The Villa faithful were knee deep in beer and gin fuelled optimism when The Villa Underground and Dundee’s finest faced off. It was far from a sobering affair.
The venue? London, England. More precisely The Liquor Station, a ram packed bar near Wembley Stadium. This was the place where predictions, pints, passion and shared bemusement at all things connected with Aston Villa collided.
The introduction and coolly delivered ice breaker was a no-brainer from Gary. ‘I think I f*cking unfollowed you recently, actually.’
On this basis he was clearly a man of good taste, both he and his company were welcomed into the fray.
We were of course meeting ahead of Villa facing Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final.
These were the days where Coronavirus was a mere whisper of concern, Boris was promoting handshakes, Bournemouth’s beaches were empty and standing close to 80,000 was the norm…you get it.
This is the story of Villa’s finest unsung Dundee based Scottish contingent.
This edition of Spotlight will cover their reasons for associating with the finest, most historic club in all of world football. It’s a road that includes McGrath, McGinn and Big Macs.
Hailing from Dundee, Gary swapped life north of the border for Ward End, Birmingham. It was a time of ascendancy, Villa were ‘flying’ and there was only one football club to be supported in the schoolyard.
When circumstances changed in Birmingham and he returned back to Dundee, he did so with veins coursing claret and blue. Gary was not only a Villa convert, but as it turns out, a missionary as well.
You see, this road to Wembley in March 2020 quite literally took a lifetime and was the first opportunity the crew had managed to get tickets to watch Villa at the national stadium.
With Donnie and Hoody in tow, they departed from Aberdeen airport in the early hours on the morning of the game. Gary recoils at the mere mention the cost of the match tickets and flights. ‘Extremely expensive’ came the reply to my enquiry about a ‘ballpark’ figure. It warranted another glug of over-priced Wembley beer to suppress the pain.
Talk then turns to the semi-final victory over Leicester. A pitch invasion. Standing facing the giant Holte End, recollecting at how it felt as though the historic stand was singing just to him. ‘Something I’ll never forget’ he says. More on that later.
🏟 W E M B L E Y 🏆 pic.twitter.com/uRh3MNHZHR
— Villa Underground (@avfc_vilr) January 28, 2020
There is shared heartache too. Gary, has like many of us, completed a right of passage at The Sty. Perhaps he’s even gone a step further than most. Once forced to sit with the great unwashed when unable to get a ticket amongst the Villa away following, it was the last time Blues beat Villa (Carabao Cup in 2010). Agbonlahor got his obligatory derby goal, naturally.
Dundee, as it turns out, is not an untapped hot-bed of footballing talent.
The Derry at Dens Park, has a Banks Stadium (Walsall) aesthetic similarity to it. The Firth of Tay certainly dwarfs that of the River Tame that streams past the Banks’ Stadium, however. Alas, neither come close to a Villa Park, where supporters can experience the true range of rollercoaster emotions when following a football team. Villa have certainly had their lows over the years, but it makes experiencing those rarer highs all the more sweeter.
In truth, it required some effort to get back into Scottish football full stop after returning from Birmingham. Both Dundee teams have been relegated and promoted in the modern era, with little success to show from it in between. There is perhaps a little synergy of sorts with Villa in that respect. So, with both local teams being up and down, it did at least serve in bringing a group of friends together.
In doing so, they re-discovered their love for the game and with it, Aston Villa.
It’s funny too how a bitter Birmingham rivalry can be assimilated and taken across borders.
Gary reflects on the weekly banter between himself a good friend, Youngie. Youngie, it seems, has doubled down in his attempts to put himself at odds with his mates. Not only did he pick the wrong half of Dundee, opting to following United, but he is also an ardent Blues supporter. They might be friends in the week, but Youngie now finds himself often on the end of ritual weekend ‘slaggings’.
We next discuss the challenges of following Villa from afar and the impact of lockdown. A perverse ‘benefit’ for some has been that Villa’s games, like all of Premier League football has been available on TV, albeit behind a paywall aside from a limited free to air offerings.
What is quickly apparent though is that in the absence of football entirely, quickly crept a nagging feeling of simply wanting to see the season resume in any form. The caveat of course being that Villa needed to banish their woeful pre-lockdown form. We evidently can’t have everything. Times could certainly be worse though, as Gary references an infamous 8-0 capitulation at Stamford Bridge in 2012.
It’s also funny how such events get seared into the psyche of supporters wherever they hail from, from Dundee, Durban or Dorridge.
There are immovable facts of life and heritage that permeate fans from wherever they originate. Gary, with Villa folklore etched into his brain as much as any local, instinctively refers to McGrath only as ‘God’, for instance. The former Manchester United and Irish international is spoken about as the ‘Rolls Royce of defenders’ and we ponder what a player of his calibre would be worth in todays market.
The high regard in which Paul ‘God’ McGrath remains held in is demonstrated through more than mere words. A most prized possession is a signed Villa shirt, sourced via Nicola, McGrath’s daughter in law. Gary reflects on the challenges and adversity the man from Greenford had gone through in both his life and career. Most importantly and remarkably, McGrath pulled on and performed flawlessly in the claret and blue despite it all.
Is there close comparison when it comes to the modern Aston Villa in terms of sheer idolisation? That’s a debate in itself. Jack Grealish is the most obvious choice currently, if only for skill, technique plus the added factor he is both local and a fan. Then of course there’s a strong Scottish connection via former Hibernian star John McGinn. We share our hopes that maybe, just maybe, they could both be part of a successful Villa side in the years ahead. The outlook for that though appears increasingly uncertain.
Not all transfers originating from north of the border have proven quite such good value for money. If McGrath was Villa’s best modern signing, we agree that Glaswegian Ross McCormack must be a contender for the worst.
Being a fellow Scotsman, I knew what he was all about.
I really did think he would do the business for us down at Villa.
Boy was I wrong!!
Discussion naturally moves to the here and now, once more Gary has his finger on the pulse of the VillaVerse. We agree that Dean Smith is a likeable figure, has a deep rooted connection to the club as a fan and of course given that his (recently passed) father was a steward at Villa Park. Therefore loyalty and a desire to do well cannot be in question for Smith; so what will the former Brentford boss need? According to Gary, we need to afford Smith time. Will he get it? Does he deserve it? These are questions for another day.
As with all fans who travel some distance to Villa Park, there’s the sheer time, effort, cost and logistics involved. Would you do the same to follow Dundee? There are of course, hiccups along the way.
This was certainly the case ahead of Villa’s semi-final against Leicester at Villa Park. It was an expensive trip before they’d even departed Scotland with only hospitality tickets available to buy. With the pick-ups completed across the northernmost parts of the UK and the instruction of having something smart to wear for the night ahead, they set off for Birmingham.
Disaster swiftly struck, with Hoody receiving a call to tell him he’d left his trousers on the ironing board. Shouting and swearing ensued. If it wasn’t embarassing enough getting such a call from your mom, it was snowing and Hoody was in a pair of shorts. Abuse was replaced by laughter.
Chancing it, they reached out to one of Villa’s sponsors, LUKE, to sort Hoody out. By some miracle, they obliged, ensuring that Hoody could go to the ball and not freeze to death in the process. To cap things off, Villa beat Leicester to secure a place at Wembley and ultimately our first meeting.
Celebrations were in order, especially at the prospect of the culmination of a 1000 mile round roadtrip. With the beers flowing (aside from the designated driver), Paul was worse for wear and spent the journey hanging out of the car window. Throw in roadworks on the M6 and a flat tyre, their arrival time was 8am the following day. Gary drew the short straw, chisseling off what remained of Paul’s ‘Balti Pie’ from the outside of the car. If that’s not dedication to following AVFC, then I simply don’t know what is.
Following Villa should certainly come with a health warning too. The stress of watching the games is enough, travel, expense, sleep deprivation and a diet consisting of lager and fast food. ‘Dragon Boat’ is fondly remembered for securing provisions at The Liquor Station, arriving like a mirage through a sea of bodies, presenting 25 Big Macs successfully foraged. How they’d be acquired, nobody knows to this day, but they sustained the troops before battle.
As we prepared to go our separate ways we shared the hope that Villa can somehow stay up and retain the core group of players we should have built around following promotion. Whilst such things are out of our hands, a mutual passion for Aston Villa will connect us from Ward End to Wembley (via Dundee) forever.
I just want to give a shout out to all the Villa fans down at Wembley.
The way everyone treated us and sang “We’ve got McGinn” every time they seen us in a Villa shirt and our kilts was something special.
The Villa fans I’ve met and now call friends, from all over the world, really is something special and something I love to be part of.
A massive thank you to Villa Underground for great day spent with you guys in London, that session down there was out of this world. 👌🏻 UTV 💪🏽💜
You can follow Gary on Twitter.
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