Around the Grounds - Villa Park
The first in an occasional series sees Merlin revealing a few memories.
As a long-standing Chelsea supporter, and one who (when he was financially stable) used to travel home and away supporting the team, I have to admit that Villa Park was always one of my favourite destinations.
Travelling up the M6, from a southerly direction, the grand old place has an ambience all of its own, sat perched to the left and dominating the skyline, having previously passed by the eye-sore that is / was Fort Dunlop.
Exiting the motorway it`s the sort of place where parking, if you can navigate your way around, is never really a problem. There are several side-streets within walking distance to the ground and also numerous car parks that are not intent on ripping us punters off.
Over the years Villa Park, much like our own ground has changed. The enormous expanse that was the Holte End has been replaced by the double tier stand we`re familiar with now, the old Witton Stand has gone to be replaced also by a double-decker stand and the original Main Stand, previously grand in stature and design has also been significantly redeveloped. In fact the only stand that, since I`ve been visiting the old place, hasn`t changed is the North Stand which retains that old feeling of familiarity.
In developing the ground, Villa`s Stadium has never lost that authentic feeling about it; the corners remain open and whilst the wind may, on occasion, whistle in, it also allows the unique atmosphere created by the Villa faithful to waft down the streets and up into the nearby park.
But what of my favourite memories of the grand old place?
Well first up is that epic FA Cup semi-final, against our local rivals Fulham, whereby a goal from John Terry settled matters and guided us towards a FA Cup Final appearance, against Arsenal, in the Millennium Stadium. I`ve designated it epic more for events off the field than on it as it was the occasion a group of us moved mountains to enable the original 'Pride of London` flag to make a re-appearance after an absence of several years. The roar of appreciation as it was unfurled and then the old girl being maneuvered across the stand and passed up into the Main Stand will stay with me forever.
The occasion also saw a good friend and I spend time on the Villa Park pitch after the game, as we desperately tried to gather the enormous piece of cloth into a state fit enough to be transported back south.
A second memory comes from an earlier period, a time when a group of us decided to make a day of it and travel to Villa Park early in the morning, to celebrate the last away game of the season. Up at dawn we were in Birmingham supping the local ale at opening time, the only problem being that we kind of got carried away and when we realized the time, attempts to enter the Chelsea end were met with responses relating to it being full up.
Undeterred we wandered down to the Holte End entrances and after being refused entry at one turnstile, simply gained entrance at the next. Minding our own business, down the front corner of the Holte End, we watched Chelsea race into a two-goal lead before the call of nature meant I needed to visit the toilet.
Unleashing a torrent of pee, I`d inadvertently undone my jacket to reveal my Chelsea shirt, which proved to be a big mistake as I was soon set upon by a few locals who bundled me to the floor, adjacent to the trough, before running off. Reflecting on my foolishness, I wandered back to our little group with my very own aroma, eau-de-piss I think our group called it.
If I recall right, the game ended 2-2 before both sets of supporters invaded the pitch with the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, being carried around the pitch perched on the shoulders of some exuberant supporters.
My third and final memory for this piece, relates to the occasion I took my young daughter on her first away trip. As usual we arrived far too early and to while away time we spent an hour, or so, in the park behind the Main Stand. She amused herself on the swings, slides and roundabouts, whilst I read through the match-day programme.
If I recall right, the game was a drab affair that ended all-square, but the following morning, after a late arrival home, my daughter proudly proclaimed that it was the best ground she`d ever visited. Of course, she`s grown up now and is at college, but that trip years ago, she still remembers fondly and whilst I don`t totally agree that it is the best ground visited, its not far off it and I look forward to returning one day very soon.