The Spark at Villa Park? Why a toxic atmosphere should be shown the red card.

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Contributed by Sarah Perry | Edited by Dan Rogers


There is little question that at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, when we’re playing at home, there will often be upwards of 30,000 fans milling around Villa Park.

Some will be dashing into the shop to get their hands on the latest gear, others will be packing into the Holte Suite for (numerous) pints whilst watching the pre-match on the big screen and then there’s those heading into the ground for a pie before eagerly awaiting kick off.

The rest will instead take their seat in the stands with nerves building as the countdown to kick-off ticks down; the pulsing sound of a heartbeat irrefutably building the tension around the ground.

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As the players emerge from the tunnel, the infectious buzz begins to vibrate around the stadium, you feel the adrenaline enter your veins before the familiar melody of ‘Holte Enders In The Sky’ begins to reverberate throughout the Holte End.

The noise will remain thunderous as the game is fired into action.  Everyone willing Villa to push on, put in a world-class performance and fire home the goals to reward us with the glory of the win, that we always so desperately desire…

But what happens when this isn’t the case?

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What happens when a few misplaced passes or someone getting caught in possession leads to an opposition goal? And then another?  Or a stupid tackle leads to an opposition free kick in a dangerous area?  What about when few chances are created when facing a tough defence and also those opportunities that go begging?

That atmosphere begins to turn.

It’s no longer chants of support and undying passion leaving the mouths of the thousands of claret and blue faithful on the terrace. What starts as a few understandable grumbles and moans about cheap mistakes made on the pitch turns into a growing hum of boos and venomous yells of dissatisfaction.

Suddenly the 12th man is no longer with the team, but rather something closer to the opposite.

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At times, the frustration and discontent are more than comprehensible, when the team are offering lacklustre performances and paying the price as a result. Every football fan wants to see their team giving their all, looking solid and composed, bossing a game and ultimately; winning.

But something that seems to be getting lost in translation is the realisation that getting on players backs and turning the atmosphere from one full of passion and unity into something toxic and discouraging – does not help the turn-around of a poor performance.

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When the negativity creeps in like this and begins to turn the mood sour and hostile, players heads go down, they start to look uncomfortable and often panicked on the ball. Confidence becomes shot and many of them go hiding. They look afraid to try anything new, become static in their movement and make even more errors by trying to get rid of the ball as quickly as they can.

It may seem far-fetched but it’s near impossible to play with confidence and ease when thousands of people are hurling abuse in your direction, creating a disheartening and (here’s that word again) “toxic” atmosphere.

Naturally it kills spirit and as human beings – overt and direct criticism makes us less likely to push on positively and more likely to recoil into ourselves, nervously, instead.

In these moments of frustration, the unrivalled passion supporters feel can sometimes turn into anger – often triggered by further disappointment – an emotion that seems to have been rife at Villa park over the past few seasons.

But these collective and individual outbursts that can itself lead to such colossal negativity does not remotely help Aston Villa in the slightest.

In fact, the opposition are able to capitalise off of it and take advantage of the dip in both confidence and composure on the pitch – inevitably unravelling our sometimes frail team – that we arguably in part fuel.

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It’s even been alluded to many times by manager’s of the club, most notably this season, when frustrations have continued to simmer even after Dean Smith’s appointment injected some optimism into the club, fans have still felt performances haven’t been up to standard.

Dean Smith has stated in his post-match interviews that Villa Park “can be a tough place to play when you’re behind”.  Smith even remarked after the FA Cup tie against Swansea that he had subbed Under 23’s player Callum O’Hare off in an attempt to protect the youngster because Smith felt the atmosphere beginning to turn.

When the team falls behind – it is then more than ever that they need the support of the fans to help them turn it around. That is when they need our belief and passion spurring them on to deliver, because that is part of what provides them with the confidence to do it.

The most telling example of this came recently, on the 8th February 2019, when Villa fought for one of the best comebacks Villa Park had seen for a fair while: turning around in-form Sheffield United’s 3-0 lead into 3-3 draw in the space of just 10 minutes.

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A vast amount of fans traipsed out of the stadium in frustration and disappointment as Villa trailed 3-0 as the side looked unlikely to score let alone mount any comeback.

The boos, yells of outrage and insults lessened slightly with their absence, and when the first Villa goal rippled the back of the net, those fans who remained got behind the team again.

The team performance suddenly began to pick up and as the passionate cries of encouragement grew louder, the atmosphere returned to having a sudden buzz of positivity. Confidence seemed to soar for those last 10 minutes at Villa Park and the outcome was unbelievable – absolute carnage as Andre Green headed home the equaliser and reminded fans of that elated feeling that supporting your football club through thick and thin can bring.

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In a recent podcast, Tommy Elphick discussed how important positivity can be to a team performance, stating;

“It goes for the dressing room, the club and the supporters, when you’re together you can move mountains – and this club more than anyone with the support we have.”

Elphick spoke about the game against Hull earlier in the year, saying;

“At 2-0 down, you feel the atmosphere turning. Get the goal just before Half Time and they start to get behind you, then the second half was a totally different team. Fans end up clapping you off and that support we were getting when we were pushing and they were seeing us pushing, that pushes you on to get that next goal and maybe those 3 points.”

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It’s understandable for fans to say that if they’re paying for a ticket to the game, that they are entitled to express themselves in any way they please.  However, it poses the question that if that self-expression is one of negativity and abuse directed towards your own players: how is it helping?  Is it supporting?

There is absolutely nothing positive that can come from constant negative reactions, especially when they come in the form of venomous personal verbal insults directed towards our own, like those that were directed at Conor Hourihane during the 2-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion.

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It’s not only embarrassing and unacceptable to see adults directing such horrific abuse at another human being because they mis-placed a pass, but knocking players when they are already down, in a run of bad form and lacking confidence will never help them to improve their performances.

And as Elphick stated in his interview; any uplifting support can be critical to turning it around – and with it – the fortunes of Villa.

UPLIFTING SUPPORT

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A passion-filled, positive atmosphere is more likely to build team confidence and lift spirits than a toxic one ever will.

Being together during periods of bad form and uninspiring results is more likely to turn it around than being divided is.

For all it’s worth; we all support Aston Villa.

We spend our money week in, week out on games, merchandise, travel and we expect to be rewarded for our immovable support with goals, endless winning runs, trophies and promotion.

But that can’t always be the way, because that’s life.

So in these moments where it isn’t all glory, it’s up to us as a collective to support our club, get behind the players and show passion and motivation to help them get there.

In the words of Tommy Elphick;

“To do anything in football, you’ve got a better chance of doing it if you’re together”.


Contributed by Sarah Perry – Edited by Dan Rogers


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