Image description: Villa Park stadium
Aston Villa 1 – 1 Brentford
Saturday 28th August
Villa Park erupted. In the thirteenth minute, Emiliano Buendia slotted home a cool, crisp finish from the edge of the box. A collective euphoria descended upon this most traditional of British football stadia that has stood stubbornly since 1897. Finally, as supporters, we could embrace each other, basking together in the invincibility of Villa’s well-worked goal. Only three months ago, football celebrations were solitary, isolated affairs; the television was company, but it proved an inadequate soulmate. Watching football matches without crowds is soulless; you feel as though you are existing in a vacuum.
Yet six minutes before, a very different kind of collective emotion enveloped Villa Park. The raucous renditions of Villa chants were abruptly punctuated by Ivan Toney’s clinical finish, ripping the back of the net. Brentford’s goal was unexpected, as most Premier League newcomers usually play with a degree of deference in their opening matches (unless you are Leeds or playing against Arsenal!). Despite Brentford’s lead, neither dismay nor disillusionment filled the air. This was not because the Villains had supreme confidence in their team – Villa were without key players, such as John McGinn and Tyrone Mings – but because everybody seemed thrilled just to be at Villa Park. I wonder how long this will last?
Everybody seemed thrilled just to be at Villa Park
The same restraint and patience were not shown to the referee. I felt an overwhelming sense of sympathy towards him. The abuse was showered, hurled and pelted at him, like the eggs launched at politicians’ shoulders with laser-like precision. Today, the Villains had become bullies and Peter Bankes was their victim.
Here was a gentleman trying his best. It was not good enough, but it was his best. He did not let the game flow, as his whistle screamed each time a player made a slightly forceful challenge. Yet my brother, sitting next to me, made a solid point, which is that referees are human beings. They err, they are flawed, but then so are the rest of us.
By this point in the second half, the sunshine was resplendent, but the language used by the fans was anything but. They decided that Peter Bankes was ‘not fit to referee’ and they utilised some other choice words that were not as polite. Their verdict was so resolute and damning, it was as if every spectator had trained to become a referee. It was as if they had re-read every refereeing training manual, been on every refereeing course and practiced this profession at Sunday league level, where referees have to endure a torrent of abuse before experiencing the glamour of the Premier League. Or is refereeing at Premier League level just where they encounter vitriol against them on a greater scale? There were 42,000 at Villa Park. When you stop and reflect on all that referees have to withstand, you begin to feel respect towards them, albeit begrudgingly.
When you stop and reflect on all that referees have to withstand, you begin to feel respect towards them
When the referee was not being accused of being inept, lulls in the atmosphere crept upon the stadium, when all that could be heard was faint, hushed chattering. Muted debates raged about Dean Smith’s tactics and potential substitutions. The game was not especially memorable. It ended 1-1, but what was more forgettable was not the result, but the performances of both teams. There was a paucity of creativity, imagination and technical quality. There was a dearth of chances. The goalkeepers were largely untroubled, despite the undoubted quality of Danny Ings, Ivan Toney and Ollie Watkins.
Just before I left at eighty-five minutes, which we do to avoid the traffic (a very pragmatic act I know), I took one final glance. I gazed at the sea of claret and blue, some perched patiently, forecasting a Villa winner, others’ arms flailing and lashing at the air, probably protesting at poor Mr. Bankes; the valuable scapegoat for Villa’s inability to defeat a newly promoted team. I also pondered why there needs to be five hundred people on the touchline. There is a manager, an assistant coach, a first-team coach and even a set-pieces coach. This must be because footballers are toddlers who are incapable of making independent decisions, I thought. Have managers ever considered that they might be feeding their players too much information?
In eighty-five minutes I felt anticipation, excitement, euphoria, disappointment, irritation and exasperation – and I was not alone. I felt these emotions with other people, next to other people. These were collective emotions. The match was a collective experience. The return of crowds reminds us of what football is truly about. It is about winning and losing, the league table, flashes of individual genius, but what sustains it is that it is a collective drama and the fans are members of a sporting community. It is the collective and the community that makes football what it is. Covid and the planned European Super League punctured these feelings, but have not severed them.
And by the way, we beat the traffic.
Image credit: Ben Sutherland (CC BY 2.0)