Monday mornings are generally the worst time of the week for Villa fans of the past 10 years. You might wake up to a beautiful sunrise, a cool aired freshness and maybe even some chirping birds – but the memory of the weekend’s events is always only a few seconds away, reminding you that today’s morning light is nothing more than just another false dawn.
Aston Villa has often been referred to as “the sleeping giant”. As the 4th most successful English club, a coveted fan base and a proud history; supporting the Midlands leaders would seem to have its perks, but certainly not to a 21st century teenager. Because as “giant” a past the Villains might have had, there seems to be absolutely no waking the promised beast; who at this stage, must surely have fallen into a deep, deep coma.
Born in 1988, I thought I might have uncovered a hidden gem in Aston Villa. Consistent top 4 finishes and a realistic appetite for success actually made it easy to stick by the claret and blues. But when your trophy mission dries up with an apathetic FA Cup final defeat at the turn of the millennium, it’s hard to sustain those brief feelings of 90s glory when your last cherished football memory was as an 11 year old boy.
So why is defeat so hard to take this time round? After the Ron Atkinson era, the thriving Brian Little performances and even John Gregory’s majestic top of the table gate crashes, Aston Villa has offered zero hope. The dark Graham Taylor years were epitomised by his smirking interviews as if he hadn’t realised what he had let Villa become. As one of only 7 clubs to secure Premier League status every year since its inception, it was unnacceptable that we became relegation battlers. David O’Leary … didn’t he con us into thinking we could at least start to hope once more? But with his fledgling on and off pitch antics, we saw an increase in his cry for money. Maybe he could have turned us into the next Leeds. The point being that the noughties have offered Villa fans absolutely nothing to get excited about, that being until the magic of Martin O’Neill came along.
When, in 3 years, you can go from 16th place to top 4 challengers – it’s hard not to get carried away, isn’t it? Not only this, O’Neill has brought consistency to Villa’s form in that we are still banging down the Champions League door one year later.
So we have reached Wembley for the first time in 10 years and surely nothing can stop us claiming that all important first trophy. The crowd invasion onto the pitch at Villa Park after the Blackburn victory suggested that something big was happening. The annihilation of Burnley and the FA Cup victory proved we were coming of age. O’Neill was piecing together the first part of his football dynasty. He even wore a suit for the final! With our constant improvement, and my “gut feeling” – how could anyone stand in the way of our first major honour in 14 years?
Unfortunately, Manchester United were in our way. And even more unfortunately, winning trophies is what they do. My first incline was to once again question the selection of Emile Heskey (that’s a story for a whole different blog) and the omission of Luke Young. It isn’t Cuellar’s fault but he doesn’t offer anything on the right – anything at all. Yet again, with the best defensive record this season, maybe his inclusion is merited. Secondly, I thought if justice had been served, then I would not be picking holes in players’ performances. Of course Vidic should have gone and on top of this, Evra’s second late challenge on Ashley Young went unpunished. I’m not arguing that Villa were not outplayed by United, in fact they were dominated for the last 60 minutes. But the fact is, that 2 of our players (Gabby and Ashley) were good enough to make 2 Manchester United players commit to challenges which should have seen them both sent off. Instead, we were not rewarded.
Sour grapes aside, the biggest disappointment of the Carling Cup was that we couldn’t step up a gear when we needed to. Looking around for inspiration, I had an empty feeling inside in that I couldn’t see where the game changing pass would come from. Milner and Petrov competed excellently throughout, but when the going got tough, United got passing and we were chasing shadows instead of chasing the game. Having experienced the build up, the hype, the hope; and having gone one up in 5 minutes, could I not be forgiven for dreaming? Did it not just seem like the glory days were coming back to their rightful place?
But after watching the Reds once again do what they needed to do in ruthless fashion, and seeing them celebrate as enthusiastically as they have done with Ferguson’s 25 other cups, my probably premature expectations came crashing down to earth with an almighty thump – and I had this sickening reminder that I am an Aston Villa fan.
I hadn’t learned from the last 12 years of let downs, but my fingers are most certainly burnt once more. With my Villa scarf on, I am now fearing for the rest of the season and praying that it isn’t all one big waste of effort.
But as I look into O’Neill’s hungry eyes, nothing is pointless. When I hear him speak I’m even more convinced than ever that we have merely hit a steep speed bump on the long winding road to glory. This is why I’m happy to let the Ulster man lead me once more down the garden path into the dangerous depths of hope. And I hope that soon I can allow myself to vulnerably expect from the Villains again. I hope that when that day comes back around, I can forget about the hurt of the past … even for a brief moment. Aren’t MON’s unspoken promises much better than our past managers’ white flags? Maybe we are just the great pretenders, and sometimes I envy United fans. Wouldn’t life be easier to follow the mighty Reds?
But when I find myself distrusting the promises of hope, I remember,
“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”
And when the first piece of silverware comes back to Bodymoor Heath, the first piece of O’Neill’s dynasty; I’d like to think that it will all be worth it. Until that day, I will hope. And until that day, I’ll absorb the magic on the peaks of our Villa rollercoaster and embrace the wakened dream that has dragged us back from the plunges of the league. And until that day, I’ll keep believing that sometimes, the beauty is in the attempt.