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.