Here at Lost Boyos, we believe in the old adage to never go back (or at least don’t write about it when you do). Well, most of the time. There are exceptions; witnessing a mascot beat-down, the retirement of a legend of the game, or when (probably) the best team in the world are in town. And now Aston Villa.
What then, you may be asking yourselves, is so special about a mid-table Premier League clash that warrants a whole new blog piece? Well, firstly it is not exactly a return to Villa Park as I have never been there before; in fact it was my first game in England in two years and a first Premier League game in more than ten. More importantly, it was the first time since its creation that the two Lost Boyos had attended a game together.
The morning began, as so many of these days do, at a train station. Cardiff Central, to be exact, and in typical Lost Boyo fashion there was coffee and a copy of the Guardian newspaper. There was also what I was assured was some very tasty M&S Belgian lager, but my mild hangover preferred that I waited until Birmingham before commencing drinking.
Upon boarding the 9:45am train for Nottingham, it seemed I was alone in opting to hold off on the mid-morning boozing. Above the chatter in our carriage was the regular clinking of glasses, with the family sat directly in front of us having brought along a selection of wines- red, white and sparkling- as well as cheese, pate and pre-prepared toast. We were not, however, travelling among Swansea’s bourgeois away-support, but a large crowd making their way to the postponed Welsh Grand National at Chepstow. There, the train emptied and it was a pleasant hour-and-a-half ride through the flooded borderlands.
Matt managed to negotiate the labyrinth that is the new Birmingham New St. Station and locate the Wellington pub in the city centre. It was a swift pint there before returning to the station for a train to Witton, but long enough to encounter a German tourist whose winter break in England had impressively included trips to Southampton, Southend, Watford, and now Aston Villa. He was, he proclaimed, a groundhopper and we were happy to give directions to this kindred spirit from abroad.
From Witton station it was a short walk to Villa Park, which dominated the view from the platform, and an even shorter walk to the Witton Arms. Matt had been quite scathing about this pub, which took advantage of its location to serve drinks in plastic glasses and charge £1 for entry. The cost was now £2- although the doorman was adamant it had been the same the season before- but the (possible) extra quid had been well-spent. The rather derelict beer garden that Matt had also been complaining about had been replaced by an Oktoberfest-style beer tent, complete with its own bar, outdoor heaters and burger van. In the pub and beneath the tent, it was a chance for me to put faces to various names, nicknames and Twitter handles that I’ve heard/read about over the last two years, while for Matt it was chance to catch up on the Christmas goings-on of his regular away-day crowd, with anecdotes ranging from near-death experiences at Gatwick airport to Countryfile calendars.
Rumours were also abound that the Swans were bringing some 3,000 travelling supporters to the game, and the large gathering in the Witton Arms were already in good voice. Welsh football is never lacking for schadenfreude, particularly between the two southern rivals, and with poor-old Malky Mackay having been sacked less than 24 hours earlier, there were heavy doses of it being dished out by the Swans’ support. There was the obvious “Agent Tan, Swansea Fan”, and the geographically-confusing “He’s big, he’s vile, he’ll sack you Gangnam Style…” Among the more comedic was the supposition that Phil Brown was to be appointed Mackay’s successor given that he regularly works with a horrible tan.
We left the pub quite close to kick-off as it was just a short walk and Matt had said there was no alcohol in the away section at Villa Park. The walk to the ground offered enthused statements about the Villa from former players and managers like Brian Little and John Gregory, as well as the club’s most famous (second most famous?) fan, Tom Hanks.
In the concourse I was struck by the number of away fans holding cups of beer. Much was changing, it seemed, since Matt’s last visit to Villa Park. We grabbed a few quick beers- at a hefty £3.80 a pint- and soaked up the pre-game atmosphere that still largely revolved around Vincent Tan.
We took our seats, or at least managed to find a place to stand somewhere close to our seats, in the lower corner of the Doug Ellis Stand as kick-off approached. Our position afforded us a great view of the pitch and the rest of the ground. The rumoured 3,000 travelling supporters can’t have been far off the mark as all to our immediate left and in row after row above were Swansea supporters.
The noisy away section- whose chants had now switched away from Tan to their own team and the quieter Villa support- was silenced after seven minutes when Andres Weimann took out three Swans defenders with a ball through to Gabriel Agbonlahor, who slipped the ball passed Gerhard Tremmel. From then on, it was almost total Swansea domination, at least in terms of possession of the ball.
Ben Davies was first to go close, but his downward header bounced over. Jonathan De Guzman, who I was repeatedly told was having one of his better days, hit a left-fotted shot just wide. The equaliser came shortly after and was courtesy of another supposed under-performer who had upped his game, when Roland Lamah headed in Pablo Hernandez’s far-post cross for his first Premier League goal.
For the second period we were joined by Lynsey, who had spent the first half not too far from us, and the on-field pattern of play continued. However, as both the impressive Shelvey and hardworking Bony tired, Swansea were struggling to turn their possession- a huge 73% at the final whistle- into chances. De Guzman came closest with a free-kick that Guzan would have been embarrassed not to have saved. The game somewhat fizzled out, but given the occasional boos around the ground, it was clear the Swans were the happier fans.
Matt and I headed back to the Witton for a beer before he was scheduled for a radio appearance. The radio station finally rang as we were about to board a train back into the city and within in moments, Matt was on the phone with Ian Payne and, one of my favourites, Patrick Barclay. With little football to discuss in the capital, London’s Big Conversation was branching out to the provinces and were keen to discuss the merits of Bony, Shelvey, and Lamah, as well as the day’s biggest question: Is Vincent Tan a Swansea fan?
Having missed our train, it was back to the Witton for a third time (they weren’t charding for entry after the game) and one last pint before heading homeward. MacKay-less Cardiff were now showing on the TV and, being neutral in matters of Welsh club football, I could not help but cheer when Jordan Mutch fired them ahead. Matt cheered too, he says, out of misunderstanding rather fraternal solidarity in a bar that, although much quieter by now, was still full of Swansea fans.
On arriving at Birmingham New St., our bad luck with trains continued and the next train to Cardiff was cancelled. The extra time allowed us time to get some food and beer for the train to Cardiff and all we could hope was that Central would not be teeming with Cardiff supporters making their way back up the Valleys.
By the time we got home, it had been a long but enjoyable day. Villa Park is an excellent stadium and the fans of both teams, particularly the away support, made for an atmosphere that might come about just a few times a season in the football I watch from my base in South Korea. Hopefully this will be the first of many joint-Lost Boyo adventures.
HIGHS: Good stadium, decent atmosphere; Swansea played some great football; meeting Matt’s Swansea crowd
LOWS: Pricey beer in the pub and the ground; few real goal threats given the quality of some of the players and football on-show; no pie experience