John Russell writes about an unusual visitor to Villa Park.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was to suffer the fate of many good ideas.
The club badge is a lion rampant and out of town supporters can join their local Lions Club. We and ‘we’ being the West Midlands Safari Park have a tame lion hand-reared since birth. It’s now approaching its first birthday so why not give the beast a special treat from its somewhat restricted compound and take it for an outing around Villa Park? Why not indeed?
So one dark December morning well-nigh fifty years ago, the said beast was loaded into a van and taken to the hallowed halls. As arranged on arrival the stadium would be completely deserted, so even if there was a problem nobody could come to much harm.
Sadly for all concerned the lion did not seem unduly excited on reaching pastures new, and when taken out on to the pitch, albeit at the end of a lead, the lion remembered its sheltered upbringing and did little more than lie down in the penalty area for the benefit of the only photographer invited there to record the famous encounter.
The cub did no more than sniff at the foot-high railings all around the pitch, as if that was all they thought was needed to keep him within bounds. One leap and he could emulate the elephant which escaped from the Serpentine Ground a couple of generations earlier and achieve instant immortality.
Perhaps it might have been a little more realistic if a few gladiators in the form of the youth team had been encouraged to wander around. The lion might have shown a little more interest in living up to its supposedly fearsome pedigree.
The club cat seemed a bit miffed by all the fuss being made over the oversized intruder but knew to keep out of the way. It was only when he was introduced to a cuddly toy that the lion showed any fearsome traits, as he was encouraged to tear it to shreds. Just for the cameras, you understand.
The lion was then taken on a tour of the inner sanctum at Villa Park but seemed more than relieved when the time came to be taken home. The only person to have suffered palpitations was Ray Graydon, when the lion was shown into the treatment room without knocking. Nobody had bothered to tell Ray about the lion, nor the lion about Ray, but neither came to any harm.
If the intention had been to achieve a little publicity for the Safari Park so that next summer junior Villa fans would urge to be taken there to see the “FAMOUS VILLA LION” then it was all a damp squib which few, if any, will have heard about until they read this article.
Meanwhile, the real lion on the Villa badge continues to look down disdainfully on the futile attempt to usurp his unrivalled status. And if you’re wondering, Androcoles was the slave spared by a lion, who recognised him as the man who had previously saved its life.