The long goodbye

John Russell attempts to bring the curtain down.

I have always reported that it is ultimately the train journey which will see the end to my Villa exploits and nothing which happened on Saturday has caused a likely change of opinion. Quite why a train company based in Cardiff is allowed to be in charge of services between Birmingham and Shropshire has long been a mystery, because the company clearly as no interest or incentive to provide even an adequate service and so it has been proved again

On the principle that “You bought your ticket, you know what you have let yourself in for,” it was with some trepidation that I set out from home to go to Villa Park again. A destination that has been overlooked of late in view of inconvenient kick-off times and the bizarre attitude of railway workers who think they should be the highest-paid manual workers for nothing more than one of the most straightforward and stress-free occupations in the employment cannon.

It was no surprise, therefore, when only a two carriage train arrived in Shrewsbury from the west coast and even less surprising when it left the county town full and standing. So much so that forty potential passengers at Wellington were unable to board and more so when fifty were left behind at Telford. It is a wonder there wasn’t a riot. However, enounced in the albeit uncomfortable window seat I had managed to purloin the hour eventually passed. Welcome to Birmingham New Street with two hours to go to kick-off.

A muse around the shops then my now traditional walk forty minute walk to the ground. First alongside the Expressway, thence Thomas Street and Upper Sutton Street into Aston Park, past the drone flyers who now seem to have taken up residence.

Then on the principle that every visit to Villa Park is now likely to be my last I set off from the statue in an anti-clockwise farewell tour of the outside of the emporium Nobody recognised me – why should they? but if I was tempted to say “Don’t you know who I am?” I sauntered around in a complete anonymity which secretly I enjoy with a smug satisfaction.

It is not a good idea to enter the North Stand too far ahead of the kick-off. twenty minutes is more than enough. The two teams soon disappear to muted applause following their rather strange pre-match exercises. How different it was in ‘my day’ when they used to hang around outside the ground with family and friends until being summoned inside with half an hour to kick-off.

It was the early start which had attracted me to the Arsenal game in the first place thanks to the fact that I could expect to be home before the street lights came on. Being played entirely for the benefit of worldwide stay at home supporters this was a live television game so with it went a lot of the paraphernalia which TV companies deem essential for the entertainment of viewers. For reasons known only to them flare boxes were set up outside the Witton Lane stand (No way will I refer to it by its spurious name). Was there some subtle hint in the fact that there were thirteen of them? Number eight had a mind of its own and attempted a solo display. Perhaps being a cold day they were there to save on the heating bill as the resulting heat could be felt in the front of the North Stand.

Even more mysterious was why the floodlights did a sequence ‘dance’ a la Michael Flatley and the end of a performance of Riverdance.I still wonder if I may have been the only spectator to notice this rather impromptu exercise. Surely the TV cameras did not focus on it. Eventually the teams reappeared, though it has long since caused me concern as to why the players are given their own individual child to walk out with.

The game eventually got under way and against all expectations Villa players uncharacteristically started running about and it was perhaps no great surprise except to Arsenal when they scored. A young lad a few seats along from me saw this as an occasion to stand up and yell a sequence of invectives at the visiting supporters safe in the knowledge that there could be no retribution.

Arsenal decided that their route to success meant denying Villa use of the spud and this eventually paid off with an equaliser. But Villa realised that allowing Arsenal to keep the ball to themselves was a foolish policy and once again enterprise was rewarded. This was the signal for the obnoxious youth to resume his tirade but the nearby sitters wisely ignore his rants.

A man behind me who sees every opposing tackle as a crime against humanity also went into his frequent tirade against the referee complexly oblivious to the fact that up to 10,000 spectators in close proximity to the incident had shown no such emotion. Half time 2-1 Villa.

Then a rather strange competition at the Aston End, as three chosen fans tried to hit the ball against a marker. As any competent penalty taker can confirm, and I speak from experience, no penalty taker is ever going to aim for the extremities over the goal so however good the intentions it is an ill-conceived challenge. Quite why it is thought necessary to sprinkle gallons of water on to the pitch at half-time has never been satisfactorily explained. It is akin to watering the ice at the intervals in ice hockey.

The big question is could the Villa hold out and achieve a coupon-busting victory? No, as it turned out. Not only wouldn’t Arsenal let them have a kick of the ball but they passed it around such that Villa were totally incapable of putting in a reasonable challenge. I recall sitting there thinking that our goalkeeper was costing us the game with his pointless time wasting tactics instead of humping the ball upfield a la Nigel Spink and giving our front runner (singular) a chance of glory Spink, a European Cup winning goalkeeper and, dare I say it, a better custodian than the present incumbent.

I hate to say it but when the additional six minutes was announced it actually agreed with my own stopwatch on which I always fastidiously keep time. The football gods probably had a message for our keeper when he was the victim of an own goal just like Gil Merrick at St. Andrews all those years ago. I don’t know the action of the obnoxious youth but I can guess.

At this point I joined the mass exodus from the ground and was well into Aston Park when someone with a mobile phone announced that Arsenal had scored again. Blame for this goal also fell upon our goalkeeper, who went up for a corner in the hopes of emulating Schmeichel by scoring at both ends (you can look that one up as well). From the television evidence I am more tempted to blame the taker of the appalling corner kick (Traditionally Villa have only rarely ever scored from a corner in my 78 years of attendance).

Forty minutes to walk back to New Street. Just time for the loo, although a late-running train allowed an extra eight minutes pergatory being added more misery of the occasion. The journey home was every bit as bad as the outward journey. Again another two carriage train full and standing as it left Birmingham New Street. I had won the scramble for a precious seat. Not really the best way to end 78 years of visiting Villa Park but it really is tempting to record that now, yes that really was it.

After all, I have been deserted as much by the Villa as much as me them. My front row North Stand seat is about to be demolished and although the club must have plans as to what it to happen and when, they seem very reluctant to share them with the fans.

Also, I was forced out of Birmingham forty years ago and following the death of my sister a couple of years ago and the sale of the family house where I was born I feel increasingly alienated from the city – made worse by the fact that my place in the city museum and art gallery, of which I am immensely proud. is currently behind the awnings of a rebuild.