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

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3 Points, 2 Games, 1 Goal: Here We Go Again

Who Are These Guys?

Only one more signing until we reach lucky 11
Only one more signing until we reach lucky 11

Nothing like a wholesale cleanout of the squad to remind us that Aston Villa Football Club isn’t only about a bunch of highly paid professionals toiling on the pitch. Players come and go, managers come and go, owners come and go (we hope), and only the fans remain.

(And, as the Soft Boys remind us, the stones.) Continue reading “3 Points, 2 Games, 1 Goal: Here We Go Again”

Arsenal 4 – Aston Villa 0: We Win Again

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. Continue reading “Arsenal 4 – Aston Villa 0: We Win Again”

Aston Villa 2 – Leicester City 1: Sometimes Defense Is the Best Offense

Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off
Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off

A quiet Sunday at the Globe and only one Villan, a Brummie named Peter, was present as I walked through the doors with Bob Kemp and my father, Tom, visiting from Montana. Soon, however, we were joined by Simon, Kristen, Andrew, Nick, and Greg, plus a large handful of faces new to me (Ashley is the only name I can recall at the moment), possibly even shifting the usual yank-to-expat ratio in favor of the expats.

The Chicago Villans Facebook group, now numbering over 1,000 and outpacing even the Aston Villa America group, includes so many England-based Villans that Bob’s question on Friday (“Who’s going on Sunday?”) received just as many responses from Birmingham-area supporters with tickets to Villa Park as it did Chicagoland fans heading down to the pub. As much as I love hearing from random Villans worldwide, I can’t help but think we’ve lost a tiny bit of our identity as a local group.

Anyway: we won! Three beautiful points saw us reach the heady heights of 11th place! Granted, the table is congested, with teams you’d expect to do better not doing well at all (Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton), and teams you wouldn’t have expected to do very well surpassing expectations (West Ham, Southampton), with the end result that Villa are currently just as far from 5th place and European competition as they are from 18th place and relegation.

We’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table but
we are continuing to climb the injury table as well.

But with a very winnable game against West Brom coming up next—they’re in 16th place and 18th in the form table—we could well be top half before we face Man United just before Christmas.

Villa started well and certainly looked most likely to take the lead until Leonardo Ulloa did just that for the visitors in the 13th minute, slotting home a ball that came off Guzan’s hand in a save attempt. Replays showed that the initial shot might have taken a deflection, making Guzan less culpable than he appeared to be. Still, while the pride of suburban Chicago remains an excellent shot stopper, he hasn’t been holding on to the ball very well lately, which only adds to our already frayed nerves.

Ciaran Clark, of all people, equalized just four minutes later, on a superb sliding header from an Ashley Westwood free kick. But when Westwood was stretchered off before halftime, taken out by a tardy tackle by James Vardy, I started to lose my conviction that Villa would score again. Our midfield can look shockingly lightweight, and without Delph, Westwood, or Cole, a one-one draw against the league’s worst team seemed a likely result.

I wasn’t counting on Alan Hutton, who completed his cycle of rebirth with his first competitive goal in FOUR YEARS. In the 71st minute, Gabby passed to Benteke who passed to Hutton, who seemed to stop time, or just stop, as he gathered the ball, thought about it, calculated the angle and trajectory and possibility that, yes, he might actually be able to take a shot on goal—before firing and, yes, SCORING A GOAL!

You just can’t rush some things.

Hutton was later yellow-carded for shoving Paul Konchesky, who apparently deemed his ankle-stomp insufficient and barked at Hutton with the seeming intent of making him pull a Benteke and get sent off. Instead it was the English-born player with the Russian-sounding name who was sent off, shown a straight red, although it was unclear whether the red was for the tackle or his provocative conversational style. Leicester fans will think it harsh, although for Villa fans it somehow balanced Benteke’s sending off against Tottenham.

Benteke himself was unlucky not to have scored on a couple of on-target headers and a breakaway. Though the final ten minutes provided sheer, nail-biting agony for the fifteen or so Villans on their feet at the Globe, that the game wasn’t closer was due mainly to Leicester’s man of the match, Kasper “Son of Schmeichel” Schmeichel.

As much as I’m buoyed by Villa’s recent form—we’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table—we are continuing to climb the injury table as well. We’re now 3rd in those rankings, behind only Newcastle and Arsenal. And with more winnable games coming in the busy holiday-season schedule, if we play without Delph, Cole, Westwood, Cleverley, Vlaar, Senderos, and Baker, we could still struggle against beatable teams.

Although I’m much more worried about the midfield: clearly we can win without our first- or even second-choice defense!

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

Aston Villa 1 – Arsenal 2: One Minute of Madness

A highlight to everyone’s season was the opening game, beating Arsenal 3-1 away, a result that proved to be a wake-up call for Arsenal—after they went out and bought Mesut Ozil, they began to look like a team that could conceivably win the league. For us, though, it was merely the harbinger of a season that would be marked by highs (thrilling wins against Man City and Southampton) and lows (pretty much the last eight games). Not an anomaly, exactly, but an illustration of how hard Villa’s performances would be to predict.

Chicago Villans

Going to the Globe again yesterday, only the heartiest optimist would have expected a win. Villa started the day with four losses, a draw, and a win in their last six games, while Arsenal was in better form with three wins, two draws, and one loss. Notwithstanding the August result at the Emirates, Villa’s record against Arsenal in the Premier League is something like 3 wins, 6 draws, and 12 losses—let’s face it, they own us. And, worst of all, the game would be played at Villa Park, a once-proud fortress now derided by Premier League diving champion Ashley Young as an easy place to go and pick up some points.

Much as any of us would have wanted to dispute that, with Arsenal in 3rd place with 45 points, and Villa in 11th with 23, the most likely scenario involved Arsenal’s return to the top of the table.

All the same, no matter how bad it looks, a true fan puts on his colors and walks into the lion’s den—or, in this case, the Globe, an Arsenal bar when it’s not a Villa one, made all the more so by the proclivities of one of its owners, Gary Winters. Helping Simon hang the handsome new Chicago Villans flag, I felt as though I had passed a minor true-fan milestone of my own. (Even if my subpar work with a thumbtack meant that the flag had to be rehung by an Arsenal supporter partway through the first half. “We’ve got them working for us now,” quipped Simon, reassuring me that I was not yet off the flag-raising team.)

Villa are usually good for 10-15 minutes of sprightly play before they start falling back to the bunkers, but this time it looked as though they had mistaken the referee’s whistle for the bugle horn of retreat.

As the official Villa media Tweeted and Facebooked photos of Villa Park looking beautiful under the lights, and touted the qualities of its playing surface, the Villa faithful analyzed the starting lineup. What Jack Woodward was calling a 3-5-2, everyone else was calling a 5-3-2, and, as the game got under way, it seemed that Paul Lambert was hoping not to lose his job by not losing the game. Villa are usually good for 10-15 minutes of sprightly play before they start falling back to the bunkers, but this time it looked as though they had mistaken the referee’s whistle for the bugle horn of retreat. Would the entire game be played in our 18-yard box? How many goals would Arsenal score before it was all over? These were the two questions paramount in my mind.

baker downAnd then Nathan Baker took a ball to the head and crumpled to the turf. Simon and I exchanged a few quips about the defender’s seemingly magnetized noggin, regretting them when we learned that, far from his usual cranial misadventure, this time he had entirely lost consciousness. Frighteningly, he didn’t regain it until he reached the locker room. It’s worrying for him—how many blows to the head can he take?—and worrying for Villa, as, say what you like about Baker’s finesse, he provides some steel on a fairly fragile back line.

With Lambert substituting Bacuna and changing tactics to a 4-4-2, it’s hard to blame the team too much for being wrongfooted. Whatever plan they’d had had been changed without warning, and Arsenal were quick to capitalize. At 34 minutes, Lowton was at fault for a Jack Wilshere goal. It seemed inevitable, and frankly, I wasn’t too bothered. Villa have fought back from a goal down this season, and maybe conceding one would break them out of their shell.

When Giroud scored 59 seconds later through Lowton’s legs, I was fairly bothered. Would this game turn into an embarrassing blowout?

Christian BentekeBut something happened. Villa held on until the break. Weimann came on, Benteke came to life, and Lowton atoned for at least one of his errors with a brilliant cross that Benteke met with a powerful diving header to claw back a goal. Now it was Arsenal’s turn to look ordinary as Villa began spending more and more time in the visitors’ half, launching attack after attack until even the doubters—I can only include myself among them—began to believe that, while victory still lay out of reach, a deserved point would be ours.

It didn’t happen. Even with 14 minutes of total added time, we fell short. We lost. But we earned a little pride, perhaps. After all, we may have split the points with Arsenal this season, but we won the home-and-away series 4-3. If this were a cup tie, Arsenal would be going home and Villa would be moving on.

Better luck next year, Gooners!

Reasons for Pessimism

The first half. We may have made a game out of it, but we still got nothing.

Next game: away to Liverpool.

Reasons for Optimism

Benteke scored! Benteke scored! Ending a 12-game goal drought, no less. And, as you’ll recall, the Beast was at his best in the second half last year, so hopefully this will get his confidence flowing.

The second half.

Baker’s injury, despite his loss of consciousness, has been reported as a mild concussion. After seeing season-ending injuries to Okore and Kozak, hopefully we’ll have him back soon.

Reasons for Throwing Up Your Hands

Matt Lowton. Both a defensive liability and an offensive spark yesterday.

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