As the freezing wind penetrated my winter coat, a 2015 FA Cup final Villa scarf and inadequate hat, I wondered how it had come to be that I found myself in Oslo watching football in November.
I could have chosen another path, like many of the locals, who had sensibly opted to stay in the warmth of their homes or a city centre bar.
The fixture before me saw Norway going through the motions against the Faroe Islands at the Ullevaal Stadion, an infrequently used venue for the national team.
The general calm (I’m reliably informed Norwegians don’t really ‘do‘ footballing atmosphere) and gentle scent of NorgeDogs was broken, only by acrid smoke abruptly drifting across the terrace.
A faction of the home fans were making their point from the terraces with the Norwegian FA (NFF) seeking to ban all forms of controlled pyro. Norway’s failure to qualify for the 2020 European Championships can’t have helped matters either.
As normality resumed, I tuned into conversation going on nearby.
‘Villa are looking at the right back’, pointed out Andreas, wisely only allowing his fingers a few seconds exposure to the frozen evening air.
Andreas was referring to Omar Elabdellaoui, a tricky looking player formerly on the books of Manchester City and currently plying his trade at Olympiakos. Elabdellaoui is quietly impressing for club and country, but unfortunately can’t be judged given the substandard opposition on this occasion.
‘Didn’t you have enough of right backs under Bruce?‘ came the quick witted reply from Eirik, smirking whilst recalling all those occasions where Villa routinely fielded upwards of four right backs prior to Dean Smith taking charge.
I had met up with a group of Norwegian Villa supporters who (like many) had taken the time over the years to reach out to me. A smart Twitter comment here or banter there.
When the opportunity presented to watch football, drink the local poison and learn about their long distance relationship with Aston Villa, I jumped at the chance.
I had arrived off the back of a mammoth working week that had taken me across six cities, countless meeting rooms and departure gates. The prospect of good company, football and a beer appealed.
In truth, I didn’t fully understand how such a close bond could be forged by overseas fans.
Despite our globalised, inter-connected world, and with a sport where rooting for your ‘local’ side is commonplace, overseas supporter clubs are by their nature ‘far removed’. That’s an undeniable fact.
However, Villa doesn’t suffer from vast swathes of ‘plastic’ tourists clambering to B6. There aren’t many visitors to Villa Park I can recall blocking my view to take a selfie or seeking Insta friendly snaps. The club would, of course, see this as a commercial failing.
I see it as a reflection of our heritage, past successes, recent failures and that we remain an organically supported club.
Would I like the on-field achievements of Manchester City? Of course. Would I like to sit in a soulless stadium, be just another ‘customer’ and wonder why we can’t sell out Champions League games? No.
We are therefore fortunate to have a vibrant, knowledgeable and committed international fan base.
Norway is no exception.
I was truly amongst friends. Villa friends, quaffing gin, beer, wine and pondering the most important of questions: why did we perform so well against the Champions of Europe (Liverpool) yet so dire against The Dogheads (Wolves)?
As importantly, why can no-one in the UK pronounce Ørjan Nyland correctly, let alone get off his back (*Sigh)?
What struck me was the intricate knowledge of the finer detail. The obsessive discussion on the minutiae of where it had gone well or not so well for our historic club.
From shaking their heads in dismay at the mere mention of Marlon Harewood, to bar-stool goosebump stories about that singular moment we all experience which hooks you to Aston Villa, for life.
And then there is the commitment, like many of our fans closer to home.
There is that same unquestionable devout loyalty. Weddings missed, holidays wrecked, relationships in crisis. Villa sails through as top priority.
These are no faux fans, interested only in the glory years or following a single marquee player. They know their Guzan’s from their Grealish’s, make no mistake.
They had walked the same miserable path of terminal decline under Lerner, the inevitable relegation of 2015, endured considerable difficulty following our club in The Championship, before rejoicing at our promotion and return to the top flight at Wembley.
Given the arctic latitude, their blood might need anti-freeze, but if you cut them, it most certainly runs claret and blue.
The time and effort expended to get to Villa Park and securing away tickets defies belief. Following a football club requires you to place your logic, time and bank account at risk by default, but our Nordic friends must be up there in terms of outlay.
In-direct flights, costly travel (both in time and money), fixture changes once itineraries have long been confirmed and routinely trusting total strangers to come through with tickets. It all underlines the risk.
But then, how else do you get that one opportunity to see Villa in Rotherham?
However, with risk, comes reward.
Earlier that afternoon, I’d sat across the dinner table as Roy professionally indoctrinated a future English football fan. His young son was fully accepting (or resigned to?) of his inevitable destiny. The process is no different in the UK, that’s for sure, and is one that has stood the test of time between fathers and sons for generations.
‘Who is it that you support? C’mon, we practiced this. Don’t you dare say Manchester United or Liverpool….”
Mysterious folklore tales lost in time will be recounted and repeated no doubt.
All will become clear to mini-Roy when he strides out onto a rocking English football terrace for the first time.
Later, much later, Kristoffer, Villa burned into his soul, reflected on a lifetime following Aston Villa as we drained Akvavit.
As the last drop dissolved my internal organs, he smiled, revealing that he routinely transports a bottle or two to Villa Park. The locals in the Aston Social don’t require much convincing to lap up an offer of free booze from a friendly face. My host, most tellingly, never drinks it himself.
We laugh about inept former Villans, prophecise about how great our famous old club could be and become aware that the national press has picked up our tweet about pyro at that evenings game.
Guilty, by association.
The hardcore Villa Underground Ultras and their Norwegian fixer Kristoffer are an organised bunch. And to be feared too (apparently).
No pyro. No party.
Taking in the mighty Norway with @ArcticLions @KristofferF and company this evening #AVFC 🔥 pic.twitter.com/6NhAl6vM0P
— Villa Underground (@avfc_vilr) November 15, 2019
Having struggled through a late breakfast, we went our separate ways.
I was a long way from home, but Villa never felt closer.