One of my highlights of last season came at Villa Park: Villa left back Stephen Warnock misplaces a pass. Dyer intercepts. Dyer runs. Dyer shoots. Dyer scores. Dyer runs to Swansea City fans. Dyer salutes. It was a great finish to put Swansea 1-0 up at Villa Park in the opening 4 minutes, but the moment everyone seems to remember best is the delivery of the salute. It was an inspired celebration (and remained the desktop background on my laptop for a long time). 2 weeks later, Dyer would bring out the salute again to celebrate his goal against Arsenal in Swansea’s 3-2 triumph over the Gunenrs at the Liberty Stadium. That salute has now been immortalised as one of the final images on this season’s Match of the Day opening credits.
Dyer’s first goal that day at Villa Park could well go down as one of the most important goals of Swansea’s last season. The early goal from Dyer prompted a display of sheer confidence from Swansea as they delivered one of their best passing masterclasses to obliterate a dejected Aston Villa. The win was sewn up in the opening minutes of the first half when former Villa player Wayne Routledge scored his first ever Premier League goal (after over a 100 appearances in the top flight). The reason why this game was so important was because it would prove to be Swansea’s first away win of the Premier League season, over 4 months after the season had begun. The atmosphere in the stand containing the Jack Army that day was a party one to say the least. Swansea sung their ‘Hymns and Arias’ and had ‘ discos’ for the duration of the 90 minutes, whilst all around them the Villa fans launched tirades of verbal abuse towards their shell-shocked and unwanted manager, Alex McLeish. Swansea fans, to mock the Villa fans further, launched into choruses of “WE LOVE OUR MANAGER! WE LOVE OUR MANAGER!” as the Jack Army lauded our then manager, Brendan Rodgers. The aforementioned Northern Irishman came over to the Jack Army at the end of the 90 minutes, by himself, to applaud the fans effort and even humorously wiped the sweat from his brow to demonstrate his relief at finally securing the club’s first away win in the top flight for over a quarter of a century. We did certainly love our manager that day.
Villa Park is regularly hailed as one of British football’s most traditional and grandest of theatres and it was great to see Swansea soar in such a environment just one day after 2011 became 2012. I write this now at 8.02am, Saturday 15th September 2012, 9 months after the aforementioned events, as I wait for my regular Swansea away day companion Tom Probert to make his way from his abode in Leeds to my house in Salford, before setting off on my second visit to Villa Park. Hopefully it will be as good and successful as last season’s visit.
Tom turned up on my doorstep in his new red Swansea away shirt and we began the 30 minute walk into Manchester city centre to catch our 10am train from Piccadilly station. Boots meal deals and Guardian newspaper purchased and with some cans of Fosters for the train, we were off. In regards to away days, my rule has always been if the time is into double figures you can drink, so as the train strolled out of Manchester Piccadilly station, we cracked our cans open and toasted what would hopefully be a good day.
An hour and half (and 4 cans) later, we arrived at Birmingham New Street. I had received a text on the train from my friend Matt informing me that a small contingent of Jacks were heading to the Windsor pub just around the corner from New Street station, so we thought we may as well start there. The Windsor is a small pub down a side street just off the main shopping high street. The pub was a great place to start, selling cheap booze (£2.70 a pint –especially cheap for a pub in a busy city centre) and cheap food. Having just finished my Boots meal deal, I decided just to focus on the cheap drink for now. We had already decided we wanted to get to the Whitton Arms, the pub around the corner from Villa Park, for about 1ish to get a few drinks in before it got too busy and with this in mind we headed back to New Street to get the train to Whitton, which was about 12 minutes away on the train. We thought we had left the Windsor too late to make the 12:47 train to Whitton, but we decided we liked a challenge and thus we made a comical sprint, swerving through the streets of Brum to try to catch the train. In an Indiana Jones sliding under the door style, we caught the train just as the doors were closing. It was all very exciting! (Admittedly, there was another train shortly after which we could have caught, but the run to make the 12:47 was just too much fun).
On the train towards Whitton you get to go right past Villa Park and I have to say it is an impressive looking arena. On my first visit to the ground last season, we approached the ground by the Trinity Road stand and straight away it was apparent that Villa Park is not your average football stadium. From the outside of the Trinity Road Stand, you’d think you was approaching a factory or warehouse as it does not resemble a typical football stand. My favourite thing about Villa Park is the fact that despite being a modern football stadium, it still maintains many of the characteristics of an ‘old-school’ ground – it also looks massive from the outside! The ground opened in 1897 and has been the home ground of Aston Villa ever since, after the club played their formative years at Aston Park and Perry Barr. Villa Park has gone on to be one of the most well-known grounds not just in the UK, but in World, hosting 16 senior England internationals, three World Cup matches in 1966, numerous FA Cup semi-finals and it even hosted the last ever Cup Winners Cup final in 1999 between Mallorca and Sven Goran Eriksson’s Lazio, who were victorious on the day. It was under the stewardship of long serving chairman Doug Ellis that Villa Park began to be renovated ready for modern football with multiple adaptations to the old stands.
Anyway, we arrived at Whitton train station and crossed the road to the Whitton Arms. The Whitton Arms is a large pub located a short walk away from Villa Park and it has separate areas and entrances for home and away fans. There is little else pub-wise near Villa Park (although one Swansea fan told me that they had been to a pub a further 10 minute walk up the road) and the Whitton takes advantage of this by charging fans £2 just to enter the place. To enter the away section of the pub you have to make your way around to the back of the pub where there is a large ‘beer garden’ allocated to the away support. It is safe to say that the backyard of the pub was in much better condition than my first visit to the pub in January; that day we were greeted with an area covered in glass, broken benches and a load of other crap which had been dumped out the back. Today, the area had some wooden decking put down to accommodate the fans and there were some benches for people to sit down on. My other criticism of the pub is the fact they charge £3.50 a pint and you get them in those crappy plastic cups, but at least the service was rather quick and I can’t really recall queuing at all. Despite my grumblings about certain aspects of the pub, I enjoyed my afternoon in the Whitton and got to catch up with several Jacks. I also got to meet up with Keith Haynes for a second time and I should really give his new book, “Shine on Swansea”, a shout out as he documents Swansea’s first season in the Premier League through the eyes of a passionate Jack (the book also features a quote about his previous book from yours truly). One Swansea fan even approached Keith to sign his book – he wasn’t too interested when I, as an editor of Lost Boyos, offered to sign it as well though!
With several pints drunk, we began the 5 minute walk up to the Doug Ellis stand of Villa Park in the now glorious Brum sunshine. First of all, I will start with a positive and say that the Villa Park concourse is very spacious for away fans. However, no alcohol!?!? A football ground that doesn’t sell alcohol? Are they for real? I tried to look on the bright side and think that at least the queues would be smaller for food. They were not. With little else to do (or drink or eat) we headed pitch side.
Once inside the ground properly, Villa Park is even more impressive and the antiquated looking outside of the ground is not reflected when you are in the stands. As mentioned previously, the away fans are housed in one half of the two-tiered Doug Ellis stand, which runs down the one side of the pitch. Opposite the Doug Ellis stand is the Trinity Road stand which is the main hub of the stadium housing the changing rooms, executive boxes and club offices. The expansion of the stand has led to the stand overhanging the road behind the stand, so much so that you effectively have to go through a tunnel in this stand when driving down that road. To the right of us, behind the goals stood the North Stand, the stand which used to house the away support until former manager Martin O’Neill proposed that home fans be placed there to improve the atmosphere in the ground (I’m unsure what difference this would have made). In the gap between the North stand and the Doug Ellis stand there is a large TV screen which is always useful. The most famous part of Villa Park has to be the Holte End, the large stand that is renowned for housing Villa’s more vocal support.
Swansea lined up as expected with new signing Pablo Hernandez starting the game on the bench and Alan Tate and Ben Davies slotting into defence. Villa stuck with the young team that Paul Lambert is trying to develop with players such as Matthew Lowton and Barry Bannan starting, as well as new signings like Brett Holman and the impressive Karim El Ahmadi playing in midfield. So, the clock ticked to 15:00 and the game kicked off.
Swansea started well, playing their usual passing football. Danny Graham had an early chance which he won a corner from, before Brad Guzan thwarted Swansea twice. First the American stopper kept out a powerful header from Ashley Williams, before minutes later making an incredible, full stretched, fingertip save to deny Nathan Dyer’s curling shot which was floating into the top corner.
The two chances seemed to wake up Villa who began to pressure Swansea. Then in the 16th minute Ashley Williams cleared a Barry Bannan corner to the edge of the box where Lowton was waiting. After a superb first touch on his chest, Lowton smashed the ball left footed with his second touch and soon the net was bulging. 1-0 to Villa. I’ve read several match reports after the game claiming that the shot deflected off Alan Tate, hence why Vorm completely misjudged it, but I have my doubts if it did if I’m being honest.
Shortly after the goal, the 19th minute was the cue for the stadium to applaud Villa’s former captain Stiliyan Petrov who is currently in remission for leukaemia. The minute was acknowledged excellently and respectfully by all fans including the away fans.
Swansea came agonisingly close to equalising after a great pass from Angel Rangel fed in Nathan Dyer, whose cross was just missed by Danny Graham. 1-0 at half time. I felt the standout performer for the Swans in the first half had been the teenager Ben Davies filling in for the injured Neil Taylor at left back. He was composed throughout, nothing really got passed him and he did not give the ball away at all. He looks a real prospect and with Taylor out for the season, it looks like we have a more than able deputy. He’s also Welsh, which is another bonus!
Swansea never really got going in the second half and there was very little attacking threat from them. At the other end, Vorm was brilliant as always, denying Ciaran Clark on two occasions and a curling effort from Karim El Ahmadi. I’d also began to notice that Leon Britton wasn’t quite at his best and I think it is a sign of how important he is to the team that when he doesn’t play well, Swansea don’t play well.
The moment that many Swansea fans had been waiting for came in the 57th minute when the club’s record signing, Pablo Hernandez, came on for Wayne Routledge. This signing has excited me so much. I remember watching a lot of Hernandez a couple of seasons back when he was on top of his game at Valencia. Hernandez played alongside David Silva, Juan Mata and David Villa at Valencia and he did not look out place at all alongside players of that ilk, even outshining them on occasions. However, I agreed with Laudrup’s decision not to drop either Routledge or Dyer straight away – why drop players that have vastly contributed to a team that had scored 10 goals in 3 games? I thought Hernandez had a brilliant debut; excellent passing, some good runs and his control was incredible – the ball seemed glued to his feet. Laudrup stated after the game that he was very pleased with Hernandez’s contribution. He has to start the next game for me.
Speaking of new signings, I began to wonder who the hell was the Swansea player stripping off ready to come on in the 79th minute? It turned out to be Israeli striker Itay Shecter who I had completely forgotten we had signed (he didn’t do much anyway). Villa had brought on their own new striking acquisition: the 21-year old Belgian forward Christian Benteke who had joined the club in a £7m deal from Genk. Benteke was to prove to be a menace for the remainder of the game and he really should have scored after Darren Bent put a header across goal, but fortunately for Swansea, Benteke completely missed his shot. Benteke wasn’t to falter when given his second chance though. With the ball in the air, Ashley Williams attempted a simple header back to Vorm, but his header was too weak, opening the door for Benteke to run onto the loose ball, lob the ball over Vorm and tap the ball into an empty net. 2-0 and game over for the Swans. I was very impressed with Benteke and for any budding fantasy football players out there, I think he may be a bargain striker to deploy in your XI. Also, you’ve got to respect a man who is described by his manager, Paul Lambert, as “different to Heskey”. Moments before Swansea had an excellent chance to equalise but Luke Moore’s header was headed straight at Brad Guzan and such is Premier League football, that not taking chances comes back to haunt you.
Full time: Aston Villa 2-0 Swansea.
Swansea just never really got going and Villa deserved their win. On the plus side, Hernandez looks quite a player. As well as the Swansea City players never really getting going, the Swansea fans were also uncharacteristically quiet, about as quiet as I’ve heard the Jack Army in a long, long time. Nevermind, a bad day at the office and plenty to reflect upon for Mr. Laudrup. Back to the pub.
We decided to head back to the Windsor with its winning combo of cheap food and drink winning us over; I had a decent Lamb Bhuna for £5.99. Whilst finishing off my curry talk soon moved to the ‘lucky sunglasses’ (anyone that read about my trip to QPR will know about these). After a 2 game winning streak that included 8 goals and 0 conceded, I came to the conclusion that Swansea’s great start was probably not down to a pair of ridiculous red £1 sunglasses, but probably the managerial prowess and excellent transfer window signings of Michael Laudrup. With this in mind (and alcohol in my body) I thought it was wise to snap the once precious sunglasses into lots of small pieces. The sunglasses were left to rot in Birmingham city centre.
Our final pit stop before going home was The Shakespeare, the pub that sits inside Birmingham New Street (it is hard to go on one of my football expeditions and not sample a train station pub). The Shakespeare is a rather small pub compared to the usual pubs you find in large train stations, but nonetheless it did the job. Tom and I decided that our favourite thing about the Shakespeare was the invention of ‘football fan speed dating’. It seemed that the Shakespeare was a hub for football fans that wanted one last Saturday afternoon drink before making their way back to their ‘normal lives’ outside of football fandom. With me and Tom sat next to the entrance, it seemed any fan that entered the pub wanted to speak to us after spotting our Swansea shirts – after all every football fan in the country (besides Cardiff, of course) seems to like Swansea these days. Our personal favourites of the many football fans that came through the doors of the Shakespeare in the space of the 30 minutes or so we were in there, was the friendly Brum fan we spoke to, who kept a small diary of every ground he had been to and had a scarf plastered in a variety of Brum badges and the Stoke fan who also joined us. Top blokes.
I have to admit that the day of drinking around Birmingham, followed by a night out in Manchester until the early hours of Sunday morning, led to a very, very hungover Sabbath day. However, it was still worth it even despite the result. For any groundhoppers, Villa Park is a must visit as one of the few surviving large traditional grounds and a great footballing institution. As always, the
company of the Jack Army was great, a jolly good time was had in the Whitton, Windsor and Shakespeare and I’ve escaped those sunglasses – cheers for that Aston Villa.
Highlights: Cheap booze/food in the Windsor,a large traditional ground, easy ground to get to and from, very spacious concourses, Pablo Hernandez, “football fan speed dating”, destroying the sunglasses.
Low Points: Paying to get into the away pub, expensive drink in the away pub in plastic glasses, Swansea fans quiet (for a change), no alcohol sold in the away end, big queues.