I can say I’ve played for Villa, and only be half bullshitting you. The above picture is from the first night of Aston Villa’s US Tour, at the supporters match that followed Villa’s open training. I did put on a shirt made by Macron issued to me by Aston Villa, I did participate in a game in a professional stadium, on the second best pitch I’ve ever participated in sport on. Now yes, I did have to pay for the privilege of donning the Villa badge, and no, we weren’t managed by anyone but ourselves. But I still represented Aston Villa (badly, I might add) against a team representing Philadelphia Union. But let’s start at the beginning.
I was, as any EPL supporter based in America would be when they see their club swinging through, excited about the prospect of seeing Aston Villa play a scant 2 hour train ride away from my home in DC. What I wasn’t yet prepared for was the work that the Philadelphia Villans, led by the efforts of Tim Hyland, would put into making the experience truly exceptional. In addition to the customary open training session for Villa the day before the match, a select few of us would take part in a team meet and greet, and a more select few would take to the pitch at PPL Park to square off against the Sons of Ben Supporters Team.
Open Training can be a bit of a mixed blessing for a supporter. On the one hand, you get to see how your team’s coaching staff prepares the squad to carry out their tasks on the field, and you can get pretty close to the action. On the other, it’s likely that the team conducted a full session earlier in the day, and so the session will be simply some stretching for effect and light seven on a side. And you might find out too much about your gaffer’s football philosophy. Ask these Newcastle supporters back in the days of Big Sam.
I’m happy to report that Villa’s training was nothing like that. While the keepers all worked on catching and positioning, the outfield players did their normal warmups and form running, before moving onto agility drills with the ball. When the keepers and players combined, things got interesting. Villa went through an exercise that focused on agility, precision passing, and one-touch football. Basically two central players charged to some parallel and forward short hurdles, then one grabbed a ball from in front of a dummy, took one touch to get past, then another to pass to the other central player, who was crossing over to take one touch to a winger who had just completed his own agility course. The winger then fires in a one touch cross to the onrushing central players to finish the exercise. It was amazing in both its simplicity and intricacy, and really went a long way toward demonstrating that the footballing philosophy under new gaffer Paul Lambert was one of quick movement and attacking passing. Also, allow me to call out Stephen Ireland, whose every touch in this particular setup was on another level. Ireland thrived last year in playing for his career, basically, but I think he might have a good run under Lambert, for sure.
However, the gaffer is nothing if not a humble man, for reasons I will get into shortly. For the meet and greet, expectations were similar to what the club had done last time they came through the States- at their stop in Columbus, they set up a reception where masses of Villa supporters got to mingle with basically the whole squad. Here in Philly, about 60 of us were selected to go into one of the dressing rooms, where we were seated in a press conference-style room, and four players- Midfielders Chris Herd and Charles N’Zogbia, and new signings Karim El Ahmadi and Brett Holman- took seats at the front of the room along with Paul Lambert. And for those of us participating in the supporters’ match, we’d have to sit through that in full kit (which to be honest, was a bit uncomfortable, as I would have preferred to look like a person and not a kid showing up in full costume– but I digress).
We were given about five minutes for about three questions from the assembled, and I asked the gaffer what the first steps were that he’d have to take in instilling his tactical philosophy onto the squad- whether that meant breaking old habits, better communicating his direction for the players, etc. Lambert proceeded to sum up the final conclusion of the great TACTICS! debate of ’09 on our old friend Unprofessional Foul.
“Tactics can only go so far,” said Lambert. ”If you haven’t got the players around you that can carry out the plan, you’re sunk. Luckily, I’ve got a talented group here, and so job one for me is just instilling the belief in the players to go ahead and do it.”
And with that, it was on to get a quick set of autographs and photos (such as the one at right), and out to the pitch the supporters in the match went.
The match provided us with another welcome perk. Aston Villa legend and club ambassador Ian Taylor would be joining team Villa as we went up against the Sons of Ben. As we worked out the starting lineup, I volunteered to play left back, as we had no left-footed players among us. The game itself was what you’d expect from a team that’s traveled from all over the country and world going up against a team that had tryouts and plays together year-round. While the first half was a bloodbath, we generally gelled by the start of the second, and gave SOBs a tougher time for the second half.
Beyond the result, though, it was an absolutely excellent experience. The pitch at PPL Park is gorgeous, and though it was bone-dry by the time we got onto it, it was a great surface for football. Ian Taylor was a positive and calming influence from center midfield, and was a joy to play alongside. Some Union-centric highlights, shot by the Sons of Ben, are in the below video.
As for the main event on Wednesday? The match was exceptional. The Philly Villans arranged a coach from Fado in central Philly to get us to PPL, and the ride was rather smooth.Villa, cognizant of the blazing heat, worked to play calm possession, and the Union also had a few solid spells of possession. The midfield four of Bannan, El Ahmadi, Holman and Ireland rotated around the center of the park almost as well as Italy’s did against Germany, with fullbacks Matt Lowton and Stephen Warnock providing the width in attack.
The Villa supporters’ section was right near the River End, where the SOBs sit, and so banter back and forth added to the atmosphere. As I said in this morning’s post, the Union announced the standing ovation for Stiliyan Petrov at the 19th minute, which was a really classy touch from the club. My tickets weren’t originally in the Villa section, but we were able to move with no hassles around the half-hour mark. Right in time to see Nathan Delfouneso’s goal in front of us.
The banter continued through the second half, and though Philly got forward a little more, Villa were playing very comfortably indeed. The passing philosophy first demonstrated in training really shone in the match, and gave lie to the newfound enthusiasm around the club following what ended up being two managerial debacles in the Houllier and McLeish eras.
It wasn’t the perfect time, as a pair of supporters got left behind by the bus (I swear I wasn’t one of them), and there was some confusion with the security staff at PPL on Tuesday regarding whether or not those who were going to be running around in 90-degree heat could bring in water (in the end we were, but the training staff were kind enough to also leave a water cooler on the touchline). But both Aston Villa and the Union did their absolute best to make it a great experience, and again, the Philly Villans, led by Tim, Andrew and Chris, were fantastic hosts. It was an unforgettable experience, for certain. And now if you’ll indulge me, it’s photo dump time: