Villa Park is one of my favorite grounds in England. It’s what you’d call a proper stadium; home to an established club and accompanied by a set of knowledgeable, passionate supporters.
The home of Aston Villa has preserved so much of it’s illustrious history. From the stylish, classical decoration on the outside of the stadium, to the long-standing banner that recites Brian Moore’s famous commentary from Villa’s European Cup winning goal. It reads:
“Shaw, Williams… prepared to venture down the left. There’s a good ball in for Tony Morley. Oh, it must be and it is! It’s Peter Withe.”
The Holte End towers over one of the goalmouths and the off-centre tunnel is another aesthetic feature that makes the stadium unique.
Whilst the rigors of the modern game demands contemporary stadiums, the vast majority of new build grounds are soulless, concrete bowls. They don’t have character and they don’t have tradition. Grounds like Villa Park are fast becoming a rare commodity, so it’s always a real pleasure to visit.
I was lucky enough to do exactly that this past weekend as Everton made the trip to Birmingham to take on Paul Lambert’s progressive young side. It’s a game I always look forward to, as contests between the Toffees and the Villains are typically thrilling encounters.
I think back to last season, when the two sides drew 3-3 at Goodison Park and a little less fondly to five years previous when Ashley Young canceled out a 93rd minute equalizer from Joleon Lescott with a 94th minute winner (still to this date, the lowest I’ve ever felt coming out of Goodison Park).
The recent history of games between the teams is littered with 3-2’s, 2-2’s and 3-3’s. But on Saturday, much of the focus was on the longevity of both teams. In accordance with the FA’s recent 150th anniversary celebrations, much was of made of the fact that Everton vs. Villa is the most played fixture in English football history. This was the 215th meeting between the two sides.
Going into the ground, supporters were warned about the consequences of setting off pyro. It is something Everton supporters have embraced this season (as per my previous article from Manchester City), but I suspect there will be an unyielding clampdown on these smoke bombs after a linesman was struck by a stray one when Villa hosted Tottenham. It’s a shame, because they do look brilliant. But safety comes first, I suppose.
The leaflets handed out warned of potential imprisonment (!) if you were caught, and resultantly there was no pyro from the Everton supporters. Initially it didn’t look as though the team were going to have much to celebrate anyway as Christian Benteke won an early penalty. But Tim Howard made a superb stop, and that was followed by a couple more later on in the first half. The American kept a lackluster Everton side in the contest, truth be told.
The second half saw the Toffees benefit from yet another proactive substitution from their boss Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard hauled off Ross Barkley, who had a poor game by his standards, and introduced the veteran Leon Osman. Playing in the hole, Osman thrived against a tiring Villa midfield, finding space and linking the play to great effect. He set up Romelu Lukaku to put Everton 1-0 up, before slotting home himself to give Everton a comfortable 2-0 victory.
The away end went crazy — as anyone who saw the match on television (or on highlights) will have noticed — and Everton picked up their second win on the bounce. More credit must go to the increasingly impressive Martinez, for it was the third time this season that a substitute has scored the winning goal for the Toffees. It is an encouraging, welcomed change of mentality when compared to the more reactive, wait-and-see attitude of his predecessor.
We retired to a local pub afterwards that was split half-and-half between Everton and Villa supporters — a refreshing change from being turned away based on a twang in your accent or the color of your T-shirt. That was before heading back into Birmingham town centre to try and find somewhere showing El Clasico.
Instead, we stumbled into a pub that had been overtaken by Coventry City supporters, who had played Walsall – another local team – earlier that day. They had also won, and there was some good humored chanting in amongst what was a really relaxed atmosphere. Villa fans, as you can imagine after a defeat, were few and far between.
We jumped on a train after a few pints following a long but enjoyable day. Unfortunately, it was about to get even longer, as the train was stationary for an hour mid-journey due to signaling problems on the line.
The service was subsequently cancelled at the next stop and hundreds of Evertonians had to wait for another train to take them back to Liverpool from Crewe. In the end, we pulled into Liverpool Lime Street station at 11:45pm, two hours later than expected.
The perils of public transport? I suppose! But it was a minor blemish on the day; a win on the road makes it all worth while. There is no better feeling as a football supporter than coming out of an opposition ground with three points in the bag. If we’d lost, I suspect that trip home would have been a whole lot worse!
Next up for Everton is Tottenham at Goodison Park on Sunday. I’ve come to realize that I’m in a very privileged position where I can go to a Premier League game on an almost weekly basis.
But what part of the Premier League match day experience would YOU like to know more about? The games themselves? Pre-match build-up? The stadiums? The atmosphere?
Let me know and I’ll do my best to provide a thorough insight! Leave a message in the comments section or follow me on Twitter @MattJFootball
Editor’s note: Matt’s column is a weekly series that gives you insight into what it’s like to be a supporter who lives in England — capturing the experience, rituals and everything we don’t get to see or feel via the television set. Read all of his Heart of English Football columns.