(OJ NOTE: From the forthcoming Filmic Cuts 6. Hope you enjoy…)
Every year, it is the same.
We come to the ground, watch our boys battle on, but see the spirit slowly sap away. Watch as that brief moment of hope is wiped away by a double dose of intense misery. A victory here, a point there, is soon replaced by a run of pain that reminds us exactly where we stand in the world.
We are Aston Villa fans, and this is our curse.
It didn’t used to be this bad. We had hope. We had passion. Now, they are figments in the wind, fluttering above Villa Park like dying clouds on a summer day. Now, it is merely watching the lads go through the motions, passing the ball sideways and hoping not to be turned over by another team battling for relegation.
It is only the lucky flip of a coin that has kept us up recently – a surprise draw from our rivals, or goal difference being in our favour; little things that cause your cuticles to slowly whittle away. And at the end of it? We just survive. We just hang on.
Well, on this day I’d had enough. I couldn’t take it anymore – no more snatches of positivity, no more false dawns on a Sunday morn – and when the email came asking me to get my new season ticket, I deleted it out of hand. No more pain. No more misery. Just a quiet Saturday afternoon with the paper, with no more nightmares of a footballing sort.
Oh, just thinking about it made me feel warmer. No more bad luck stories about our best player leaving. No more debilitating runs of form. No more City fans pointing and laughing at our predicament…
That’s the worse thing, the City fans. Yeah, they’re no better than us, down in the lowly depths of the Championship; but they recognise our hubris, mocking their own descent and cackle away while our own fate lurks in the shadows. Pointing, laughing and singing a chorus of terrible mockery. It rings in your ears, haunting you as you try to sleep.
“You’re going down in the morning! You’re going down in the morning!”
I would take some strong sleeping pills and a good whisky to send me off to sleep.
It shouldn’t be like this. It shouldn’t bother me so, but the tribal nature of this thing we call football draws you in like a drug. To finally break from it, to finally go cold turkey, chills you but also fills you with a lightness you long since forgot. No more highs. No more lows. Just rest, relaxation and none of this nonsense.
That’s what I had hoped. Then, he came.
It was the Saturday after I deleted the season ticket email, around the sort of time Match of the Day would kick off on the telly. Naturally, it wasn’t on now, but ritual had the time – 10:50PM – ingrained on my mind. I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, only to be awoken by a voice.
I wasn’t used to being called a ‘slag’ in the comfort of my own bedroom, so you can imagine my surprise when I heard it. You can imagine my further surprise when I opened my eyes and saw the spirit of Peter Withe floating before me.
“Peter Withe? But you’re not dead?”
“Dead tired, maybe,” Ghost Pete said. “But no, I’m not dead. You just don’t know many Villa players who are dead.”
“And why you talking like Tim Sherwood?”
“Because you don’t know what Peter Withe sounds like.”
It was all very reasonable, in a completely unreasonable way. There he was, the hero of the 1982 European Cup final, clad in the claret and blue colours he wore that season. True, in the final we were in our white away kit, but as we’ve established, this spirit was a mess of contradictions. Naturally, I blamed the half empty bottle of Bowmore by my feet.
“Why is the ghost of Peter Withe here?” I said, wondering if this was some sort of elaborate dream.
“You’ve lost your way, son,” Ghost Pete said. “You’ve lost hope. You’ve abandoned the Villans just when they needed you most.”
I tried to argue back, telling Ghost Pete that my reasons were justified. We were shocking these days, not like when he was around. No longer champions, no longer contenders; just bottom-feeders in a game gone mad with money.
Instead, Ghost Pete took my hand and pulled me into the buzzing static of my TV. I would have been frightened, if I wasn’t still half-asleep. Next thing I knew, we were flying above the Earth, looking down at a world cast in monochrome.
“What is all this?” I asked, more curious about the fact everything was black & white rather than flying with the ghost of Peter Withe. Some things you just had to accept.
“The year is 1894, and below you see the mighty Villa team winning their first ever league championship. It was the start of a glory period, which saw us win another 4 times over the next 6 years, as well as 2 FA Cups.”
This was all very interesting, especially watching the fans clap politely as the Villa team held the cup aloft, but I didn’t see Ghost Pete’s point. These were past glories, not the stain of today.
“I don’t need a history lesson,” I told him, but I soon learnt that you don’t argue with a flying ghost who just happens to be holding your hand.
“Oh really?” Ghost Pete said and with that let go of me. Soon enough, I was plummeting to the ground, watching as decades of football washed past me. As Billy Walker smashed in goal after goal and our trophy cabinet grew and grew. I saw the world burst into colour, before seeing the ground quickly come up below me.
I nearly crapped myself.
Before I turned into nothing more than a red mosaic, Ghostly Peter Withe grabbed hold of me and told me to look up. I stood in the centre circle of Villa Park and thousands of fans grew up from the stands around me. In one voice, they began to cheer in unison and I turned round to watch as a more corporeal Pete charged toward me. I stood in terror as he passed through me, to score a wonderful goal against the Middlesbrough keeper to secure us the league. It was 1981 and the glory days were about to fade.
“Remember this?” Ghost Pete said.
“Doesn’t matter. All you need to see are the cheers around you. The joy at Villa winning the league once again. Our 7th title. The second crowning moment of our most recent history.”
And like that, Villa Park changed. The fans still remained, a sea of claret and blue, but the stadium grew and the occasion grew grander. This wasn’t Villa Park; this was De Kuip, in Rotterdam.
“A year later,” Ghost Pete said, brimming with pride, “The night we reached the top of the world. Or, at least, Europe.”
The heavens sang a chorus of ‘Up the Villa’, and I could only watch as Ghost Pete pulled me into the sky to see him score the decisive goal that would make Aston Villa European Champions. We stood with the giants of Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich. The pinnacle of European football. It was a memory that even young Villan’s savour and, I confess, a tear came to my eye as I watched the boys lift that iconic trophy.
“How does deleting that season ticket feel now, eh?”
“But this is the past,” I said. “There won’t be good times like this anymore. There’s no hope, no chance. Those things have died.”
“Maybe,” Ghost Pete said, “but they’ve died before.”
Suddenly it was 1995. The Premier League was in fully swing and Blackburn Rovers were climbing to an unlucky peak as champions.
And Villa? Villa finished 18th, 3 points off relegation.
“Where were we a year before?” Ghost Pete said, looking at the dejected faces of Paul McGrath and Nigel Spink. “League Cup winners, and now barely clinging to life.”
It was then that I saw them. Faces in the crowd, but they were all the same – deep black eyes and razor-sharp teeth, snarling in a grin that stretched from ear to ear. They didn’t wear the claret of the Villans; they wore deep blue hues with Triton emblazoned on their chest.
They were Birmingham City fans, and they were looking at me hungrily, gnashing their jaws up and down as they smiled. They seemed to sing a song, but I couldn’t hear it yet. Maybe Ghostly Peter Withe didn’t want me to hear it yet.
But they were there – watching, waiting, desperate to launch their attack.
“Bad times, son?”
“Definitely,” I said, feeling the maudlin nature of a Villa fan wash over me.
“Then you forget,” Ghost Pete said, as the world distorted around us.
McGrath no longer looked solemn. Spink looked on with pride. Something has changed at Villa Park and suddenly I saw what it was.
There was Andy Townsend, lifted above the crowds by hands belonging to Savo Milosevic, Mark Draper and Dwight Yorke. This wasn’t the darkness of the season before, this was one filled with joy, with heart. Hope had returned to Villa Park, all led by a grey-haired imp named Brian Little.
“The world turns, my boy, and so fortune turns with it. The bad times happen, sure, but soon enough the good comes back. One only has to look at the Saints, at the Hammers and the Magpies. The bad comes, but the bad goes. You gotta hang in their son, and not let them win.”
I was confused. Not let who win?
Ghostly Peter Withe pointed to the stands and I watched them turn black, then blue. The roaring cheers of the Villa faithful had gone, replaced by the monsters in blue that I had seen before. They had amassed in number and moved like a fine mist toward me. Their sharp teeth slammed up and down and their arms pointed out with clawed fingers. Their empty eyes were looking at me while their voices chanted…
“You’re going down! You’re going down!”
I tried to turn to Ghost Pete for help, but he was long gone, replaced by a single shirt in claret and blue. I felt a cold sweat break over me as I panicked, watching these monsters draw closer and closer. My hand shook, my heart thumped in my chest, as they edged toward me, their faces warped with sick delight. They were out to get me, destroy me and I had no idea how to save myself.
Then, a single word from above.
I looked to the shirt at my feet, and then back to the creatures. It was then I knew what I had to do.
I grabbed the shirt and the terrifying screech of pain from these beasts rang out as one. I put it on and cowered for this nightmare to end.
And end it did. I woke up to a blue sky outside and a moist brow. Without thinking, I threw on my coat and jumped in the first taxi I could call.
“Villa Park, stat.”
When we arrived, you couldn’t touch me as I zipped to the ticket office. My credit card was already in hand as I begged for a season ticket, to be let back in the sweet embrace of Villans everywhere. Of course, the girl behind the counter was more than happy to welcome me back, and we shared a combined hope that this season, maybe, would be the one.
Receipt in hand, I sighed with relief and thought of how Tim and the boys would finally crack the puzzle of Villa’s woes. That the lost souls of hope and belief would come back to Villa Park and we’d all cheer as one, even if that meant mid-table.
As I walked away, I looked to the crowds that gathered around, milling in the mid-day sun. Deep within them, I saw it again – an ebony-eyed, sharp-smiling troll clad in blue. It hissed at me and I knew that those monsters would always be there.
It was up to me to fight them off and continue being true to the claret and blue.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: The season this story was written, we were relegated. It’s a funny old game…)