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.