Let them eat… anything

Dave Woodhall talks about events off the pitch on Saturday.

Many years ago, before the advent of the internet and social media and email, Steve Stride said that if he hadn’t been at the match and heard nothing about it he’d know by reading Tuesday’s post how we’d got on. Nobody ever got a cold pie if we’d won and the toilets only ever overflowed when we’d lost.

What he’d have made of the aftermath of Saturday’s match would have been interesting, because even though we deservedly got three points I’ve never known so much of a reaction to what we now have to call the matchday experience. Last season it was transport, against Everton it was the appalling service before and at half-time. It might sound like a fuss about nothing, entitled nouveau footie fans complaining because they weren’t able to get what they want when they wanted it, and it’s about time they had a taste of what we had to out up with years ago.

The trouble with that idea is that the world has changed. Some of us might not like what happens now and how we’re supposed to behave down the match (happy clapping along to Hi Ho Silver Lining being the first thing I’ll make illegal when I become Emperor of Aston), but you have to accept that not only do we cater for a different demographic now, but those of us who really were there when we were shit expect a bit more than what we got on Saturday. The days have gone when pies came in two varieties, burnt or cold, and burgers had barely stopped neighing before they were served up.

There were problems with season cards not working, huge queues for almost everything, tills breaking down, fridges out of commission, food running out and most disgraceful of all, being charged for tap water. It might only have been 90p, but it’s the principle. That and the fact that the club are on very dubious legal ground in making such a charge, even before the diabolical image it presents. At least we didn’t go the whole way and ban sunscreen like Manchester City, but that’s little consolation.

In the club’s defence they were caught up in a perfect storm of events that combined to create such a situation. It was the first match of the season, so supporters might not be familiar with any changes, the weather was unbearably hot, there was a train strike, which meant people might be arriving at a different time to normal and the holiday season meant that catering staff might not be available. And all these things could possibly be excused if they hadn’t been known well in advance.

Someone, somewhere should have realised that there was going to be a problem and made sure that while there might have had some inconveniences they could have been minimised. Every bit of equipment should have been checked and double checked to make sure it was working and capable of dealing with the expected temperatures. There should have been enough food available, and more than enough drinks. Staff should get proper training.

We’ve been saying for years that the catering facilities at Villa Park are slipping behind the expected standard. If you want a beer at half-time you have to miss at least ten minutes of the match and all of the interval. By now the club should know how many pints a forty thousand crowd will need, and when they need them. Get them poured in advance. Invest in multi-pourers and have a card-only, dedicated bottle service. The same goes for food. Make sure there’s enough of it and the staff know where it is and how to serve it. They might also give some thought to what’s available; it might be nice to provide the sort of street food that’s been on sale in the last year or two but whenever I’ve looked they always seem to be the least popular options. Sad to say, but if there’s a demand for the basics – chips, burgers, pies – that can’t be met and not much demand for the fancier stuff, get rid and double up on what does go.

Failing that, bring in food that can be easily handled such as sandwiches and crisps. Look at using vending machines. On Saturday we could have had bottles of water for sale outside. Simple ideas, but seemingly beyond the ingenuity of the Villa. All of which means that in the most money-orientated sporting league in the world we’re turning down revenue. Two thousand extra supporters spending six or seven quid a match adds up to almost a quarter of a million over the course of a season.

What made Saturday even worse was later reading about Everton supporters not being able to buy any drinks at all, which was downright embarrassing. When away fans come to Villa Park I want them to leave with two lasting impressions – I want them embarrassed by the way their team was beaten and I also want them impressed with the ground and the way they were treated. We can hardly complain on our travels when we provide such second-rate service ourselves.

I know that Villa Park is an awkward place to improve. The space available and the legacy from years of doing things on the cheap mean that we can never provide the sort of modern service you get at new grounds where space is no problem. But we could and we should be capable of doing much more with what we’ve got already.

When the new ticket prices were announced they were compared with rival attractions such as concerts and theme parks. If you want to make a true reflection of such events, compare the overall package of what you get for your money and how you’re treated. That’s the market we’re in now; it’s not enough to get people through the turnstiles, they have to be looked after if you want them to come back. The consultations currently taking place will tell the club what’s needed to modernise the ground and the surrounding area. In the meantime, listen to the problems that occurred on Saturday, act on them, and never again do anything so crassly unethical as charging supporters for something you get for free.