American Born Villan

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


March 2014

Villan of the Week: Gary Barr

Gary BarrGary Barr was born into a family of Birmingham City supporters but, after watching Villa beat the Blues in 1978, he promptly saw the light, pledged allegiance to the claret and blue, and became a Villan for life. Sensible lad! He’s never wavered since, and has seen his team through highs (champions of Europe!) and lows (relegation), somehow holding on to a strong sense of optimism in the process.

The Starting Eleven

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

I was born in Portsmouth, UK, but moved to Kings Heath, then Northfield (both in Birmingham) when I was 6 or 7. I came to the U.S. in 2002 and have been here ever since, having left the rain and grey firmly behind me! I now live in Ridgefield, Connecticut, though am literally in the process of moving to the east coast of Florida—slowly getting warmer and warmer as I age! I’m the chief product officer for a New York-based financial-analytics software company. Who knew after attending Harborne Elementary?

"But that's the WRONG COLOR BEAR!" cries wee Gary.
“But that’s the WRONG COLOR BEAR!” cries wee Gary.

How and when did you choose Villa?

My dad was a fervent Birmingham City supporter, as were the family around me—they even gave me a bloody blue-and-white teddy for Christmas in 1969! They took me to as many games at St Andrews as possible when I was a kid. Then, in October 1978, Villa came and beat City 1-0 and my dad was so upset, I decided there and then I had to support the Villa. I always was the black sheep in the family! I was 10 and so started a 35-year love affair—I have seen the ups and the downs and was a season ticket holder for a number of years before I came to the U.S.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Without a doubt, Rotterdam on a spring evening in 1982. I was 14, so I watched the match live (on ITV!) with the great Barry Moore commentating. He uttered those immortal words: “Shaw, Williams, prepared to adventure down the left. There’s a good ball played in for Tony Morley. Oh, it must be! It is! Peter Withe!” and I was on top of the world. Lets not forget the Bayern team we played that night had some of the greatest footballers of that or any time: Augenthaler, Rummenigge, Hoeness, Breitner, Müller, etc., who were all established West German legends. And they got their backsides walloped by a bunch of home-grown Villains—a memory I will always cherish.

What was your most painful moment?

Losing 2-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday in 1987, a defeat that confirmed relegation. We had gone from European Champions to relegation fodder in less than 5 years. Horrific. And truth be told, we deserved it: that team was young and talked up, but on the field it was a mess. But I always have been an optimist, and some good did come from it : Graham Taylor arrived and it was a swift promotion back to our rightful place in the top tier.

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

Well we can’t beat them again because we already played them twice—but Chelsea. There is simply nothing, absolutely nothing, nil, nowt, nada about them, they are just the worst form of a football club I have ever had the displeasure to watch over the years. Bottom line: a lack of class.

Fabian DelphWho is your favorite player on the current squad?

Fabian Delph. A legend in the making if he can stay fit, stays with the club, and continues to learn and work hard. And I love the fact that a team can potentially be built around him. Let’s hope.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Dennis MortimerI have to cheat—I have two that I can’t separate. The first is Paul McGrath. Everyone has already said it but the man was a rock and one of the most gifted footballers I ever saw live. To call him a legend is an understatement. The second is Dennis Mortimer. Hard-working, never grabbed the headlines, but was the dynamo and captain during our greatest years—an inspiration. I don’t think we have had a captain like him since.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

Heroes & Villains, Birmingham Mail, Facebook, etc. I try to keep up with news daily.

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

Ha! I’m a top fan, of course! My best qualities, I think, are patience and perspective—I rarely snap to judgement or write things off without trying to understand the bigger picture. Many know I am a big fan of what is going on at Villa these past two years under Paul Lambert, largely because I think when one puts it into perspective, its as exciting a time as many I have seen. Yes, the performances at home have been dire on the whole, but something good is emerging and I am excited to see it play out over the next couple years. My worst quality is that I turn the TV off when games are tight. It drives me nuts watching and I prefer to set the DVR, see the result, and then watch without the stress!

Where do you usually watch games?

On the couch. See my picture above.

What are you usually drinking?

Whiskey—on the couch!

Extra Time

Which non-Villa player, past or present, do you most wish had worn the claret and blue?

Oliver Barr: Future Villa Captain?
Oliver Barr: Future Villa Captain?

There are a few: Lionel Messi (best player in the world for me); Trevor Francis (I know people won’t like that but, as a young kid taken to St. Andrews, I saw him as the first $1m player and he was electric—shame he is such a tw#t these days!); and Bobby Moore (well, who wouldn’t right?). In the future, I want my boy (pictured in his first Villa outfit) to be captain—please god, please!!!!!


Eight World Cups, by George Vecsey

Eight World Cups, by George VecseyIf you’re the kind of person who likes to prepare for an upcoming World Cup by reading about old World Cups—and I know I am—you could do a lot worse than getting yourself a copy of George Vecsey’s Eight World Cups. That’s eight world cups for the price of one book! And it’s just a pleasure to read. From my review in the April 1 issue of Booklist:

As a longtime columnist for the New York Times, Vecsey (Stan Musial: An American Life, 2011) has covered many sports but has a special passion for soccer. His reporting on eight World Cups—from Spain in 1982 to South Africa in 2010—forms the basis for this fond memoir, an exceedingly enjoyable blend of travelogue, sportswriting, and social analysis.

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

Aston Villa 1 – Stoke City 4: Won’t someone please think of the children?

Supporters shield their eyes from the debacle on the field
Supporters shield their eyes from the debacle on the field

There are many reasons Villa should have chosen to acquit themselves like professionals on Saturday—respect for the fans, services rendered for salary paid—but, if for none of those, shouldn’t they have been thinking of the poor, poor children?

There comes a time in a man’s life when he has a choice: he can do the mature thing and stay home on Sunday morning with his seven-year-old son, perhaps to build vehicles and forts out of LEGO, or he can take his son to the pub.

Having made the family-friendly decision last week, and having therefore missed my chance to watch a heroic 1-0 victory over league-leaders Chelsea in the company of my Villa brethren (and, excuse me, sistren), there was no way I wanted to be at home while Villa rode their new-found momentum and recently regained home form to a long-in-the-making three-game winning streak. So I made the latter decision and took Cosmo with me to the Globe for his first-ever visit. He’s been more hesitant to go than his older brother (who enjoys the soccer but especially the breakfast), but, I rationalized, it was high time to bring him into the fold of the faithful.

And taking your kid to the pub isn’t so bad, surely. Other countries are less fussy than ours, and don’t enforce a Maginot Line between adult and youth spheres of activity. The worst thing that’s going to happen to a kid in a soccer bar is that he’ll hear some adult language—and, given the vocabulary of one of his grandparents, he’ll merely be relearning those words, not learning them for the first time.

We arrived a few minutes late to find Simon, Greg, Tyler, and Leslie sitting in the front bar. “We’ve already scored,” Simon informed me. My disappointment at missing Benteke’s opener was mitigated by this happy omen, this sign that, yes, Villa were indeed going to win three on the trot, and young Cosmo’s debut at the bar would be an auspicious one. With such clear evidence of his old man’s team’s superiority, he would be blessed by full understanding of why his father chose to support such a terrific team.

But, alas. Although Villa seemed to be on the front foot, our generally much improved defense mistook game day for Flashback Friday and reverted with jarring suddenness to their immature old ways. An Odemwingie goal in the 22nd minute crumbled Villa’s composure and suddenly it was hard to recognize the confident, free-wheeling team we’d seen the last couple games. The announcer chided “Sunday-league defending,” and he wasn’t wrong. The Telegraph called it “a mind-boggling display of complete ineptitude” and they weren’t wrong. In fact, it pains me too greatly to recount the individual steps that took us from an early 1-0 lead to a 1-4 loss against Stoke—Stoke! Who had only won one game away from the Britannia this season! Who had only scored four goals in a single game once in their entire history in the Premier League.

There are many reasons Villa should have chosen to acquit themselves like professionals on Saturday—respect for the fans, services rendered for salary paid—but, if for none of those, shouldn’t they have been thinking of the poor, poor children?

Poor Cosmo.

As soon as he finished his pancakes, he was begging to go and, in a way, I wanted to join him. To just put on our coats and leave before things got any worse. Instead, I decided this would be a fatherly lesson in supporting your team to the final whistle. If he wanted to read his Oceanology book instead, fine, but we weren’t going anywhere.

And a comeback never looked likely.

There have been many losses this season—fourteen of them, to be exact. And each loss has a special flavor, doesn’t it? Some aren’t too painful because you never thought we’d win in the first place. Others bring with them a sharp, stabbing pain: the ones lost in extra time, or on a bogus refereeing decision or some other reversal of fortune. And some are so overwhelmingly dispiriting that existential despair sets in: if your favorite team can fall apart like damp tissue paper against a team that, let’s face it, is Stoke, then what’s the point of getting up in the morning, putting on your Villa shirt, and spending good time and money supporting them?

Some losses are made more bearable by being in good company, but some mornings, where the conversation is fine but just adequate, where you have the feeling that everyone would have just rather said screw it and stayed in bed, where the remote is in easy reach and the cold, snowy date looks merely picturesque—well, maybe we’d all have been better off alone. And my investment in this utter horrorshow of a game was minor: a bus ride and a forty-dollar tab. What about the poor bastards, like Mike Pearson, who were actually at Villa Park for this debacle?

There’s a random cruelty to being a sports fan. You clad yourself in your team’s colors, you travel with other members of your tribe to the bar or stadium, you crank your emotions up in anticipation of catharsis—knowing that absolutely anything can happen, but pretty much expecting “anything” to be “something good.” And then the “anything” turns out to be a game that feels like utter surrender.

Still, we fans are not insane. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Following Villa this season we have had every kind of result. We have beaten the best and lost to the worst. And it’s losing to Stoke that makes beating Chelsea so great. As has been expressed by other supporters, this is what, despite everything, makes supporting Villa worthwhile. A fan of a top four team expects to win every game, and it’s not a completely unreasonable position. These rich teams are so loaded with talent that mere inches of ability separate them. Losing a game must be a pissy irritation, because there is forever the expectation that better things are right around the corner. Beating another top team feels great, sure, but how can it bring the sense of joyous abandon that it does for us? After all, if you truly believe your team is the best, and have ample evidence to support this—perhaps even the points to prove it—how can victory be anything more than a confirmation of your own self-regard?

And boy do we ever know we’re not the best.

*     *     *

About Stoke. Credit to them, they won the game. We played poorly enough to make them look like a side with a Spanish flair for passing and they put us to the sword fair and square. And when I moan about losing to Stoke, I don’t mean I truly thought our win was an inevitability. After all, going into the game, our teams were level on points, and the only thing that put Villa in the top half of the table (10th) and Stoke in the bottom (11th) was our superior goal differential. And so, in the grand scheme of things, an eleventh-place team beating a tenth-place team is not news. It was, as I hope I made clear above, all in the way that it happened.

Losing to Stoke: How Badly Does It Hurt?

Giving up four goals to Stoke—Stoke!—at Villa Park hurts every Villan. But just how badly does it hurt? Rate your pain and see how it compares to that of your fellow fans.

Villan of the Week: Ben McCool

Ben McCool - a shocking selfie!Ben McCool calls himself a “professional nerd,” but, the truth is, he has a cool name and a cool job: he writes comic books for a living. (Take that, amateur nerds!) A Villan by birth, he has carried his passion for the team across the Atlantic where, as a resident of New York City, he now cheers them on from the Football Factory with the rest of the New York Villans. He’s loud, he’s proud, and you can practically hear him over the roar of the Holte End. Follow Ben on Twitter at @BenMcCool.

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 the Costa Del Birmingham! Despite its reputation, Birmingham is a cracking good town, filled with great people (Villa fans), top-notch pubs (ideal for before and after a Villa game), and of course, Aston Villa. What’s not to love?

I live in New York City these days, and have done so since 2007. It’s bonkers, but mostly in a good way. Work-wise, I’m a freelance writer, mainly comic books. So in other words, I’m a professional nerd.

Ben, pal Sam, and brother Rob enjoy a win over QPR at Villa Park (March 2013)
Ben, pal Sam, and brother Rob enjoy a win over QPR at Villa Park (March 2013)

How and when did you choose Villa?

I had no choice in the matter! My parents are die-hard Villa fans. Their very first date was at Villa Park, back when we were in the old Second Division, and, in one of the earliest photos taken of me—possibly the first—I’m wrapped in my mum’s Villa scarf. Claret and Blue since day one!

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Hmm, tough question. Watching us beat Birmingham City 5-1 always springs to mind, not least Ashley Young’s thunderous opener! The ’94 and ’96 League Cup Finals are also up there. But, in terms of excitement, I’d say the second leg of the semifinal against Tranmere Rovers, en route to beating Manchester United in the ’94 Final, is probably top of the pile. A quite stupendous comeback, and the drama . . . wow. What a game.

Praying for divine intervention
Praying for divine intervention

What was your most painful moment?

Hah, there have been quite a few of those, too! Losing 3-0 to a certain cross-town rival during their first top-flight stint in 20 years was particularly gut-wrenching; the abuse I suffered from my Bluenose pals was beyond gruesome. More recently, the 8-0 drubbing at Chelsea still stings . . . I unleashed more F-bombs during that game than Ian McShane managed during his entire run on Deadwood! [Readers unfamiliar with this reference may click here. —Ed.]

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

As no Villa fan needs reminding, our Premier League record against Manchester United is dreadful. We haven’t beaten ’em at home since 1995, and one remarkable 1-0 win at Old Trafford aside (get in there, Gabby!), we’ve struggled mightily at their place, too. So I’d say a win at OT would be a massive boost for the players and supporters alike, not least after the horror show at Villa Park earlier this season.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Gabby AgbonlahorFabian Delph has been brilliant all season for us, and though Benteke has suffered through a few barren spells (and battled injury as well), he’s also scored some big, big goals. Last season’s 19-goal outburst was one of our primary reasons for staying in the Premier League! But I’d have to say that Gabriel Agbonlahor is my favourite player; he’s a born-and-bred Brummie, genuinely loves the Villa, and his work rate is second to none. And as a certain Holte End anthem makes clear, he’s fast as f*ck!

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Paul McGrathPaul “God” McGrath. As solid a defender as you’re ever likely to see, McGrath could mark any player in the world out of a game on his day, and despite his knees causing him more and more bother as the years rolled by (I hear he didn’t even attend training during the final period of his career) he never put in anything short of a stellar shift. A legit Villa legend.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

Many and varied. I keep a close eye on Birmingham-based newspapers (Mat Kendrick, the Birmingham Mail’s chief Villa writer, always offers up a good read), and there are numerous Villa blogs and websites that I check on a daily basis; The Villa Blog, and Aston Villa Life are both recommended. The Aston Villa America page on Facebook is a fun place to discuss all things Claret and Blue, too.

In the official match day program!

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

Best? Fiercely loyal, proudly passionate, always willing to spread the good word of Aston Villa Football Club.

Worst? I’m loud and terrifying! I can scream at the top of my lungs along with the noisiest of ’em, and my vocabulary can often be (ahem) non-family-friendly. It’s all spawned from my immense enthusiasm, of course, but I’ve been known to turn the air blue on occasion! (Along with a streak of Claret.)

Ben is at the heart of the NYC Villans
Ben is at the heart of the NYC Villans

Where do you usually watch games?

My regular spot in NYC is The Football Factory, downstairs at Legends bar in midtown Manhattan. It’s right opposite the Empire State Building, so easy to get to from the surrounding area, and the atmosphere is cracking. Local Villa fans, come on down and join the fun!

What are you usually drinking?

Depends on how the game is going, hah! I do enjoy a pint of Guinness, although Legends’ very own Jack Keane—a legendary bartender on the NYC footie scene—makes up some splendid alcoholic concoctions to either fuel victory celebrations or console the bitter blow of defeat . . . .

Extra Time

You write comic books. Care to draft a quick storyline for next season, telling us who will be the hero and who will be the villain?

SuperbradThe hero? Whichever stonkingly talented creative midfielder we pick up after the World Cup! To me it’s the missing ingredient in a young but promising team, and exactly the kind of superpower we need to get the team soaring up and above the villainous likes of West Brom and Stoke. Gabby’s Flash-like pace, Delph’s Batman-esque grit, plus Guzan’s superhuman goalkeeping will also help us triumph over some of the League’s more prominent forces of evil—another win against Man City, please!

The villain? After a brilliant end-of-season goal-scoring frenzy (and a sensational showing at the World Cup), some cash-lavished evil empire will swoop in and swipe Christian Benteke from us, cackling with ghastly glee as they do so. However, the forces of good will prevail, and with the extortionate amount of money paid to us we’ll pick up another exceptional young striker, taking the place of CB20 in firing us up the league table!

Truth be told, I do hope to keep hold of Benteke. He’s a quality player, adored by the fans, and I believe we’re yet to see the best of him. UTV!

Aston Villa 1 – Chelsea 0: Another Giant-Killing

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?

What is this strange feeling I’m feeling? Hope? Pride? Unbridled joy? Whatever it is, it’s neither resignation nor despair, the two feelings I’ve been most accustomed to this season. And last season. And the season before that.

We’ve now beaten Chelsea, Man City, and Arsenal, so I think it’s safe to say we’ve beaten the league winners. (And even if Liverpool manages to come out on top, we’ve at least gotten a draw against them.) We’ve taken 10 points off the top four teams. If we made a table with just those four teams and Villa, we’d look like we belonged in their company.

(Let’s just not bring up the losses to Fulham and Palace, the nil-nil with West Ham, shall we? Why ruin the occasion?)


*     *     *

The game wasn’t beautiful, but neither was it dire. Honestly, going in, my best hope was for a nil-nil draw—Chelsea don’t concede many goals, so I didn’t like our chances to score against them. But our defense today was amazing. I worried that with Bertrand out, we’d get torched at left back, but Joe Bennett acquitted himself quite well. And Bacuna had a solid game at right back. Our defenders held their line, kept it high, and frustrated Chelsea again and again by catching them offside.

Yes, we still hoofed the ball too many times, even late in the game with a lead to protect, and we still gave possession away too easily. But when Chelsea had the ball—as they did 62% of the time—we harried them and forced them into turnovers. With the exception of the first part of the second half, it was a gutsy, hard-working effort and you could tell the fans appreciated it, even before Delph scored that marvelous goal.

I hope Lambert took note of the player who had the assist. The two of them together—Delph and Albrighton—probably pull down less per week than most of the players on Chelsea’s bench. I never follow the money that closely, but I would be very curious to see a salary comparison of our starting eleven and those of Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City.

I know Chelsea fans will be moaning about the officiating, but what it comes down to in the end was that Villa kept their composure while Chelsea lost theirs.

*     *     *

I wasn’t there. Not at Villa Park, obviously, and not even at the Globe Pub.

Having sat through nil-nil draws and wrenching, last-minute defeats—Hello, Newcastle!—it was painful not to have watched with the rest of the crew at the Globe. But I’d been out of town at a conference since Wednesday and, though my plane landed at 10:30 a.m. this morning, it seemed . . . impolitic . . . to walk in the door and tell my wife I was leaving immediately for the pub.

Although I definitely thought about it. I mean, she wouldn’t check to see what time my plane actually landed, right? It would have been so easy to tell her I was delayed by a few hours. The beer on my breath? Killing time in an airport bar, sweetheart.

It would have made for a better story, and it would have made me feel like a better fan. A better father? Not so much. We praise supporters who go to any length to see their team, but we make less of a to-do about the men and women who, quite rationally, prioritize allegiance to their beloved families over their beloved teams. Yes, other supporters can begin to feel like a surrogate family but, clearly, it’s not the same.

The details decided it: with one of my sons hosting a friend for a playdate, and my other son needing to be delivered to a sleepover, my wife clearly couldn’t be in two places at once. And, though my inner child experienced a few hot flashes of selfish resentment, I smiled and said, of course I can help.

So I watched the first half at home amid a squall of yelling kids, glued to my seat until the whistle blew at the end of the first half. And then I gathered up my younger son, his sleeping bag, his toothbrush, and his pajamas, and headed to his friend’s house. The fact that we were using the bus I take to the Globe didn’t make things any easier. I felt like someone holding an empty pint glass.

After the dropoff, I calculated that I could make the last 10 or 15 minutes of the game if I hurried—but then what? Then I would have missed the action! And the group’s exuberance or despair would have been equally jarring. So I headed home, rewinded (careful not to look at the screen), and then watched the second half in real time.

*     *     *

I’ve written about this before, but how weird is it that, provided we don’t know the result, we can become just as invested in watching a delayed recording as a live game? That we can feel the same adrenaline and worry even if we’re alone? That we can be so PUMPED to take three points from a league-leading team, even if all that does for us is to move us into tenth place in the table of a soccer league that plays all their games in a small country far far across the sea?

I don’t know, but that’s soccer, I guess.

And I wasn’t worried. For once—for ONCE—I didn’t believe we would give up the equalizer. Our defense had risen to the occasion the whole game and I didn’t believe they would fail. And they didn’t.

Maybe Jose Mourinho was on to something when he praised Villa before the match. Everyone thought he was just playing mind games when he said Chelsea would be lucky to get points at Villa Park. But he was right. And it wasn’t only bad luck.

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