How a wish became a nightmare

Twitter has always been my favourite social media platform. Quick, concise and in-the-moment, it’s a place where I go for breaking news, topical humour and the latest on Aston Villa. I also occasionally (and against my better judgment) use it as my own personal soapbox.

It was the latter that got me into a bit of bother at the weekend.

While I appreciate the last few days have been a significant time for a lot of people in this country, as a non-Monarchist, it’s been a bit surreal. My attitude to these things is largely to ‘live and let live’, but I couldn’t help but take to Twitter to gently poke fun of the more absurd aspects of the spectacle.

The “Stone of Destiny”, FFS. Amirite?

My ‘each to their own’ philosophy, however, was tested at times by the stance of different organisations. For instance, I was puzzled that the famously impartial BBC was showing unquestioning and unwavering support for a political model that carries an unelected Head of State, something that was also called into question by the anti-Monarchy lobbying group, Republic. Similarly, I was perplexed by the Premier League’s decision to nail its colours to the mast by insisting on a rendition of ‘God Save The King’ before the weekend’s games.

Then, on Saturday evening, fatigued by the constant and unavoidable blanket coverage I’d been bombarded with throughout the day, I was exposed to an act of protest that delighted the rebel inside me. The anthem was played at Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club, where it was greeted with a deafening chorus of boos.

So, onto the soapbox I went. I shared a video of the scene to my timeline, accompanied with the following text:

“I wish Villa fans could be more like this. I appreciate not everyone will agree.”

It was, as with most of my Tweets, a half-baked half-thought, devoid of context. It was, however, caveated with an acknowledgment that it wouldn’t be a popular opinion.

I had thought, naively, that like most of my Tweets it would largely go unnoticed, under the radar, into the ether. Then the rumblings of discontent began.

To offer the context the Tweet was lacking, I wasn’t saying that I think Villa fans should boo the national anthem before games. It happens so rarely that it would be a strange hill to die on.

It wasn’t that I disrespect the national anthem, or Britain, or anything like that.

It was an admiration for the spirit of the action more than the action itself.

I generally find Liverpool fans a bit tedious. Full of themselves. “Offended by everything, ashamed of nothing” is a term I’ve used in the past. Oh, and the Anfield atmosphere is a total myth, of course.

However, I do have a begrudging admiration for how resolute Liverpool fans are when it comes to defending their city and their club. From doggedly campaigning for justice for the Hillsborough victims to the way it held ‘The Sun’ to account for the vicious lies it told in the aftermath, they are, if nothing else, a set of supporters that won’t buckle when faced with adversity. It’s a spirit that led to Saturday’s act of rebellion, being a city that was treated so poorly by a cruel Government in the 1980s that a ‘managed decline’ was seriously considered in Westminster.

Ultimately, when I said “I wish Villa fans could be more like this”, it was more a longing for that “don’t fuck with us” spirit rather than a simplistic “Villa should boo the anthem”.

It’s a fire I’ve had in my belly for a while now. In 2020, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement rose to prominence, driven by constant police brutality against people of colour in America. Premier League players, inspired by the uprising, opted to ‘take the knee’ prior to matches as their own show of protest against institutionalised racism.

If there was ever a cause that Villa fans should have adopted as their own, it was Black Lives Matter. After all, Dalian Atkinson, revered as a club legend, was a black man whose life was cruelly taken, unlawfully, at the hands of police in 2016.

And yet, when fans returned to Villa Park following the Covid lockdown in May 2021, players were booed by a sizeable chunk of our support when they knelt. It was a reaction that filled me with utter despair and revulsion. How on earth could we reject an act of protest that was arguably more pertinent to us than any other set of supporters?

I wish we’d been more vociferous in our support.

My frustrations go beyond that, though. Earlier this year, despite previous pledges to the contrary, Villa confirmed a deal that would install an overseas gambling firm as its front of shirt sponsor. A strong statement from fan groups briefly offered hope that we wouldn’t lie down and lower ourselves to such an agreement, only for them to back down completely when the club shrugged off their pleas.

I wish we’d kept the pressure on.

Then more recently, we had huge increases on the prices of season tickets at Villa Park, a decision that will inevitably mean supporters on lower incomes, amid a cost of living crisis, will be priced out.

And yet, for everybody saying it was wrong, you’d find just as many people defending the board’s decision.

I wish we’d been more united in calling it out.

You might notice that I’m using the words ‘I wish’ a lot. The Tweet that started all this began with the same two words.

It’s worth pointing out, because I wish for lots of things. I wish I was younger. I wish I was rich. I wish I played for Villa. I spent a lot of my younger years wishing to marry Kate Winslet. I wish everything could be OK.

Wishing for something is just that. It’s often implausible, unfeasible, but you wish for it anyway.

I know I can’t change the mentality of Villa fans. It would be beyond arrogant of me to suggest that anyone should approach things in exactly the same way I do. When I said “I wish Villa fans could be more like this”, that’s all it was. A bloody wish.

And yet, the abuse that came through on Saturday night into Sunday morning would suggest I’d grievously offended people I’ve never even met.

I was called a ‘cunt’ more times than I care to mention.

I was repeatedly told I’m not welcome at Villa Park.

A few people grasped at my ancestry, their underlying anti-Irish bigotry coming to the fore, one of them repeatedly using the derogatory term “Mick”.

One person even told me I have shit hair!

The comments that irked most though were the ones that implied that I was ashamed of where I’m from. Telling me “if you don’t like it here, leave.” Some even urged me to “gO bAcK tO wHeRe I cAmE fRoM” (born in Sutton Coldfield, raised in Aldridge, live in Erdington, but OK!)

It bothers me because to imply I’m not proud of where I come from is just so plainly not true. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a tireless, tubthumping supporter of Birmingham and the West Midlands. I’m constantly backing this wonderful part of the world. In 2020, I took a paycut to take on a role at the Birmingham 2022 Organising Committee, and I spent more than two years there giving everything I had to help deliver that unforgettable event, all for the love of my city.

Ultimately, I think it’s a bit weird to make out that the only way of showing pride in where you’re from is to blindly wave a flag and support the state. In fact, why would I? As Brummies, all we ever get from the wider country is the piss taken out of us. Mocking our accent, questioning our intelligence, criticising our city. Why the bloody hell should I associate with that?!

But, as I’ve already said, live and let live, and each to their own. If you want to support the Monarchy, if you want to celebrate, I’m all for that, and will defend your right to express your opinion. Just don’t call me a C-word for expressing mine.

A final note on this: When we talk about being kind, we often say something like “because you never know what other people are going through”. It just so happens that, right now, I’m going through the hardest time of my life.

Being bombarded with mountains of disgusting, violent abuse was the last thing I needed over the weekend. I dealt with it on this occasion by deleting the Tweet and locking my account, but I’m acutely aware that such an aggressive pile-on could push more vulnerable people over the edge.

Individuals will always have different opinions to you, but the mark of a decent person is their ability to accept and tolerate difference. In short: let’s just be bloody nice to each other, shall we?

You know we should. We really should.


My Favourite Goalkeepers #1: Les Sealey

If my dad dreamed of having a little boy who shared his passion for football, I made him sweat a little bit before it came true.

My first ever Villa match was a 3-0 win against Sunderland in the 1990/91 season. One of our most notorious family anecdotes relates to the fact that I showed very little interest in the match itself, preferring to occupy myself with the Sooty and Sweep puppets I’d snuck into Villa Park.

Given that I was showing no signs whatsoever of developing any love of the game, it’s all the more remarkable that my dad wasn’t deterred from buying me a season ticket a few months later. Luckily for him, it would be a campaign that captured my imagination – and it was largely down to one man.

Les Sealey’s time in the Villa team was brief and, for many supporters, unremarkable. But to me, that season, he was the biggest superstar in world football.

For a young boy who had no understanding or appreciation for the finer points of the game, my love of Big Les wasn’t based so much on his performances, but on his character. Nicknamed ‘Mr. Angry’, he played the role of pantomime villain with aplomb, capturing the attention of seven-year-old me.

Barely a game would go by without Sealey berating his defenders or snarling at officials. It was in one game against Sheffield Wednesday that he truly lived up to his monicker. Following a controversial goal, an incensed Sealey, adamant that the ball had not fully crossed the line, practically had to be carried from the field such was his fury towards the referee. It was pure theatre, and I lapped it up.

As an aside, he wasn’t the only one who let frustration get the better of him that day. Later on, perhaps under the influence of a couple of ales, my dad called the BRMB football phone-in to forcefully share his view that the goal shouldn’t have stood.

Sealey’s run in the team began in October 1991. By February the following year, he’d earned a big enough place in my heart that all I wanted for my birthday was a Villa goalkeeper kit. My dad, smug in the knowledge that his brainwashing was going well, was only too happy to oblige. This photo, featuring awful early 90s wallpaper and my best ‘Mr. Angry’ impression, was duly taken:

Heartbreak was just around the corner, though. Just two weeks after my Sealey-themed birthday bash, he lost his place in the team and never played for Villa again.

The following season saw Sealey shipped out on loan to Coventry and then Blues, before returning to his former club, Manchester United, to deputise for Peter Schmeichel in 1993.

The last time I ever saw him play was in Villa’s tremendous 1994 League Cup final triumph over United at Wembley – and while I was caught up amid the euphoria of our shock victory, I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for my former hero as he sat dejected upon the hallowed turf after the final whistle.

Tragically and cruelly, Les Sealey passed away in 2001, aged just 43.

In total, he played only 18 games for Aston Villa and I honestly can’t tell you whether he was actually any good. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me if he wasn’t.

I will remember him simply as the man who drove my love of football. I’m forever grateful to him for that.

RIP Dalian Atkinson

Like all Aston Villa fans, I was stunned today to hear of the tragic death of our former striker, Dalian Atkinson.

Having been a mainstay of the Villa team in the earliest years of my support of the club, Dalian played in an era when, as a child who was quickly falling in love with the beautiful game, I viewed Villa players with an almost mystical aura.


Put simply, Dalian Atkinson was a hero to me in the truest sense of the word.

Villa supporters are today, rightly, sharing their favourite memories of Dalian. From his equaliser in the 1994 Coca-Cola Cup semi-final, his opener in the final, as well as his goal of the season winner against Wimbledon in 92/93, there’s no shortage of candidates.

However, my favourite moment occurred not in a packed stadium, but in the rain soaked confines of Villa’s training ground.

Back then, Bodymoor Heath was much more open to the public than it is today, and my dad often used to take me there on a Sunday morning to enjoy a glimpse of my idols up-close and personal.

Invariably, I’d take along my own football, and dribble along the sidelines, daydreaming of one day being part of the claret and blue first team myself.

It was on one such morning that I was lost in this fantasy when I heard a shout behind me. “Mate! Give us a kick!”.

And out from the players’ gym strode Dalian Atkinson.

Dalian took control of my ball, dribbling around me while I, starstruck, tried to take the ball off his toe. Frustrated by my fruitless attempts to dispossess the mercurial forward, my tackles became more wild, prompting fears from my dad that I was about to injure our star striker.

There was no danger of that. Dalian was just too good. After about 10 minutes, our scrimmage was over. He shook my dad’s hand, ruffled my hair, and shuffled off back indoors. I recall my dad seemed even more euphoric than I did. “Never forget this day”, he told me. And I never have.

It’s only now, when I think about it, that I understand what an incredible experience it truly was. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario today where an eight-year-old kid can enjoy a kickabout with his football hero. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.

The tributes today from those who knew him best only serve to reinforce his public persona. A happy-go-lucky, likeable guy, who didn’t take life too seriously. Perhaps not seriously enough at times.

With that in mind, its really difficult to come to terms with the manner in which he died in the early hours of this morning. He’s one of the last people I would anticipate could end up in such a situation, and with little information in the open, it’s impossible to make sense of what happened.

For now, though, I’m going to remember him as a man who went out of his way to make a young boy’s day. I will sing his name loudly and proudly in the 10th minute at Villa Park tomorrow night.

You know I will. I really will.

Lessons Lern-ed as Villa sale looms

I’ve often marveled at the human mind’s capacity to eliminate memories of humdrum events, leaving our brains filled largely with moments of happiness and contentment. Having just completed my 23rd year as an Aston Villa season ticket holder, I’m particularly grateful for that.

You see, it’s this capacity that allows me to forget the countless turgid performances I’ve seen from the boys in claret and blue over the years, whilst maintaining happy thoughts of those all too rare moments of delirium that make it all seem worthwhile.

Saturday 19th August 2006 will always fall firmly into that category.

I love the smell of a new season. New kits, new signings, hope and anticipation. It was particularly palpable as the curtain rose on the 2006/07 season, thanks in no small part to the sparkling new Emirates Stadium, which would host its very first match that day. However, that was only part of this story.

Villa marched into North London with a swagger that hadn’t been seen in a number of years. Amid a summer of tumultuous restlessness and drama, the deeply unpopular David O’Leary was ousted as manager, before the club’s much maligned octagenarian owner, Doug Ellis, finally gave in to public demand and sold up.

In their place came the revered former Celtic boss, Martin O’Neill, to take over team affairs, while the arrival of a new American billionaire owner in the form of Randolph D. Lerner brought a sense of unbridled optimism to the long suffering Villa faithful.

The ‘New’ Villa demonstrated remarkable verve and vigour that day, coming tantalisingly close to playing the role of party-poopers on Arsenal’s first day at their new home. It took a late Gilberto strike to earn a draw for the Gunners after Olof Mellberg made history by becoming the Emirates’ first ever goalscorer.

ImageVilla celebrate after scoring the first ever goal at The Emirates Stadium to kick off The Lerner Era

But, despite the disappointment of the late leveller, the carnival atmosphere among the travelling Villans couldn’t be abated. Players tossed their shirts into the celebrating crowd, as chants of ‘There’s Only One Randy Lerner’ filled the air. We had our Villa back, and it was wonderful.

Fast forward eight years, and we’re back in North London. Again, disappointment on the pitch did not abate a party atmosphere in the away end. But, unlike that day at The Emirates when it was the anticipation of a new beginning that excited the fans so, at White Hart Lane, as Villa lost 3-0 in an abject display, it was more a sigh of relief that it was all over.

This time, it was chants of “We want Lerner out” that echoed across the stadium. From being hailed as the saviour of Aston Villa, the very mention of Randy Lerner was enough to provoke disdain, disappointment, and even disgust among a number of the Holte End faithful.

Where did it all go so wrong?!

Let’s rewind back to the start. From that opening day at the Emirates, the wave of optimism continued in the early stages of 2006/07 as Villa went unbeaten in the first 12 games. Things would level out over the season, with Villa securing a solid, if unspectacular, 10th place finish.

The final weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Villa’s European Cup triumph, and a reception for the heroes of 1982 ahead of a 3-0 victory over Sheffield United. The weekend also saw a series of events which acted as a statement of intent for what was still to come, with the unveiling of Villa’s new crest and the opening of a state-of-the-art training complex at Bodymoor Heath. As Villa Park rocked to the sound of over 40,000 delirious fans, full focus fell on the slogan which was woven into the free scarves they each twirled above their head: ‘Proud History. Bright Future.’

And so the work truly began. Villa Park was carefully restored to former aesthetic glories with the £4m renovation of the Holte Pub, and the installation of the fine Roman mosaic work, mimicking that which once sat on the Trinity Road Stand, upon the frontage of the Holte End. A mammoth five year partnership with Nike was seen as a major sign that Villa were ready to step into the elite, while the stadium’s corporate hospitality facilities were overhauled in readiness for the movers and shakers who would no doubt be seduced by the team’s compelling play.

Lerner helped restore the stately aesthetic of Villa Park

Most importantly though, for the fans, was the significant investment in the playing side which saw Villa become one of the Premier League’s biggest spenders as Martin O’Neill shaped his forces into his vision.

Everything seemed positive for the three years that would follow. O’Neill built an effective, if at times rigid, unit, and mounted campaigns which saw Villa mount serious challenges for the promised land of the Champions League, falling just short every time as they recorded three successive sixth place finishes. A few minor gripes aside, not least the debacle surrounding a 2009 visit to Russia, all seemed rosy in the Villa garden.

Behind the scenes, though, little did we know that all was not well. Having invested millions in going for Champions League or bust, the money was starting to run out. August 2010 saw O’Neill, the poster boy of the Lerner era, walk out in dramatic fashion on the eve of the season. And thus began a catastrophic series of decisions which saw the goodwill towards Villa’s owner dissipate rapidly.

Gerard Houllier was the unexpected choice to replace O’Neill, and despite his likeable demeanour and admirable philosophy on how the game should be played, somehow he never quite seemed to fit in at Villa. Among the chief concerns was that regarding his health, given the heart attack he suffered whilst managing Liverpool a few years earlier. Despite his protestations that he was in fine fettle, it was with a degree of inevitability that he failed to see out the season on health grounds.

If Houllier had been a surprise appointment, the arrival of his replacement was positively mind-boggling, and marked the major turning of the tide against Lerner. For Aston Villa to target Birmingham City’s manager in any circumstance would be worthy of a raised eyebrow or two. To do so immediately after the relegation of the traditional Second City rival, amid much criticism of his style of football, beggared all rational belief.

A dark and toxic cloud enveloped Villa Park during that season, and despite glimmers of sunlight breaking through as Paul Lambert seized the helm, the situation never fully recovered, and eventually became yet more desperate.

Still suffering from the folly of offering long and lucrative contracts to players of limited ability and low sell-on value, a philosophy of bringing in talented young players from overseas or lower leagues has failed to propel Villa to become anything more than a perennial relegation struggler – and that’s simply not good enough for a fan base which still expects the club to challenge the upper echelons of the top flight.

randy lerner_0Moving on: Lerner prepares to leave Villa

And so, it seems, that the Lerner era came to its likely end at White Hart Lane, the early promise and excitement giving way to weariness, resignation and, in some cases, anger. The biggest shame, for me, is the fact that so many fans seem unable to disassociate between the need for change and their perceptions of a person. In my view, much of the personal abuse and criticism has been out of line.

Has he been the perfect owner? No. Has he been outright incompetent on occasion? Absolutely. But is it fair to say that Randy Lerner doesn’t care for Aston Villa? Even when this sale is done and dusted, I’m sure he’ll be able to point to at least a hundred million reasons as to why that’s not true.

While the on-field state of the club is undoubtedly not where it should be, Lerner does leave a legacy in that he has respected and restored the traditions of the club. He has frequently described himself as a custodian of the club, and has performed this statesmanlike role with aplomb.

In the statement announcing his intention to sell, Lerner referenced the McGregor tradition of the club, and this philosophy has been apparent throughout his tenure. A spirit of philanthropy was one of the major pillars around which McGregor built Aston Villa, and the club’s relationship with Acorns children’s hospice is rightly viewed as a pioneering partnership. The decision to forego a shirt sponsor in favour of displaying the charity’s name on Villa’s shirts for two seasons, together with the untold great work done by the club with Acorns, is something that must remain a great source of pride for all Villa fans.

Villa’s pioneering Acorns partnership will serve as Lerner’s biggest legacy.

Lerner’s custodianship also heralds comparisons with another great Villa leader, Frederick Rinder, who served the club between 1881 and 1925. He is best known for a famous quote, in which he said: “Finance is important, but we should never forget that we are not talking about a mere business. This is the Aston Villa football club, and it deserves nothing short of the best.”

Lerner embodied this by, both physically and metaphorically, removing the slap-dash corrugated metal, plastic and plasterboard facade of Aston Villa, and replacing it with red brick and mahogany panelling. He re-established the ideals of tradition, philanthropy and honour which for so long were its very foundations.

More than anything, he GOT Aston Villa. He understood the club, its history, and its values. Put short, he got the ‘Proud History’ part spot on, but the ‘Bright Future’ was harder to come by.

Just as Frederick Rinder was in 1925, it seems that Randy Lerner is to be hounded out of Villa Park in ignonimous fashion. But also like his predecessor from almost 90 years ago, I’m certain that, in time, Villa fans will look fondly on Randy Lerner – the honourable man who tried manfully, but ultimately failed, to make Villa great again. Of course, that’s a process that could be expedited depending on the owner he chooses.

It’s going to be an interesting summer. Whatever happens, here’s hoping that the first day of next season will remain as memorable as that day at Arsenal eight years ago.

You know it will. It really will.

An ode to Louis Tomlinson

I ruddy love Gabby Agbonlahor. And who wouldn’t?

There’s the endearing stupidity. The last minute goals. His short-lived flirtation with Twitter before he got shut-down, thanks to the aforementioned endearing stupidity.

But one thing that I love about him more than most things is the fact that he’s a world-class wind-up merchant.

‘Shushing’ gestures to opposition fans. Applauding red cards. You’d maybe hate him if he wasn’t one of your own. But he is, so I don’t.

Today, though, Gabby has excelled himself. He’s gone and incited pure, unadulterated rage among millions of teenage girls across the world. And frankly, I couldn’t be more excited about that.

For, at Celtic Park, was a benefit game for the Villa and Celtic legend, Stiliyan Petrov, commemorating his recent retirement following his brave battle with Leukaemia. A team of all-star legends, including our Gabby, up against a team of Celtic legends which included One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson for reasons unknown.

Every touch of the ball from the 1D popster was greeted by a loud chorus of girlish squeals and boarish booing, while everyone looking on was secretly thinking to themselves: “Wouldn’t it be funny if he got clattered?”

Cometh the moment, cometh the man…

It would soon get worse.

After being floored, Tomlinson immediately demanded to be substituted and then, to compound his humilation, promptly vomited as he made his embarrassing exit.

Now, before I incur the wrath of any mental #Directioners, let me be clear: I don’t dislike One Direction. I secretly quite like One Direction. It’s just that I have a bit of an obsession with pro-amateur football, and the bizarre scenarios it can throw up. Think Boris Johnson taking out a German, or Woody Harrelson scoring the winner past Jamie Theakston in front of 76,000 people at Old Trafford. Just so strange, so unlikely, and so very, very brilliant.

Our Gabby, Villa’s Gabby, taking out a global pop sensation could hardly fail to appeal to me, could it?

So, I thought I’d commemorate the event in a fitting manner, by writing a little song.

It’s to the tune of One Direction’s fabulous pop hit, ‘What Makes You Beautiful’. Here’s an instrumental version if you fancy some impromptu karaoke.

Are you ready? Then we’ll begin:

He’s on the floor,
Don’t know what for,
He got knocked down by a lad named Agbonlahor.

His number’s up,
He’s getting subbed,
It’s pretty clear that he just isn’t good enough.

Everyone else in the ground can see it…
Everyone else but you…

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And now the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football…
Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football!

So c-c’mon,
You got it wrong,
Should be on stage singing your very catchy songs.

We don’t know why,
You’re in green and white,
Regurgitating your half time pie-ie-ie.

Everyone else in the ground can see it…
Everyone else but you…

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football…
Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football! 

Na na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Na na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football… 

Oh oh,
Boybands shouldn’t play football…

Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football!

I just spent far too long on that.

You know I did. I really did.