As part of an ongoing feature during the COVID-induced postponement of football, our writers and friends will share their favourite games at Villa Park.
Words: Regan Foy | @findfoy
A turbulent summer came to a beautiful crescendo as Wigan Athletic arrived at Villa Park for the first home game of the 2018/19 season.
Steve Bruce stands silently on the touchline, hands buried in pockets as if they were filled with humbugs and pear drops, nervously twitching around the fabric as his side walk out onto the hallowed turf.
The club still stands. One of the old bastions of English footballing heritage has survived what could have been a rather unfortunate demise at the hands of becoming the plaything of an egocentric foreign businessman, shrouded in mystery from the beginning.
New flags adorn the roof of the stadium, proudly waving in the early August breeze, that of the United States and of Egypt, to signify the new masters of Aston Villa’s fate.
Just three days earlier the transfer window had slammed to a close. There was to be no more exchanging of players, at least until the winter, anyway.
Jack is staying for the foreseeable future. As soon as a ball is kicked, chorus after chorus bellows around the stands, serenading the boy-turned-man who if you cut, would bleed claret and blue rather than scarlet red onto the blades of grass at Villa Park.
There is cautious optimism bustling through the crowd. Most are resigned to potentially not pushing for promotion this year and resigned to the fact that if it doesn’t happen, many of the club’s young stars will start afresh elsewhere.
There are new faces on the pitch. Orjan Nyland, a Norwegian, stands tall beneath the bar of the goalmouth before the Holte End, with a blonde ode to Grealish’s slicked-back locks, and a short Scottish man is bursting from player to player, chasing the ball like a dog chasing a stick.
Before a quarter of an hour has passed, the stands erupt in joy as captain James Chester rises the highest to meet the end of new boy John McGinn’s floated free-kick, heading the home side in front and continuing the newfound feelgood factor engulfing the club like second-hand smoke in the outdoor shelter of a local bingo hall.
As if like clockwork, a mistake. Just as revellers had left their seats to enjoy a piping hot tikka pie or a portion of chips and cheese, the away end is suddenly the loudest part of the stadium.
Veteran Mile Jedinak, one of the most revered in the squad, is playing in a position that even those viewing at home can tell is not one he is comfortable with. He sells new goalkeeper Orjan Nyland short with a back pass, and the Norse stopper fluffs his lines, clearing as far as Nick Powell who buries into a half-empty net.
Powell slips between two forms, from arch-nemesis to architect, as he provides all of the ingredients for Callum Connolly to head the Latics ahead ten minutes after the break. An easy, cook-at-home meal that the simplest of chefs could conjure up.
Simple meals were par for the course, and it was scrambled eggs amongst scrambling legs just eight minutes later as Chey Dunkley accidentally poked one into his own net.
The furore of the first home game back at the castle-esque Villa Park was beginning to wane as the clock danced closer to the 90th minute. Chances came, but not many were taken – for either team.
That is, until, two players that are held dearly in my heart combined to send the Holte End into raptures of flailing limbs and roars from mother and son and father and daughter. Conor Hourihane swung a dead ball into the far post, as Birkir Bjarnason battled with Viking bravery to beat his man, before stretching his leg just enough for the ball to nestle in the back of the net in front of the stand adorned with ‘the 12th man’.
He roars. He sprints to the crowd. His team-mates follow and they lap up the adulation. I am sat mere feet away from my idols as the club I love boasts its first back-to-back win for 19 years.
34,000 people were there that day. By no means a sell-out. But the atmosphere bouncing around from corner to corner? You could bottle that and sell it.