Sixty two…

John Russell talks about pre-match rituals.

…is the highest number of people I have seen on the pitch in the pre match kick-about or ‘warm-up’ as the professionals choose to call it. Given that each team is now eleven plus nine, it begs the question who the other nearly two dozen are, for only very rarely does it include the visiting team manager. They are too busy avoiding the chairman and dealing with the press.

You can tell a lot from the warm up. Sitting in the North Stand I get to see the opposition at close quarters and take more notice of who’s who because, let’s face it, I only get to see them once a year.

It’s usually possible to work out quite who is in the starting line-up and who is only there to make up the numbers. Most clubs keep first team and reserves apart in the almost traditional five-a-side because no manager wants to risk a pre-match injury from an over-enthusiastic reserve staking a last minute claim for immortality. But some of their bizarre stretching exercises often look like a recipe for pulled muscles.

Some clubs have an almost military approach to the exercise, timed and choreographed to the n’th degree but Southampton in particular gave encouragement to any Villa manager watching them because they were nothing short of a completely disorganised shambles. Thus in doing so they inadvertently gave me the idea for this article. They played as they practiced – like an ad hoc team got together just for this occasion.

I only rarely get to take note of the distant Villa players so would like to think that they all know what they are supposed to be doing and do it.

To save wear and tear to the pitch Villa now provide a second ‘goalmouth’. But there are seemingly no rules governing its use so it must come as an intense annoyance to the groundsman when the visiting custodian still insists on using the permanent fixture. Most clubs leave goalkeeping practice to just one outfielder rather than pepper the custodian with shots. Presumably the idea is for the goalkeeper to get used to fielding the ball against the surroundings but more often than not the kicker seems to take great delight in ‘scoring’ from twenty five yards. These days there is much amusement to be had watching the groundstaff wrestle with these temporary structures as the try to remove them and the temporary protective netting from the arena.

Midway through the proceedings the three officials will appear, trying to be anonymous. I have never been able to understand quite why they invariably head towards the Witton Lane Stand (Who was that Doug Elis it is named after?). Then, as if trying to display complete neutrality, they run up and down the halfway line trying to prove to the audience that they are actually as fit as they are expected to be.

Villa players always allow the visitors to leave the park when the inaudible hooter is sounded in order to ensure that they leave the field to the encouragement of their own fans, although this is mostly confined to those nearest the anti-missile tunnel. Perhaps knowing they will be back in a few minutes is sufficient unto the day.

Covid has changed the rules governing their reappearance and there is much to be said for going back to the good old days when the first appearance we got to see of them at all was when they emerged from the tunnel for the first time barely five minutes ahead of the kick-off.

Always the visitors were expected to emerge first, if only to test the extent of any support they might have scattered around the terraces. The opposition players were obliged to expend energy in being obliged to run to the Aston End. Their names were not announced beforehand and the best we learnt was that they were “as per programme” or not as the case may be.

Then the air of expectancy as our favourites appeared – also as per programme if only as encouragement to buy one. The roar often reflecting the result of the last match as much as encouragement for what was to come.

Then the referee used to appear cuddling the match ball rather than treating it as now as some sort of trophy as meanwhile the teams had at most kicked about three or four practice balls between them. These days deprived of a ball just before the start the players look totally disorientated. The best they can do is get into a team bonding huddle;a bit late if you ask me.

Gone are the days when players simply had to get down and get on with it. The visitors had generally arrived at the ground by coach one hour ahead of the kick-off, whereupon they were handed their free tickets for family and friends then went out to mingle with them for the next half hour. They would accept good wishes and sign autographs, or not as was their wont. Then on the half-hour to go mark someone came out and clapped their hands and everyone disappeared inside, perhaps leaving a spare travelling reserve to have people wondering quite who he was.