After the Final Whistle

We Love to Fly, and It Shows

You really don’t want to rely on an airline to help you make the kickoff of an important game. Long before I knew that Villa would actually be playing Arsenal in the FA Cup final—at a time when the team’s performances strongly suggested they were playing on borrowed time—I innocently made a ticket from New York home to Chicago, leaving mid-morning on Saturday, May 30.

Mere weeks older but much wiser, when I tried to change my ticket to an earlier flight, Delta essentially wanted to charge me the full ticket price to do so. My Scots-German genes make such a transaction physically impossible, so I set my hope on a daring plan: arriving at the airport early and innocently inquiring whether I might be allowed to take a seat on an earlier flight. I was indeed, and for a reasonably small fee at that. Delta Airlines: Where You’re Punished for Planning Ahead.

The timing still wasn’t ideal and, with thunderstorms forecast in Chicago, everything would have to be perfectly timed if I was going to make the game by kickoff.

At Home or Away?

I still wasn’t entirely sure whether I would watch the game at the Globe or at home. Naturally, the lure of the Globe is strong. But having already missed my sons’ games that morning (my alternate coaching arrangements included having my 10-year-old coach his 9-year-old brother’s team), I knew that if they were home when I got home, it would be tough to tell them I was returning from a four-day business trip only to leave for the pub. I could have taken them with me, but the Globe on a cup final day is a tough place to take short people.

After landing, and as our pilot took the plane on an extended road trip around Outer O’Hare, my phone lit up with a message from Chicago Villan Greg Asad. The owners weren’t letting anyone else into the Globe, he warned me. But if I texted him when I arrived, he’d let me in via the back door. Greg’s message made my mind up for me. When your fellow supporters are not only thinking of you, but thinking of ways to help you watch the game, staying home is not an option.

The Globe on a cup final day is a
tough place to take short people.

Finally, the plane reached the airport. I collected my bag and climbed into taxi #2, which seemed like an ominous sign. On the journey home, I read Tweets and Facebook posts until my phone felt hot. At home, I dropped my bag, pulled on last year’s shirt, shoveled several handfuls of food into my mouth, and caught another cab going back in the direction I came.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wembley

Greg didn’t see my texts, so I banged on the door until it was opened by Megan, the Chicago Villans’ favorite server, who saw my desperation and thumbed me in. Walking down a rainy alley, standing by a steel door, and then suddenly finding yourself in a standing-room-only crowd of soccer fans isn’t exactly like going through the wardrobe into Narnia, but for some of us, it’s close.

And the only problem with that simile is that now I’m imagining Bob and Diane, Simon, Brian, Greg, Tyler, Tyler, Daniel, and all the rest of them as fauns, beavers, lions, etc.

A goal for Villa had obvious advantages.

The action on the TV confirmed what I’d been seeing on Twitter during my ride over. Arsenal were creating a lot of chances, Villa precious few, but at halfway through the first half, the scores were level at zero. A goal was needed, and for a moment I actually wondering whether it mattered who scored it. A goal for Villa had obvious advantages. But even if Villa conceded, maybe they would stop trying to hold potato chips delicately between their buttocks and actually give the Gunners a game. On the other hand, if it remained scoreless at the half, a nervous Arsenal might start pushing too hard, leaving much-needed room for Villa to mount counterattacks.

The Villans at the Globe seemed nervous as well. They were singing, but had yet to find their voices, especially in comparison to the two biggest games I’d previously watched there, Villa’s 3-1 away win at Arsenal in 2013 and this year’s 2-1 FA Cup semifinal win over Liverpool.

When Villa conceded in the 40th minute, on a Nacho Monreal cross headed down by Alexis Sanchez so Theo Walcott could volley it into the net, it didn’t hurt as much as I’d thought it would. Like Edmund’s betrayal in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it had that feeling of inevitability that surely left the Pevensie siblings shaking their heads and saying, “It’s Edmund. Of course he’s betrayed us.”

I don’t know where this is all coming from. I swear, I haven’t read C. S. Lewis in at least a year or two.

Back to the game, even with the goal, we went into halftime only one goal down. Anything could still happen, right?

Turns Out I Was Wrong about That Goal

Finally we heard the Gooners in the pub, an almost credible chant of “Ar-se-nal! Ar-sen-al!” which was met, quite correctly, with ironic cheers and applause by the Villans. It’s nice to know you’re here!

After a momentary threat from Villa to start the second half, Sanchez put the Arse firmly on the front foot in the 50th minute with an amazing, knuckling strike that caught Shay Given completely unprepared and hit the underside of the bar so hard the goal moved three feet back and had to be repaired by a maintenance crew that had conveniently worn their tool belts to the game.

If there’s one thing we’re thankful for,
it’s that we’re not Arsenal supporters.

All we could do really was to look at each other and shake our heads. I think this was the moment most of us knew the game was over. Our beloved team—the team that beat Tottenham and Everton when they desperately had to do so—hadn’t really shown up and looked in no way capable of winning. They were being outplayed and outclassed, and even worse, we couldn’t even direct our ire at a Russian oligarch or a Saudi sheikh who bankrolled the opposition. Truth be told, we’d love to have a team run as responsibly as Arsenal, and would gladly suffer through endless Champions League disappointment and a near perpetual failure to win the league—that is, if only we didn’t have to support Arsenal. If there’s one thing we’re thankful for, it’s that we’re not Arsenal supporters.

Because, at two-nil down, this is when Villans show what they’re made of.

One Goal Leads to Another

Were the Gooners in the front room enjoying their win? That was sort of hard to say. Two-nil and they still didn’t sing. And they even had two songs to choose from.

But Villans? They have more songs than you can count, and the worse the game got, the louder they sang: “Villa ’til I Die,” “Aston Villa FC,” “Gabby Agbonlahor,” “Oh Birmingham” (which I didn’t sing because someone’s nice old mother was sitting directly below me), “Birmingham, Are You Listening?”, “Paul McGrath,” and that song about Tony Cascarino, to name just a few.

Villans at the Globe

We Didn’t Win

It’s possible there’s an irate Arsenal fan still reading this, still trying to make sense of my “We Win Again” headline, already mentally composing a 1,500-word comment that includes GIFs of the next two goals and a point-by-point analysis of everything Villa did wrong. Yes, we quite clearly lost the game. Even though we had a couple of reasonable penalty shouts, and the final goal looked offside from where I was standing, you won’t find a Villa fan anywhere who thinks we were robbed. I certainly would have liked to score a goal for pride, and to have lost by two instead of four, but that’s hair-splitting. When you’ve been outplayed comprehensively, all you can do is be thankful for one more game before the summer break.

And that we had the chance to sing:

Tell Big Ron, Big Ron
To put the champagne on ice
We’re going to Wembley twice
Tell Big Ron, Big Ron

Wembley! Wembley!
We’re the famous Aston Villa
And we’re going to Wembley!

Because that’s a really fun song.

Losing 4-0 requires stamina and creativity from the supporters. We thanked our server Megan (“Megan is our server!” and “She’s one of us”), gave ourselves something to cheer about (“Let’s pretend we scored a goal”), and entered even further into the world of fantasy (“Let’s pretend we won the Cup”). I’ll admit it smacks of desperation that we followed “Have You Won the European Cup?” with “We! Are! Staying Up! We Are Staying Up!”). But our opportunities for trash-talking and celebration are limited in equal measure.

When it was all over, as the pub slowly emptied out, an Arsenal fan came back with two trays of whiskeys for the Villans, shaking his head in admiration and admitting we outsang the Gooners.

So We Won

Grantland Rice’s oft-quoted poem, “Alumnus Football,” notes that the One Great Scorer doesn’t record results but instead “How you played the Game”—a lovely sentiment that is wildly incompatible with a world in which a wealth of stats are available to anyone with two thumbs and a broadband internet connection. Results do matter. And yet, when you’re a fan, you have an extremely limited influence on results (a crowd in full voice is good for a one-goal-per-game home-field advantage over time). With little say in winning or losing, how we support a team is everything.

But here’s a thought experiment for American fans of the English game. I say this because, by and large, our decisions to support teams are capricious and arbitrary, though they often have effects that last a lifetime. Let’s say you decide to support a team. Let’s say Chelsea, or Arsenal. And you go to the pub with a zillion other supporters and sit there quietly with your pint and feel proud when they win. What did you do other than buy the shirt?

Yes, someday we hope we can win both the
supporters’ battle AND win the big game.

Or let’s say you support a proud but struggling team. For some reason, Aston Villa springs to mind. They play terribly for most of the season and wins are hard to come by. Their goalless droughts earn them rebuke and cruel nicknames (e.g., “Aston Nilla”). They eke out survival but get trounced pretty badly several times, ending the year with three losses that see them outscored by a total of 10-2.

Again, just for example.

But let’s say you become friends with the other fans. Let’s say you all have a sense of humor. Let’s say you sing together, and needle the opposition, and sometimes even get together when your team isn’t playing, just for fun. Let’s say you lose but you lose with such spirit and noise and camaraderie that some of the fans of the big four team that beat you secretly wish they were on your side.

Yes, someday we hope we can win both the supporters’ battle AND win the big game. But for now, this feels like winning to me.