Adventures in Football #71: Villa Park (Aston Villa)
January 8, 2023
ASTON VILLA vs. STEVENAGE (FA Cup R3)
This one has been a long time coming. I could have done it beforehand, but I’ve always struggled to get more than one ticket. Villa has a weird ticketing system where you can only buy one ticket per fan account. So, short of making Maria a fan account, we’re not able to go together on one account. I thought rules would be significantly relaxed for the visit of Stevenage, hence my trip today, but they were not. So, I’m finally ticking off Villa Park but doing so on my own. The last major ground in the Birmingham metropolitan area as I’ve already been to St Andrews, the Bescot, Hawthorns, Molineux, Coventry, Solihull Moors and even Kidderminster. With Villa Park ticked off, the next major local target would be Leicester, followed by Derby, Stoke and Crewe.
Villa Park is one of the most famous grounds in the country. Arguably the most famous I’ve not been to (I’ve done Anfield, Old Trafford, Hillsborough, Arsenal, Forest, Wembley etc). I’ve not been to Stamford Bridge and Newcastle. Those three are the tops. Villa Park is the second highest visited ground on FootballGroundMap.com after Old Trafford. But then Loftus Road is eleventh on that list because it’s easier to get into than Arsenal, Palace, Fulham etc, on account of nobody wanting to actually go there.
Villa Park was opened in 1897 and the Villa have played there ever since. It was built at a cost of £16,733. Which nowadays is less than my car cost. Comparatively it would be about £25M in modern money, which is also cheap. Archibald Leitch, the famous architect, was responsible for a lot of Villa Park’s iconic design changes in the early 1920s. Originally the ground was a flat oval with a cycling track. Villa’s innovation included the Oak Room, the first ever restaurant at a football stadium. Leitch was famous for creating beautiful grounds but Villa Park was particularly good, even by his lofty standards.
Doug Ellis, aka “Deadly Doug”, a man with a passion for sacking managers, was responsible for a lot of the modernisation of Villa Park in the 1970s. After the Taylor Report, Villa Park went all seater and has a capacity of 42,682. I’ll be in the Trinity Road stand, one of the larger stands, along with the famous Holte End. Which means I get a view of the less impressive Doug Ellis Stand and the North Stand. Photos to follow!
Aston Villa are arguably the biggest club in the Midlands with the largest supporter base. They were founder members of the Football League and also the Premier League. One of only three clubs to do so. They’ve won seven league titles, but only one in my lifetime (1980-81), seven FA Cups, five League Cups and the 1982 European Cup. Villa were only the fourth English winner (after Man Utd, Liverpool and Forest) and only five English teams have managed to be European champions. Notable current players include Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Digne, “Meatball” John McGinn and world cup winning goalkeeper Emi Martinez. Whether I’ll see any of them today is debatable. It depends how dangerous Unai Emery thinks Stevenage are.
Game day and I start out from home and jump on the train into Birmingham. I’ve taken the decision to walk to Villa Park from New Street so I could go and look at Villa’s fan pubs. The above shot is taken from the eaves of the Villa Tavern, eyeballing the old public baths across the way. There is some very pretty architecture in Birmingham if you know where to look. Sadly the weather was not on my side and it was constant drizzle and misery. Weather most people associate with the second city!
From the Villa Tavern down towards Villa Park now and you can see it on the horizon there, looming up out of Aston like a castle. I walked over three miles to get you these shots and they don’t really convey how persistently wet it was.
I appreciate a lot of stuff like this where the local area gets colour stamped in club colours. That’s how you can tell you’re getting close. You can probably make out all the water running down this sign. It was very wet! At this point I joined a throng of people heading to the ground so I could stop glancing at Google Maps, which has been a bit weird recently and keeps forgetting the route I’m taking.
You can tell I’m going to Villa not Wolves because it says “we are Villa” not “we am Villa”. There are various eateries and stands selling merch around here. I was tempted by merch, but it was so wet there was no point buying a soggy scarf.
Another famous Villa fan pub is the Holte. It’s right by the Holte End of the ground and I was mentally planning to get there early enough for a pint, but the weather has put me in a mood to just get into the ground. Again, lovely architecture though.
This is the famous Holte End. Note the lions, a symbol Villa frequently use. The steps up to the Holte End are an iconic sight. Next time I’m at Villa Park, I think I’ll go into the Holte End just so I can get walk up them steps.
Any fans of brick work out there, this is virtual brickwork pornography. You don’t see a lot of red brick on grounds. It’s a look.
This is where I am today; the Trinity Road Stand. It’s a big fella and I’m in the upper, which means a load of staircases.
As with Arsenal’s ground, the floor is tiled around the ground with messages from supporters. Some of them tributes to fallen fans. Some of them messages of love and birthday best wishes. Glad to know Keith Wiltshire was in Rotterdam in May 1982. What a date that is for Villa fans.
This statue is of William McGregor. A Scotsman who moved to Birmingham way back in 1870. He had a strong hand in the introduction of professional football, through Aston Villa, and helped to form the original football league. It was McGregor who wrote to the other clubs and brought forward the concept of a league. McGregor was the first chairman of the football league. So, if you ever wondered why the original league is a bit Midlands-centric, leaning towards the north, now you know.
Oh my god, I love a staircase. These, all intertwined so you can see across into other stairwells, are gorgeous. They ruined my thighs going up them but it was worth the climb. A fresh lick of Premier League paint was evident all the way up. Class. The whole place has little bits and pieces of Villa history.
There’s nothing like being greeted by a painted girder reminding you Villa has been here since day one and then, at the top of the stairs, a nice little reminder that they also won the European Cup. I was surprised Nottingham Forest didn’t have more of this stuff. You should be proud of your history.
Into the concourse and it’s an hour to kick off and the concourse is heaving. I get myself a Villa Pale Ale (which is actually good and is made by local brewery Purity especially for the club) and a chicken balti pie. The pie was top tier scran. It might not look like much, but it had big chunks of chicken and a tasty sauce. It was a little bit burnt at the bottom, but I’ll give it a pass because it’s a big step up on the standard pukka pie that you get at a lot of clubs. Villa have tried to make the concourse experience a good one. I would have liked the beer to be on tap, but I’ll take a can of Villa Pale over Amstel on tap, cheers. There were other options outside the ground. Including poutine. Poutine? The game’s gone.
Into the seats then and I’m sat next to a lad and his dad. Their seats were split either side of mine, so I let them sit together. Otherwise, I’d have them chatting across me all game! This is the first FA Cup third round tie I’ve attended since 1994 when I saw a then Championship Barnsley side win 2-1 at non-league Bromsgrove Rovers with a late Owen Archdeacon winner. I had to queue up for tickets for that one. I didn’t even make the decision to go to this game until earlier in the week. A bit of a difference in terms of importance for the two home teams.
As you can see the Holte End is away to my right. My impressions of the stadium are that it’s held up well for being so old. It’s clearly been taken care of. Everything looks fresh, vibrant and new. It doesn’t have that layer of new technology laid in over the top like Burnley has but otherwise it is a very good old ground. It doesn’t quite have the feeling of awe that I had at Wembley or the historical beauty of Hillsborough. It’s just…solid.
Here’s the ground just ahead of kick off. The attendance is over 32,000 and it probably helps they dropped ticket prices for the visit of Stevenage. I paid £20 for this view, in what would be a £60 seat for a Premier League game. Before the match we get some weird rituals including a snarling lion on the big screens and Ozzy singing Crazy Train. I love the use of Ozzy, a Birmingham icon. I’m less sold on “Bangarang”. Finally, we get the “Hi Ho, Aston Villa” song. I still can’t get an answer on who started this first, but Villa, Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday all use it.
Villa don’t field their best XI but there are plenty of star names out there; Matty Cash, Jan Bednarek, Douglas Luiz, Leon Bailey, Danny Ings and Philippe Coutinho included. Aston Villa face a stubborn Stevenage team who set out their stall to defend and hit Villa on the counter. There’s a lot of Villa passing the ball sideways across the back four. Cash has clearly been told to not get forward and his positioning is made more frustrating by Augustinsson on the other side being given licence to roam. “Get stuck in” yells some eight-year-old behind me like he’s doing a Football Manager shout.
We have the dreaded VAR at this game and Stevenage are unlucky to fall foul of a disallowed goal for a marginal offside. It’s a warning to Villa. The travelling Stevenage support are brilliant by the way. They’re making all the noise. They do a double “is this a library…shhhh” to no response from the Holte End. Off the field Stevenage are winning. The frustrations of the Villa fans are evident around me. “COME ON VILLA, IT’S STEVENAGE” yells one fan as another move breaks down. There’s almost a reluctance to commit players to attacks. Leon Bailey has the chance to take on the full back one on one and just doesn’t. There’s a lot of long-range efforts and it’s quite poor and slow from Villa.
They eventually break Stevenage down and it’s Morgan Sanson who strikes after half an hour. He does so in front of the “Oh, it must be! And it is! Peter Withe!!” banner. It’s been pedestrian at times from Villa but they found the quality to take the lead. Surely, with a myriad of second half substitutes, Villa should have enough to get this one over the line.
The twelfth man has been quiet today. Villa attacks that end second half and they batter Stevenage. Chance after chance, after chance goes begging. Leon Bailey comes in for some stick from the fans for his profligacy. There’s one brilliant moment where Bailey stumbles and almost gives it away. “That’s shit” yells a fan. Bailey then recovers his footing and backheels it to a teammate. “That’s good!” the same fan pipes up. Chuckles follow from all around. There’s nothing like a good smirk from a collection of football supporters. Everyone in on the same joke.
As the half progresses Stevenage must come out and have a go and they do so effectively by pressing Villa’s worst players on the ball. Namely Leander Dendoncker. Dendonkey dwells on it too long on the edge of his own penalty area. Dendoncker is prone to a late error but even by his standards, this was particularly stupid. As the final man his foul not only conceded a penalty but also saw him red carded. Jamie Reid converted from the spot and Stevenage were level, in a game they had barely featured in.
Can Emery be blamed for a lack of aggressive substitutions? Not really, Villa were 1-0 and cruising for most of the game and had so many chances to get a second and kill it off. Nobody seemed willing to take the responsibility and have a shot, unless it was too far out and then they were all at it.
The unthinkable happened just moments later with Villa caught sleeping at a short corner and Dean Campbell, completely unmarked, lashed home at the near post. 2-1 Stevenage! It’s the last minute and Villa are a man short. The game is done and Stevenage record a famous FA Cup victory, knocking Villa out on their own patch.
I’m not as enraged with the result as those around me. I see this as one of Stevenage’s most famous wins. Let them enjoy it. While everyone else was mad I was actually smiling. I had to cover my mouth up. I remember muttering “oh my god” when the ball went short at the corner because I knew I was about to see a famous upset. Fair play to the Stevenage fans, they were at it all game and deserved to win. Should Villa have finished them off in the first five minutes of the second half? Absolutely. But hey, that’s football.
Outside the ground I had a brief chat with a bloke supporting Stevenage who’d lived up in Birmingham for a few years. He seemed like a nice bloke. I wished him all the best as I went my own way into the night. It was some time later that I realised how eerily similar this game was to the last FA Cup third round tie I’d seen was.
Bromsgrove Rovers vs Barnsley took place on January 8, as did this game. Bromsgrove took the lead around half an hour into the game, as did Aston Villa. Barnsley scored their first goal on 88’ to come back, as did Stevenage. Barnsley got a dramatic late winner in the last minute, as did Stevenage.
What are the odds on that?
Anyway, let’s sort out some scores for the Villa shall we?
Most of it came from Stevenage. I reckon if I’d been in that mass of Stevenage limbs in the last few minutes I’d go five stars but I wasn’t, I was in the Villa section. They were quite loud pre-match but during the game it was very quiet. The rating even takes into account the noise from the away fans here! **½.
I’m aware I got a cup special ticket but £20 is a bargain at this level. I paid £2 more to watch Rochdale vs Wimbledon. ****.
The game was tight, tense but had a wonderful finish (if you support Stevenage). It wasn’t the best game of football, but it was memorable as hell. ***½.
EASE OF ACCESS
Parking looked reasonable nearby to the ground. There was more street parking than I think I’ve ever seen anywhere else. Cars everywhere. The traffic looked a bit grim. I’ve been on a train past a Villa game and it wasn’t that bad. It’s also a mere 2.2 miles stroll back into central Birmingham, which is how I escaped post match. ***½.
The food and drink was really good and not ridiculously priced. The beer was a fiver and it was good. The ground is up to standard with just about everything I would want from a ground at the top level. Great view, good concourses, everything looked fresh and clean. But also, that extra layer of history. The European Cup win front and centre, the history of the club and the statue being of William McGregor says everything you need to know about the Villa. ****½
A whopping score for the Villa, coming in just behind Wembley on the years league table. If only the atmosphere had been a bit better, and you’d be looking at an elite ground. Everything else ticked my boxes.
NEXT: I might actually go and watch Stevenage. Not even joking.