Villa Park! It certainly has a special ring to it. Aston Villa, one of the great pioneers of English football. Villa Park – built by the master architect of football stadiums, Archibald Leach. Venue of so many thrilling cup semi-finals and other great matches. Sadly, Leitch’s landmark stand, the Trinity Road was demolished in 2000 – and his other stand, the Holte End, in 1994.
Getting off at Aston Station, I went down the Lovers’ Walk towards the ground, situated on the former grounds of the near-by 17th century Aston Hall, which is still overlooking the area from a hill top. At the foot of the hill, you find the parish church of Saint Peter and St. Paul.
The axis between the hall and the church is cut over by the Witton Lane, which a bit further north is divided into three roads; the Witton Lane, the Trinity Road and the Holte Road. At this junction you find the Holte inn, named after Thomas Holte who built the hall more than 4 centuries ago. Behind the Holte Inn, you can see Villa Park impressively rising, built on the outskirts of a Victorian amusement park.
This combination of noble estate, church, inn and entertainment gardens with an exceptionally distinguished football ground must have been quite elegant, untill first the A38 was built on huge pillars over the Witton Road and then modern brutal stadium architecture replaced the Trinity Road stand of the football ground. You still sense the grandour of the old layout in the new brick-stand of the Holte End from 1994. And the fences with the sandstone lions also give you a feeling of distinguishness.
But once you walk past the Holte End, you are either confronted by the ugliness of the new Trinity Road stand to the left, or the ugliness of the Doug Ellis stand and North Stand, if you move to the right. And if you somehow have managed to maintain the illusion of either the gardens of a 17th century estate or Victorian amusement park. the souvenir shop and ticket office building makes sure that you are brutally awakened.
Although Aston Villa apparently have abandoned plans to built a club museum, and have destroyed the remarkable architecture of Arthur Leitch, they still do something to hold on to their great history. Outside the ground, you find a statue of William McGregor, the Aston Villa chairman who was one of the founding figures of the football league.
I am here in Remembrance weekend, so the atmosphere outside the ground is quite good. Representatives of the armed forces are playing bagpipes, displaying their tanks, selling puppies. And the Aston Villa fans are expecting some much needed joy against newly promoted Cardiff after a disappointing start to the season. I get my ticket at the box office for the Holte End – and have a look around the souvenir shop before going looking for some lunch after flying over from Denmark early in the morning. The range of food choice is bitterly disappointing. No pies, no fish ‘n chips, no curries on sale outside the ground. Just extremely flat-looking burgers.
I take a walk up to the Aston Hall, once again around walk around the ground – and decide that the Lions and the Holte End from 1994 still make Villa Park a much better place to visit than the modern grounds like the Reebok in Bolton, the Emirates in London and the Etihad in Manchester – and then I enter the ground at the Holte End, hoping to find some decent pre-match meal.
I quite like the concourse inside. Spacious with plenty of catering, reminders of Aston Villas European Cup glory in 1982 – and I really liked the signs prohibiting “all the playing of football” in all public areas. No wonder Villla are struggling at the moment! I get the standard pies that you nowadays find inside most grounds and a pint – and then go to find my seat inside.
A couple of months before, I had heard a presentation on Aston Villa and their supporters at a conference at the National Football Stadium. Apparently, all the “old” Villa supporters have moved away from Aston, and the area is now dominated by ethnic minorities that do not identify with the club. To remedy this, the club had made trials of special sections of the ground as non-alcoholic and non-pork-meat areas, to make the “new locals” feel at home. According to the presentation, some people had attended – but a lot of “old” fans had been enraged of this attack on the central ingredients in their match day experience – the pint and the pie. At the Holte end, the crowd is almost exclusively white, whereas the staff is ethnically very mixed.
Villa Park consists of separate stands – so you don’t get the bowl feeling of the modern stadiums. Or like White Hart Lane or Upton Park, where there is hardly any open spaces in the corners. Still, it is not like Stoke’s Britannia, where you the corners are huge spaces, giving you a view of the town miles away and a very cold, blustery wind. Or maybe I am just lucky that – although it is cold – the winds are not that heavy. Still, it has more character than the modern bowls, although I can’t help wondering what it was like 20 years ago.
I am seated in the Holte End, where the hardcore Villa fans are supposed to be located. I have seen Aston Villa a couple of times at Old Trafford, and have liked their distinct “yipi-ay-ey, yipi-ay-ou” song, and look forward to experiencing it at close hand. Maybe it is because I have van Gogh’s ear for music, but I had never been able to figure out the original tune, untill “Ghost riders in the sky” is played on the PA (to my defence, I made it a quiz question in my own football club, Dynamo Birkerød, the following weekend, and although we have a few professional musicians, they couldn’t figure it out either).
For the opening 5 minutes the Villa fans are in pretty good voice, but as their team fails to deliver, they grow quiet and frustrated, and you hear more and more of the Welsh contingent down the other end. To my surprise, Cardiff look the better team in the first half – and there is absolutely nothing for a Villa fan to cheer. In fact, it is during the half-time interval, you get the first proper cheer of the afternoon. A Villa fan further up the Holte End gets the PA and screens in the corners of the ground to publish his proposal to his girl-friend. The cameras zoom in on them – she says a “yes”, but then covers her head for the cameras to the first real cheers of the afternoon.
Although the match is a bit flat, and the Villa fans a bit disgruntled, I quite enjoy myself. The Villa fans around me know each other well, exchange frustrations – and a big skinhead guy in particular doesn’t conseal the torment he is going through. That is till Villa get a free kick about 15 minutes from full time. As the ball is teed up just in front of me – I get this inevitable feeling that is bound to be a goal. And it is! The skin head guy goes absolutely mental next to me.
And who can blame him. Villa had only scored in one of their previous four home fixtures (in a 3-2 win against Man. City of all teams). And within a couple of minutes they repeat the feat. Two-nill. I hadn’t really seen that coming. But it lifts the atmosphere emensely.
So when I leave the ground in the dark November evening, the mood all around me is fantastic. And I get carried away as well. Untill I find out that more than half of the trains leaving Aston station have been cancelled due to lack of staff. A sobering experience to wait there – and miss my connection up to Manchester.
Despite the flaws – mainly the knowledge that the modern anonymous Trinity Road stand was build on the ruins of an Archibald Leitch masterpiece – definetely a great experience. The area with the church, the Aston Hall, the Holte Inn, and the references in the architecture of the ground to the glorious past, still gives it a special feeling. And although the “yipi-ay-ei, yipi-ay-ou, Holte enders in the Sky!” song wasn’t song that much, the atmosphere was ok, considering the rather poor performance on the pitch. So all in all, Villa Park, definetely worth visiting.