Pessimism pulses through the veins of every ardent Villa fan. To expect anything other than defeat detracts from what it means to wear the claret and blue of the Brummie club; suffering has become part and parcel of a Villan’s existence. Fate has cruelly conspired against us on more occasions than not, typically between 85 and 94 minutes of a football match. We’ve become the masters of losing leads and losing heads as Carlos Sanchez invariably fells an opponent on the edge of the box. I am a keen hygiene freak, but the main reason for keeping my fingernails short is to avoid biting them through stubborn spells of rear-guard action, spells which can span an entire match. Still, here we are on the brink of FA Cup glory, but rest assured the road to potential success has been a long one.
I vividly remember seeing Villa in the flesh for the first time on a crisp, but dry autumnal afternoon in 1998. Nottingham Forest stood between John Gregory’s side and three precious points; it was an experience that would prepare me for the roller-coaster life of a Villa fan thereafter. It took little over half an hour to fall behind; Chris Bart-Williams was credited with the forgettable 32nd minute opener. With the half-time whistle fast approaching, disaster struck again for my six-year old self. Already a goal down, my misery was compounded by Dougie Freedman’s pile-driver that surprised just about everybody in the ground. It was a ripsnorter of a strike from 30 yards and, 16 years on, I haven’t seen many better.
Bart-Williams’ tap-in and the ruthless Freedman arrow threatened to puncture my spirit just 45 minutes into my Villa career. During the interval, I had the opportunity of waving the white flag and beating a hasty retreat into footballing obscurity. It sure would have spared me subsequent years of heartache. Somewhat unfortunately, I opted to sit tight and watch the second period unfold. Julian Joachim reduced arrears before the hour mark and followed this up five minutes later with an identically scruffy goal, the ball ricocheting off a hapless defender to allow the forward to apologetically poke home. Forest huffed and puffed for the remainder of the game without further success meaning that when the referee checked his watch and blew for full-time, I punched the air in celebration. ASTON VILLA HAD DRAWN. It was an almighty achievement! (Forest would eventually finish bottom of the 1998/99 table with a whopping minus 34 goal difference, but what was a young lad to understand of these statistics?)
A solitary point was all it had taken to form a life-long affiliation with Aston Villa, or Aston Nil-Niller as I affectionately rename the club during barren spells in front of goal. Whilst friends would tear around the streets in Gerrard 8 and Rooney 10 shirts, I’d outsprint them all in the unmistakable Agbonlahor 11 jersey. Pundits would pour praise over the classy Thierry Henry and the quick-thinking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for minutes on end, when all I wanted was a 10 second mention of Juan Pablo Angel’s close range header against Leicester. Incidentally, I’m still waiting …
Over the last fifteen seasons, Villa fans (I use the plural because, contrary to popular opinion, there are some of us out there) have seen the Joey Gudjonsson, the bad and the ugly. For every Freddie Bouma, there’s been a Jlloyd Samuel, for every James Milner, a Yacouba Sylla. For every stunning 2-1 comeback at Norwich, there’s been an order restoring 8-0 drubbing to Chelsea. For every 16th placed finish, there’s never been cup silverware … Although Villa is the fifth most decorated club in history, their last trophy, discounting the Intertoto cup, was secured back in the 1995-96 campaign, a league cup triumph over Leeds United. You have to turn the clock back another thirty-eight years to discover Villa’s last FA Cup success, whilst six of the club’s seven league honours pre-date the First World War. Astonishing.
Tomorrow’s clash against Arsenal represents a chance to set the record straight, for Benteke to batter Koscielny in the air and for Gabby to uncharacteristically keep his cool before Ospina. Of course, the Gunners are electric on the break; the agile Alexis Sanchez and the blisteringly pacey Walcott will destroy Vlaar and Baker should the Villa defenders get pulled out of position. Ashley Westwood will have to keep his wits about him in order to deprive the unpredictable Mesut Ozil of time and space, and if Bacuna and N’Zogbia occupy Villa’s full-back positions as they did against Burnley last time out, it could be a cricket score. However, believe in the magic of the cup and hope springs eternal!
Supporting AVFC was never going to be a walk in the park and rarely one down Wembley Way. Only this week has somebody assured me that my soul shall ascend straight to heaven for backing the “zombie-club” through thick and thin. I sincerely doubt that He above will use this same rationale, but I sure hope that tomorrow’s final judgment works in my favour.