An Englishman in Portland: An Aston Villa fan remembers

A Birmingham native on growing up supporting the claret and blue

Aston Villa, European Cup, 1982

Photo Credit: 
(Getty Images)

Editor's Note: With tomorrow's international friendly against Aston Villa (7:30pm PT, webstream at PortlandTimbers.com, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940), we asked Joseph Gallivan, a writer and native of Birmingham, England, to give us some insight into the culture of growing up Villa. Gallivan has contributed to The London Independent, The New York Post, The Portland Tribune, and PortlandTimbers.com.

I grew up a mile from Villa Park. Age five I remember hearing from my backyard the roar of the Holte End when a goal went in, and the songs of 10,000 throats in a crowd of 40,000. After a match, men and boys streamed up our road heading home. They grabbed dinner at fish and chip shops, and copies of the Sports Argus, a pink paper that hit the newsstand half an hour after the final whistle.

Going to London was pretty much unthinkable in our family, but I remember my dad taking my eldest brother on the train to the old Wembley for the the 1971 League Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur.  We lost 2-0 and my brother cried, but he brought home a mini trophy with claret and blue ribbons, which sat in the nick-nacks cabinet for years, as though Villla had won.  

My father died when I was nine but his brother John, despite being an armchair Birmingham City fan, took me in the right end (the Holte) to see Villa v Birmingham on September 27, 1975. I was sold on the crush of 53,000 people, the noise and the chaotic joy of Brian Little and Chico Hamilton scoring the winning goals.

Back then in Brum (aka Birmingham), the NASL and the Portland Timbers were buzzwords for a while. At my elementary school we puzzled over the slogan, “Soccer is a kick in the grass.” I recall a kick-about where we were the Timbers and the other side was the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

By age 12 I had a job at the Villa: in return for dusting off a few blocks of painted wooden seats in the Victorian-era Trinity Road stand, I received a watery orange juice, crisps and a match day pass that got me into any home game. As the stadium filled I would wander about, peering at away supporters or, on midweek games, doing my Latin homework.

This saved me money so I could go to away games. Following the Villa was easy: when we weren’t playing well, there was always the comfort of having loud, brave fans all around, plus a stadium and a history to be proud of. We used to sing “My eyes have seen the glory of the Villa win the cup / Seven times we’ve won it no one else can catch us up...” It referred to the 1957 FA Cup victory over Manchester United’s Busby Babes, but as the FA Cup declined in prestige and other teams exceeded our record of seven wins, the song degenerated into a mumble.

But in 1981 all that was moot because we were crowned champions of Division 1. Looking at some of the goals from that era on YouTube, Villa’s pace and skill look as good as anything going on today. Villa used to tear into opponents, especially in the second half when we always kicked into the Holte End, just as the Timbers do with the North End. I was there at the season finale at Arsenal’s Highbury, when we lost 2-0 but our nearest competitors, Ipswich, also lost. It was ecstasy to be champions and to spill out of the Clock End on to the pitch.

The next season we were weak in the league but went on to win the European Cup (now known as the European Champions League) with a 1-0 win over Karl-Heinz Rumenigge’s Bayern Munich (Tony Morley and Allan Evans celebrating with the Cup in exchanged Bayern kits, above). I wasn’t at the game - I had exams and besides, Rotterdam was a lot farther than London. I watched it on TV with my mother.

The next year we won the European Supercup against a truculent Barcelona, another unlikely success for a team that had been in the Third Division in 1972. But these successes provided a store of happy memories, and collective self-esteem for Villans, during the next twenty years when The Big Four emerged and we were nowhere near them.

But winning those earlier cups is like being inoculated against the depression of never winning anything—a feeling all too many people carry around in their everyday lives.

While Villa are coming off a disappointing year which almost ended in relegation; with a new, progressive coach in Paul Lambert, the mood amongst Villa fans is optimistic.

When I moved to Portland in 1994 an era had just ended. Up until then, your chances of catching up on UK football scores stateside was limited to finding a three day old newspaper. But by 1994 you could get the basic box scores on Compuserve, quicker even than the Sport Argus.

These days I can follow the Villa on multiple screens, but there is nothing on earth like the comforting roar of the Villa fans, and the visceral claret and blue. Much as I love the Timbers, I’ll be in the Away section for this game. It’s my son and daughter’s first Villa game. If I’m to teach them about Aston Villa and its history, they might as well start here--even if it's thousands of miles from my childhood backyard of Villa Park.