Saturday, March 19, 2011

Chapter 8:You Don't Know What You're DO-ing!

Our last day of vacation was the one I was most looking forward to, the Premier League match. We were able to get up at a reasonable time, have breakfast, and make our way to the Underground to make our way to Euston Station for the Virgin train to Birmingham.

We arrived without incident, although the trip did allow me to see more of the English countryside than our Eurostar trip to Paris. Birmingham is definitely a more industrial city than London, at least the parts of London we saw, and you could tell the difference in the landscape. What we saw of Birmingham was definitely grittier than London.

We made our way to Villa Park, Aston Villa's home ground. We had to ask directions as to where we picked up our tickets that I ordered online. Unfortunately, we got three different answers from three different people, and we ended up making about two or three laps around the stadium before we could get the tickets and get inside. Keep in mind, it's not a tiny little yard, and this is day eight of a pretty ambitious trip. Mary Beth was quite a trooper.

Even more so when we were taking pictures, and an official from the team came up to us. They were from the marketing department, and wanted pictures of fans taking pictures outside Villa Park. Sounds simple, right? Nah. They wanted something a little more involved, and we ended up getting moved around and posed for about five minutes. Remember, this is AFTER the wild goose chases we were sent on to get the tickets in the first place. Mary Beth was QUITE a trooper. Is my ego big enough to think it was all worth it to have my picture in some marketing brochure I'll never see? Well, I'll let you come up with your own conclusion.

(Hint. The answer is yes.)

We ultimately did get our tickets and get inside the ground. The steward inspecting our bags was incredibly kind. Apparently, SLR cameras of any kind aren't allowed in the ground. Of course, I had a ginormous bag with one inside. He just smiled, and said "you're not going to be using this in here, right, mate?" He checked with his boss, and they let us in. He also made sure we knew that we couldn't take pictures of any kind during the game, so we wouldn't get into trouble later on. Thank God we must just look like dumb, harmless Americans.

Of course, he also recommended the cheeseburgers. More on that later.

We went up to order lunch, and discovered they are cash-only, and there are no money machines in Villa Park (!). Mary Beth and I pooled our coins, and ended up buying two cheeseburgers and a water. We got to our seats, which were just phenomenal, and settled in and ate our lunch.

Worst. Cheeseburgers. Ever.

Seriously, I don't think a cheeseburger is supposed to crunch when you bite into it. I thought about going "authentic" and getting a steak and kidney pie, but thought I'd play it safe with the cheeseburger. Bad plan.

We sat and soaked up the atmosphere before the match kicked off (well, in all fairness, I stood in the main area watching the Tottenham-West Ham match until the TVs in the stadium cut away to the internal TV). We were about an hour early, so we had plenty of time to get ready and enjoy the sights before the kickoff.

I've seen Premier League matches on television all the time. But seeing it in person, less than 20 feet from the pitch, is a completely different animal. The speed, the skill, and the strength of both teams in playing the game was just amazing. And hearing the hum of the crowd, the songs of the home and away fans during the game, was incredible.

A word has to be said about the crowd. Villa Park holds less than 40,000 people, less than half the size of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. But the stadium is basically a box, and most of it is made of metal. It is LOUD. It is intimidating, to see the wall of people all around you, singing songs and chanting chants. And because the clock runs for the whole half, the game feels like a single, organic beast as opposed to a series of individual plays. It's just different, and I was hooked.

And, keep in mind, this was for a game that was, objectively, an awful game to watch. Aston Villa only had one shot on target in the first half, Wolves took a 1-0 lead towards the end of the first half, and that ended up to be the final score. Still, Villa had a few good chances, including Darren Bent bouncing a shot off the crossbar that could have made things interesting.

At halftime, we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman sitting in front of us. He turned around, smiled, and said "you're not English, are you?" We smiled, and said we were American. Mary Beth made the mistake of saying we were at our first soccer game, which made him recoil like we had stepped on his hand. She caught herself and said "football, not soccer," which made him smile. He was awfully sweet, telling us about his grandkids getting to see a game down close for the first time, how much he loved living in Birmingham, and how he was pleased to have visitors at his beloved Villa Park.

It was interesting to see the Aston Villa crowd turn on their manager, Gerard Houllier. Villa is having a very disappointing season, and most of the fans are starting to think that Houllier isn't the right guy for the job. In the second half, Houllier took off fan favorite Marc Albrighton, who was one of the few players having a good game. The crowd went mental, the loudest they were the entire game, singing "you don't know what you're doing" to Houllier. Once that starts happening, it's usually the kiss of death for a manager.

Phil Down (the referee) blew the final whistle, and Wolverhampton's fans were drowned out by the furious boos of the Villa supporters. Mary Beth and I went down a row to get a picture of ourselves, which was apparently a bad idea. Two or three fans were rushing down to get as close to the pitch as possible were screaming and swearing at their own team as they left the pitch.

I mean, seriously, red-faced screaming. I've been at a bunch of contentious games. I have never seen craziness like that. And that was just after the stewards stopped another kid from rushing onto the stadium.

It made some of the other things make more sense. There are "home" and "away" tickets sold, meaning that the fans are completely segregated by the teams they support. The area where the Wolves fans sat was ringed by easily 100 police officers. And even after that, when the crowd was leaving and they mingled, there were two or three fights that just about broke out. One guy was on his phone and, at the top of his lungs, told his mate that the game was a "f***ing w**k, total s**t." Mary Beth, thankfully, hid her face in her scarf to conceal the unabashed giggling that provoked from her.

Keep in mind, Wolverhampton is not far from Birmingham, where Aston Villa is located. A game between teams that are close to each other is called a derby (pronounced darby), and usually the fans of those teams don't care much for each other. That explains a lot of the venom we saw during and after the game. In the photo album is a video with the Wolves fans turning the screw on the Villa fans after the game. You get an idea of why there could be some hard feelings.

We got back to the train, and had lunch at the station. We were in line trying to get information about what platform to use, and another fight almost broke out when a kid of Middle Eastern descent stepped out of line to look at a toteboard. A larger-statured (OK, fat) Englishman behind me started going after this guy for cutting in line, then talking about how this was HIS country, and how dare this guy try to get something over on him in HIS country. Apparently that attitude wasn't something that we left behind in the United States.

I made up for my cheeseburger by having a sausage and mash pasty (basically a calzone). Apparently between the pasty and the Villa kit, I passed for English enough that I had people coming up to me and asking how the match went -- at least until I opened my mouth and answered them. Still, that was fun.

On the train ride home, I listened to a Villa fan, an Arsenal fan, and a West Brom fan talk football all the way home. I have to admit, I was a little jealous. Getting a chance to talk football for an hour with anyone, much less life-long fans like that, would have been a lot of fun. But it was interesting just to eavesdrop and listen in.

We headed back to the hotel and packed up the bags, as we've got to get up at 3:45 a.m. to catch the coach for Heathrow tomorrow. I'm going to turn in listening to Match of the Day and the Football League Show on the BBC to complete my authentic London experience. I'll have a summary of the trip tomorrow, once we get home.

Photos of the football adventure can be found here.

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