Back When it Was All So Simple
Imagine for a moment you’re walking through the streets of Manhattan on a lovely June day. You pass by a Nike store and notice a display stand decked out in a familiar claret and blue. Ashley Young poses next to January-transfer signing David Villa in a larger than life poster hovering over rack upon rack of Villa gear, everything from shorts to shoes to windbreakers. Your friend asks the store clerk if they have any Arsenal shirts left.
“In the back somewhere I think, on discount. Next to the Benfica kit.”
You’re still gobsmacked Aston Villa have just picked up their first Champions League title. The year before that they’d won the league in spectacular fashion, beating Manchester United at Old Trafford 1-0 on the last day of the season. Arsene Wenger left Arsenal at the end of that year, having barely been able to get the Gunners to qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Meanwhile, Villa shirts sell like crazy in North America. Bars have been jammed for months with twenty year-olds decked in Agbonlahor shirts talking up Peter Withe’s goal in the 1982 European Cup final as if they’d been there. Aston Villa v. Liverpool is one of the headliners on Grand Slam Sunday, a game spiced up by remarks from Martin O’Neill on Ferguson’s impending retirement. You go the neighbourhood pub to see the game and notice some old guy ponying up $20 to watch the Arsenal game on a Cantonese satellite feed. As you sit down, you swear that guy next to you used to be a Chelsea fan.
“Me?” He answers, Martin O’Neill biography in hand, “I’ve been a Villan my whole life.”
You remember how it all began. January 2009. Sure, Villa were looking good, winning tough games against better opponents, winning games they shouldn’t have. But you were convinced it would all end in tears. Arsenal were struggling but you knew it was only a matter of time before they came roaring back to snatch the last Champions League spot. The only way we could overtake them was to buy shrewdly in the New Year, and you knew for every Ashley Young at Villa there had been a Djemba-Djemba. But O’Neill stuck to the plan, we got in Heskey plus a few lesser knowns, nothing earth-shattering. Yet incredibly we held on for fourth, and that summer picked up some bright stars from the fire sale at relegated Man City. Everything seemed hunky-dory for that next season, but no expected that season would end with a Premier League win.
At first it was great; top of the league, stars from across Europe expressing interest in living in ‘hip and eclectic’ Birmingham. But then came the day you did some grocery shopping in your Villa shirt when some twenty-something Gunner upped and called you a glory-hunter. After that came the day in August when you watched AVFC’s home opener and got mobbed by twenty other Villa ‘fans’ when you were trying to enjoy your brunch. Soon after you found yourself pining for the days of Doug Ellis, crap managers and meagre accomplishments, John Gregory and his Intertoto Cup triumph. Now as you sit at home and watch Villa pick up their third, fourth and fifth league titles in a row, happy for your club but mothballing your Villa shirt, you have a inkling of how lonely it truly can be at the summit.
Especially when your aunt gets you Martin Laursen’s unauthorized biography for Christmas.