Just when you think you’re out

Richard Nevin is going to the match.

I’m going to Villa Park on Saturday. Nothing unusual you would say, so will forty-odd thousand others but for me this will be the first time I’ve stepped into the ground as a season ticket holder in fifteen years. The events of the summer, coupled with the events of Saturday have dulled the shine slightly but when I walk up the steps of the Holte End the excitement, anticipation and nerves will be there as they were when I first made that commitment back in 1988.

Of course, I have been to plenty of games in the intervening period, about a dozen or so a season, been in a box a couple of times, had corporate in the Trinity, sat in every stand, had marvellous fun going away when we were in the Championship and attended all but one of the Wembley trips (I missed the Liverpool semi for health reasons) but there is something different altogether about having that book, now card, that demonstrates your loyalty to the cause, putting your money where your mouth is and having certain aspects of your time controlled by television companies.

That was one of the reasons I walked away at the end of the season in 2006, the fag end of O’Leary’s half-arsed reign was bad enough without having to go on a Sunday afternoon, most of the gang I went with had drifted away and I’d found something better to do with my time. It’s a common story, likely repeated at clubs all over the country and indeed the world, so why come back now?

For various reasons it was a snap decision, I’m very cynical about the Premier League particularly but given the events of the last eighteen months or so, with the wherewithal in terms of funds and time available and another five friends having taken the plunge, not to mentionbBillionaire owners and continued investment, it was case of “If not now, when?”.

But it’s not just about the football on the pitch; supporting a club gets into your bones and you can never shake it off, it marks time through your life, however bad things are it’s a constant. It makes you do illogical and nonsensical things, it makes your worship a player then despise him all in the space of 24 hours because he no longer wants to wear your colours, it makes you sing silly songs, celebrate a youth player scoring the goal in a 4-1 defeat more than you did when the first team scored seven against the same side. It’s mad, bad, and barmy, but it’s Villa.

I’ve been at Villa Park twice during the pandemic, both times to have my jab, but it was the first visit that made me realise what the place meant. I recalled not only the highs and lows on the pitch, the tears and cheers, the great players and awful players, grim dark nights and glorious sunny days but also the various life events, celebrating my thirtieth and fortieth birthdays at the ground, as well as other friends birthdays, funeral wakes, stadium tours, my first Springsteen gig, Rod Stewart in the round, and even working at the now defunct radio station for a spell. Now the ground had taken on even more significance as its place at the heart of the health of the city, sort of.

I’ve slept (or tried to) on Witton Lane when queuing for tickets in 1992 (away at Liverpool in the cup), nearly broke my ankle scaling the fence at the back of the North Stand trying to join the queue for tickets in 1990 (Port Vale at home in the cup), had a stand-up row with the ticket office manager about the allocation of away match tickets, and found it impossible not to crane my neck for a view of the place from the Expressway or an aeroplane as if I’d never seen it before.

Perhaps it’s all this that has influenced me to become a regular again. One has to consider that it’s not all day drinking, admiring the Barton’s architecture or singing in the Social or Sacred Heart after each game. For every big day out there are more routine games where the stress of limited parking, bad weather and terrible tea almost equal that of the game, but on balance it’s worth it because this is more than a pastime, more than a hobby, far more than a social occasion. It is part of me, as it is all of us. And it will never change.