great dream and journey continue . . . .

How and when did you choose Villa?

I did not choose Villa, Villa chose me! From a very young age, I remember my dad screaming at the telly or radio, and you always knew it was Villa related. He was a fan, as was my grandfather, my uncles, my cousins, and most of the local kids (of course, there were a few Bluenoses and Baggies). My dad pretty much drummed it into us, but I am so glad he did! As a little girl watching them, I automatically fell in love and became a claret-and-blue Villan. Every Christmas, instead of asking for a Barbie, I asked for a new Villa shirt.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Definitely beating Man United in the 1994 League Cup Final (also then called the Coca-Cola Cup). I remember the great pride of Villa beating United 3-1 and we kids we ran round the streets of Birmingham with our Villa shirts, scarves, and flags shouting VILLAAAAAAAA!!!!

"God Save the Queen"
“God Save the Queen”

Also, more recently, a great memory was the summer of 2012 when I drove about three hours by myself from Maryland to Philly to see Villa on their American summer tour. Even though it was only a preseason friendly, it was such a proud moment to see my Villa boys on U.S. soil, the squad lined up in claret and blue, belting out “God save our Queen”—I confess I did shed a tear. I felt the utter exhilaration and passion, almost like a kid again, going to Villa Park.

What was your most painful moment?

Support StanNot one moment, but rather moments. Honestly, these past few seasons, watching us flirt with relegation has been VERY painful, especially when most of the lads I know here who love footie are top-four fans. And, more importantly, we absolutely should not be a bottom-half team.

Which team would you most like to see Villa beat (or beat again) this year?

From our back-in-the-day rivalry with United, it is always a good feeling when we beat them. However at this point whenever we beat any top-four team it definitely feels like Christmas!

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Guzan in Philly--with Lindsay in the crowd
Guzan in Philly–with Lindsay in the crowd

It’s a toss up between Gabby and Guzan. Of course, Gabby is a boyhood Villan, loyal to the team and keeps at it. He’s like the family dog: you sometimes get upset at him, but you can’t help but love him. (If Gabby ever reads this, I mean that as a compliment!) But I think Guzan has also been very loyal to us, even when he didn’t get the break he deserved. Now his patience has paid off, however, and he sure has saved our bacon our a few times.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Paul McGrathI play defense, so I always have to give a shout-out to the unsung heroes of defense. Growing up, he was also my defensive inspiration, so I would have to go for “Oh ahhh Paul McGrath, I said Ohh ahhh Paul McGrath.”

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

Definitely the various groups on Facebook. Birmingham Mail online, teamtalk.com and bbc.co.uk/sports.

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

Lindsay on defense!
Lindsay on defense!

I would say 8 out of 10. I don’t think I saw as many live games as I could have when I lived in Brum. However, I have definitely made up for it these past five years and my devotion is evident (to the point of being teased). I think I also do a great job of repping Villa in the U.S.A. as I have converted a few fellow Americans 😉

Where do you usually watch games?

Normally at home, on NBC, NBC Sports, or streaming live from NBC. Thank God for NBC and no more bootleg websites! I am also very excited to have recently got connected with the Aston Villa America Group (shout out to the amazing group) and thus meeting the Capitol Villa group who I will be joining at the Queen Vic in Washington D.C. very soon. Wahooooo!

PG TipsWhat are you usually drinking?

Cuppa PG Tips or Nescafe Coffee (depending on how early the game is).

Extra Time

What is the biggest misconception that male supporters have about female supporters?

Ohhh this is a good one! I will behave as I answer! I think the whole idea that women don’t appreciate or have any clue about footie—and really any sport in general. Growing up my mom hated watching it, but she had no choice with my dad, brother, and I. However, I believe the more you watch and seriously make an effort to get into the game, the more you get to understand the beauty of the game. You then find yourself saying, “Hang on, so-and-so should not be playing at right back but moved forward to right mid,” or, “We play a better 4-4-2,” or “Get him off and bring on him as an impact sub!”

Papers in the Wind, by Eduardo Sacheri

Papers in the Wind, by Eduardo SacheriMost of the soccer books I review for Booklist are, naturally, nonfiction. (Or, in the case of player autobiographies, mostly nonfiction.) But when a soccer-themed novel pops up, I jump at the chance to read it. From the March 1 issue, my review of Eduardo Sacheri’s Papers in the Wind.

When Alejandro Raguzzi (nicknamed “Mono”) dies of cancer, his brother, Fernando, and friends Ruso and Mauricio take it upon themselves to ensure the future of Mono’s young daughter, Guadalupe. The problem is, Mono’s entire estate consists of one terrible investment: he owns the transfer rights to Mario Juan Bautista Pittilanga, a soccer player laboring deep in the third division, far from Buenos Aires. If they can sell him, the girl’s future is secure—but how do you sell a striker who can’t score goals?

(Click the link above the read the whole review.)

Newcastle 1 – Aston Villa 0: When Supporters Turn on Each Other

“Notice how all the pro-Lamberk supporters have gone quiet?”

Or words to that effect. I saw the comment on Facebook on Sunday and haven’t bothered to look for them again. I know I captured the sentiment: it’s almost as if the commenter is pleased the team has lost, so he can make his point. Would he have been quietly fuming had we eked out a win or a draw?

Bad times have turned some supporters against one another. You only have to visit the forums and the Facebook pages to see that, moments of clarity aside, an astonishing amount of energy is being expended in a war of words between those who want to sack the manager and those who don’t. Just recently, I wrote that Paul Lambert isn’t the problem. I could be wrong, but I’m sticking to that, no matter how tempting it is to demand change, any change. Blaming one person is a reductive argument, and it’s not productive, because we don’t get to make the decision about whether he stays or goes. And fan infighting is definitely making the season harder to bear than simply the poor performances on the field. One Facebook commenter, saddened by the ongoing negativity, said he was going to stay offline for awhile.

*     *     *

It’s not all about Lambert. It’s not all about Lerner. It’s not even all about the players. Who is it all about? The fans. Because our experience is what matters. Players, managers, owners—all of them will come and go. The fans are the only constant. It makes a certain amount of sense for fans to be angry with the players, the manager, the owner. It doesn’t really make sense for us to be angry with each other. It isn’t the fans’ job to play the games or pick the team or provide money for transfers and salaries. We’re not meant to be professionals, our judgment isn’t supposed to be infallible.

And is there any fan who doesn’t want the team to do well? We all want the team to do well, and we’re all equally powerless to do anything about it.

Well, almost. Supporters who are able to go to games can put aside the negativity and the infighting, sing and cheer and take on the identity of the mythical creature known as the Twelfth Man. Players are human, they hear it. Even if you think they are jaded professionals who don’t give a shit—and most of them aren’t, most of them are young men who want to do well—it can’t help but lift their spirits and their play.

But, aside from that, fans can’t do anything to affect what happens on the field. So, to preserve the illusion that they CAN do something, they argue with each other. I guess the idea is that, if you win an argument, you’re the better fan. For me, if you start an argument, you’re a poor fan. (I’m talking about real arguments as opposed to friendly banter. Say what you like, but say it with a smile on your face.)

Had we won the game, my response would not have been, “See? I’m right! Keep Lambert!” Because it’s not about Lambert.

*     *     *

All season long, I’ve been wanting to write an essay for American readers, called, “Relegation: Best Idea Ever, or Merely the Best Idea in Sports?” Because I do believe that relegation is one of the things that makes the Premier League, and La Liga, and Bundesliga, and Serie A, and even Ligue 1, superior to NFL, MLB, NBA, and MLS. The idea that teams will be punished for lack of ambition, success, and results is a good one. Many American cities have teams who are perennial cellar dwellers. Sometimes ownership just doesn’t have the money to compete, sometimes it seems as thought they’d rather spend the money on something besides a competitive team.

But the threat of relegation makes a big club prove to its fans that it is a big club, willing to do what it takes to avoid the drop. And, if a club is too small to compete in the top league, then why not give the fans of another small club a thrill, a chance to see if they can get up and stay up. Look at Wigan: not a bad run.

It’s hard to cheer the idea of relegation this week, as Villa edge ever closer to the scrum at the bottom of the table. Just because I like the idea of relegation, doesn’t mean that I want to see Villa relegated. But the threat of relegation has another purpose besides culling the herd. It gives fans of underperforming teams something to cheer for. It quickens the blood. Here in Chicago, Cubs fans know too well the pain of following their team through a 162-game season with no hope of success and no consequence for failure. In such a situation, the fan becomes an ATM for its owners, visiting the park for the privilege of spending money—lots and lots of money—on overpriced tickets, beer, and merchandise.

Fear of the drop gives fans at the bottom of the table something to worry about and cheer for. It gives creates stakes where otherwise there would be none. It should be a reason we pull together, not fall apart. Yes, it’s been a string of the worst seasons in memory, but turning on each other won’t remedy that.

*     *     *

Of course, fans of a small club recently promoted to the top tier can cheer a seventeenth-place finish unambiguously. For a small club that has long labored in lower divisions, survival is itself a victory.

It’s different for Villa. Villa is one of a handful of teams never to have been relegated from the Premier League. It’s a team that has won the European Cup. It’s a team with one of the longest, proudest, and richest traditions in English soccer—its fans are not content to merely stay up.

The question remains: is Villa still a big club? I believe it is, its fans know it is, and hopefully Randy Lerner understands this. He’s rich, but he’s not a sheikh or a Russian oligarch. He doesn’t see the team as an extension of himself, so he’s not going to throw money at it, not after what happened with Martin O’Neill. He’s getting the finances in order for measured improvement. Will we ever win the league again? I don’t know. I think we should grow back into a club that competes for fifth, sixth, or seventh every year. I think most of us would be happy with that.

*     *     *

It’s taken me a couple of days, obviously, to write this. Time’s been in short supply and I’ve (clearly) had a hard time focusing my thoughts. There’s not much I want to say about the game itself. Our passing was awful, we allowed too many corners, and we gave Newcastle far too many chances. The only thing that saved us as long as it did was that their finishing was woeful. I heard someone describe it as “Two drunks trying to fit their keys in the lock,” which is apt.

I keep playing our best chance in my head. Benteke, moving toward the goal with the ball at his feet. He has support to the right and the left. We have numbers. All he has to do is play the ball to the open man at his left, and surely we score. But Benteke dithers, perhaps thinking he’ll be the hero, he loses the ball, the moment is over.

Benteke, our savior last season: could he become an albatross, the man we wished we’d sold when we had the chance?

There’s no doubt about it, this one hurt. I rate my pain at about a seven. You?

Losing: How Badly Does It Hurt?

Losing away to Newcastle with less than a minute remaining hurts us all. But just how badly does it hurt you? Like a doctor with a frowny-face chart, I want to diagnose your pain. Answer my poll and see how your pain compares to that of your fellow fans.

Villan of the Week: George Wilson

George WilsonI haven’t met George Wilson, but Rick Edwards vouched for this Memphis-born Villan, and that’s good enough for me. The more stories I learn about other American supporters, the more kinship I feel with them. Our reasons for choosing Villa are often eerily similar: it clearly takes a certain kind of person to see past the recent cash infusions that have transformed some front-running clubs to instead follow one whose best moments lie in the past—and, we believe, in the future. And I couldn’t agree more with what George says about what it means to support the team.

The Starting Eleven

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

I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but lived all over the South before making my way here to Marquette, Michigan.

How and when did you choose Villa?

I started watching European soccer around 2006. I watched some Scottish Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga, but quickly realized the talent and history of the EPL. I knew when looking for a team that I wasn’t interested in being a frontrunner. Nine times out of ten, a U.S. EPL fan supports one of five teams that regularly are at the top of the table. What’s the fun in that? I wanted a team that had history, style, and was going to fight their way up the table. Villa fit that bill perfectly.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Honestly, my happiest moments haven’t necessarily been associated with how the team played. My happiest moments have been when I’m able to be with lots of other Villa fans. Meeting the team in Columbus, Ohio, was a great day, but my happiest moments have been watching the team live with my fellow Chicago Villans. I’ve been told a hundred times that being a Villa supporter puts you in the company of the greatest group of fans on the planet. Every experience I’ve had with my Villa brethren has proven that true.

What was your most painful moment?

Liverpool 5 - Villa 0It was the back-to-back losses in March 2009—when we got destroyed at Anfield 5-0 and then lost at Old Trafford 3-2 with United scoring late—to two teams I despise in two successive games. Recent years have taught me to have more patience with the squad, but back in 2009 I expected to earn a Champions League spot. So the losses were all the more crushing.

Which team would you most like to see Villa beat (or beat again) this year?

Luis SuarezI’ve managed to maintain a constant disdain for Liverpool ever since I started watching Premier League. I really don’t care what happens in any given week to lots of teams, but I always like to see Liverpool lose—especially to us.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

It’s really hard to pick just one, but I’ll go with Gabby. He’s been the one constant across all the years I’ve been following Villa. He’s gone through a few dry spells, but he always seems to come through for us when we need someone to step up.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

I haven’t followed the squad long enough to have an all-time favorite, so I’ll stick with Gabby for this one too. I have to give an honorable mention to Olof Mellberg. If I had started following Villa a few years earlier, I suspect he would be my choice. He was a tough defender and had some skill on set pieces.

Gabby Agbonlahor

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

The rise of fan pages on Facebook has made that the most convenient way to keep up with Villa news. I used to check the BBC, Heroes and Villains, the official site, and several blogs each day, but now there are a legion of Villa fans doing that for me and reporting back everything on Facebook.

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

George Wilson
Enjoying a pint of Widow Maker

If you are an American and you can honestly say your favorite sports team isn’t in the NFL, NCAA, MLB, or NBA, but instead is Aston Villa of the Barclay’s Premier League, then I think you’re pretty solid. Almost anyone who knows me personally or professionally knows that I love Aston Villa. I think my best quality as a fan is that I have learned to be patient with the results and get my satisfaction from simply being part of the Aston Villa universe. If the team pulled a Sheffield United and dropped into the bottom of League One, I’d still love Villa the same. I guess my worst quality is that it’s just too easy to flip off the TV when you’re half a world away and the squad is playing like crap. I’ve been known to go shovel snow rather than watch the second half an uninspiring performance.

Where do you usually watch games?

There aren’t any pubs where I can watch Villa on a Saturday morning in Marquette, so I usually watch at home. I’m working on seeing if we can get a place to open for morning games, but I’ve found no takers yet.

What are you usually drinking?

Keweenaw Brewing Company's Widow MakerI like the local brews and Keweenaw Brewing Company makes a fantastic black ale called Widow Maker. That is my beer of choice, but among the larger commercial brews, I like Bass.

Extra Time

Match any player on the current squad with the cartoon character that is most like him. (You could also choose a former player if you’d rather.)

I immediately thought of Randy Lerner as Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob SquarePants since he really knows how to pinch a penny, but you said player. Then I thought of Paul Lambert as Wile E. Coyote from Looney Tunes since he was always coming up with new, “ingenious” plans on how to catch the Road Runner that usually ended with him falling off a cliff—but you said player. The obvious matches would be Ron Vlaar as Thor and Brad Guzan as Captain America, but I’m going to go with Marc Albrighton as Meg Griffith from Family Guy. It doesn’t matter what Meg does, good or bad, she never gets any love. I think our fans treat Marc that way a lot.

Marc AlbrightonMeg Griffin

Friday Night Lights, by H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger: The Wrong Kind of Football, but So, So Good

Friday Night Lights, by Buzz BissingerI read a lot—for my job, and for fun, and in a hopeless attempt to keep up with all the books my friends keep publishing. When I read for fun, probably half the books are about sport, but only one sport: soccer. (Why do I insist on calling it that? Essay forthcoming.) If I read a book about another game, it had better be damn good.

The success of the TV show Friday Night Lights has caused some to forget its source material, a book of the same name that was published a quarter of a century ago in 1990. I only watched the first season of the show, but I liked it well enough—it’s a soap opera, but a good one, balancing the high drama of the teenagers’ lives with interesting storylines for the mature characters: Coach Taylor, his wife Tami, team booster and car salesman Buddy Garrity, and more. And who can fail to be stirred by the players’ chant before they take the field?

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!

But the book tells a darker, more complex, and far more fascinating story, one that uses high-school football as a fulcrum to lift the lid off a tightly wound small town. It’s a story of teenage dreams and adult obsession, of economic hard times and casual racism, of the way sport can both bring us together and drive us apart. Amazingly, it was Bissinger’s first: a successful journalist, he moved his family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Odessa, Texas, on a hunch that there might be a good story in the high-school football scene there.

Was there ever.

Following the Permian Panthers for one season, Bissinger paints an unforgettable portrait of a boom-and-bust town whose best days lie behind it, and whose citizens have long tied their hopes and dreams to one of their two high-school football teams. (The other school, Odessa High, is predominantly Mexican, with all the complications you can imagine.) The Panthers do not have the biggest and best players in Texas, and their program may not be the best-funded, but the players are relentlessly coached to push themselves to the absolute limit of their potential and to give their all for the tradition of “Mojo,” the mascot. And, for the most part, they do.

For the town, the brief season is the focus of the whole year. For the senior players, most of whom will not go on to meaningful college careers, it can be the highlight of their entire lives. Showered with perks and attention, they are even assigned “Pepettes”—girls who bring them treats, make yard signs for them, and perform other small services. The perks are an incentive for players to punish themselves physically, to play when they’re hurt, to turn themselves inside out for a few brief games. For many of them, the high of senior season is a feeling they’ll never be able to recapture.

There are many moments in the book when any reasonable adult will find the pressure on the kids, and the adults’ obsession with a youth sport, disturbing. As the state playoffs proceed at the end of the book, legal wrangling about player eligibility reaches a level that is truly ludicrous. (Most of the powerhouse schools are guilty of grade-fixing to some degree.) But Bissinger does an admirable job of making the hype understandable, if not sympathetic. He profiles players who succeed and players who fail, players whose identity is football, and one memorably talented player who just isn’t that into it—until the whistle blows. He profiles coaches, parents, administrators, and local fans, capturing the feel of the place better than any TV series could.

After the final game, played for the state championship, the coach wipes the players’ names off the board and begins assembling next year’s team. It’s the perfect metaphor for how quickly the kids’ sacrifices are forgotten.

You don’t have to be a fan of American football to find this book fascinating. Hell, you don’t have to be a sports fan at all. (Although I imagine that, the less the reader cares about sports in general, the more horrifying he will find it.) And you may be a die-hard fan of soccer who thinks American football is ridiculous. But, if you read just one book about the wrong kind of football, make it this one.

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