Mixing sport and politics

Dave Woodhall talks about Villa’s influence on the 2001 general election.

If the peasants weren’t revolting in the summer of 2001 they were certainly a bit fed up. Villa’s nineties revival was becoming a memory, the team was slipping from being best of the rest to just a part of the rest. We finished eighth in the the league, did nothing much in the cups and the usual suspect was getting the blame. There had been the £ sign protests, the ‘Spend or Go’ poster campaign and an occasional demo outside the ground. None of it was to any avail; Doug was going nowhere.

At the end of the season a general election was called. Everyone knew who was going to win – Labour were defending a majority of 179 and the Tories were as effective in fighting the campaign as they have been over the past few weeks. It was summer, there was no international tournament and we were a bit bored.

And so someone, mentioning no names, on the Villa mailing list (if you want to know what one of those was, ask your granddad) thought it would be a good idea to stand one of our number in Sutton Coldfield as an anti-Ellis candidate. Mailing list member Ian Robinson was volunteered, a whipround rasied the £500 deposit and we were in business. Announcing Ian was standing for election got as much publicity as we expected. Publicly, Villa declined to comment, privately a few staff members made sure they were on the electoral register.

There are a few rules that you have to abide by for a Parliamentary election. For a start you have to have an agent, who makes sure that the rules are abided by. The sorely-missed, late and truly great Peter Page, father of Si, came into his own here. Amazingly every penny of election expenses were accounted for. We’d missed the deadline for registering a party, so Ian had to stand as an independent, although by the end of the campaign there couldn’t have been many people in Sutton who didn’t know just what ‘Independent’ meant when it appeared on the ballot paper.

We also missed out on getting our very stylish claret and blue leaflets delivered by Royal Mail so we had to do it ourselves, although to be honest we didn’t really bother much except around the Four Oaks Estate, where we got more support than you might expect and heard a few tales about a certain resident. We also did a bit of leafleting in the town centre and again didn’t do much except on one occasion when the Tories rather foolishly left a car close to us and got it covered in election material.

The big day came round. We stood outside the polling station at Suton Town Hall, getting into a bit of a debate with a couple of spoilsport Tory ladies who said we were intimidating them by telling the voters where to put their crosses. A good old-fashioned British bobby told them that we weren’t breaking the law and good luck to us.

When polling was over it was off to the ICC for the count, via the nearby Prince of Wales where our media expert, who worked for a London PR firm, coached Ian on how to get through the inevitable TV interviews. As I drove into the car park a handful of Tories were standing in front of the entrance. Their expressions said they may as well stay where they were because getting run over would be a blessed relief after the weeks they’d had.

Eventually the fun stopped and the count took place. Each party had its tellers, who made sure that the count was done properly and no votes went missing. As you can imagine it’s a serious job, even somewhere like Sutton where you know who’s going to win so they may as well just annouce it and let everyone have an early night. Well, somne of the tellers were taking it seriouly. One lot were, er, getting a bit excited every time they got a vote. The Tories were increasingly annoyed at the level of imperternence shown towards one of their own on top of the battering they were getting all over the country, and when the tutting got too loud at one point Pete’s wife, the equally wonderful Anne, leaned over to them and in a voice that the Queen Mother would have called posh said, “What are you getting so upset over? It’s only an election.”

The votes were finally counted and the declaration was ready to begin. We’d hoped to get into three figures and reckoned anything over 250 would be a good result. By all accounts we’d be guaranteed two votes – Heidi Ellis and John Gregory. In the end Ian got 278, which was hardly earth-shatering but it did piss off Ed Doolan, who finished announcing the Sutton result on WM by saying “Clearly no wasted votes there”.

The Tories left without a word while Labour’s Rob Pocock, a decent bloke despite a fondness for stripes, thanked us for getting him so much publicity. Every time a candidate is in the news the others have to be mentioned as well, so Ian adding a bit of light relief to an otherwise humdrum election meant Labour in Sutton had got more press coverage than they’d ever enjoyed.

The new Tory MP Andrew Mitchell was returned with a reduced majority; another ten thousand votes and we might have infiltrated Parliament. Labour won the election with a majority of 167. None of them enjoyed themselves as much at their post-election celebration as we did the night after in the Black Eagle.