Notes from the Championship play-off final
One Aston Villa fan's experience of the biggest game in football, forced to watch from the Derby County end. With his boss.
8:00am I feel sick. I feel sick I feel sick I feel sick I feel sick. Water, now. Water. Water from this pint glass on my bedside cabinet. It is warm. The water is warm. I drink it, tongue first, like I am a pig and it is in a trough. I feel even more sick as it is London tapwater. It tastes like a hangover feels. I am extremely unwell now. Worse than before. I need to lie down. I need to lie back down for a bit. Just a little bit. It is the play-off final today. I am going to the play-off final soon.
08:30am Showers help, don't they? Mad how showers always help, somehow. Thank god for showers. Thank god for hot water pouring over your head. I am cleansed. I am pure. I am alive again.
08:45am I spend this time weighing up exactly how much Villa-looking attire I can get away with, knowing I am sat in the Derby County end at Wembley because JOE.co.uk want me to suffer. They want me to suffer for the #content. I already suffer enough. If only they knew. If only they knew how much I suffer.
I switch between a plain white and a claret t-shirt approximately 46 times before settling on the claret. I can't do it. I can't wear white. Not today. I do, however, reluctantly put on a jacket. With a zip. Just in case.
09:00am Out the flat. McDonald's breakfast at Waterloo on the horizon. The day is looking up. This could be it: the best day of my entire life.
09:15am The cheesy bacon flatbread from McDonald's makes me feel unwell again. I think it was all the cheese. There was simply too much cheese. And not good cheese either. Which is extremely rare for cheese, or cheeses. The bad cheese. The American cheese. The McDonald's cheese. I feel sick. Tube to Wembley Park.
09:30am On the tube I think about the last four Villa games I have been to in London and realise I haven't seen us score a single goal in the capital. Not one goal. In 360 minutes of football. Brentford away (1-0), QPR away (1-0), Fulham in the play-off final last year (1-0) and Fulham away before that (2-0) linger in the memory. As omens go, it isn't a good one.
09:45am Very suddenly and for no particular reason at all, I am absolutely buzzing. I am fucking shaking with excitement. I don't know how or why, but I think if you've been to a game like this you'll know exactly what I mean. It comes in waves. Sickening apprehension following by exhilaration and back again. For the entire day. I feel like standing up cheering when we get to Kilburn station, simply because Wembley is near. Nobody has ever felt like that in their entire life, arriving at Kilburn. Nobody. I am confident of that if nothing else.
10:00am Arrival at Wembley. The sun is shining. The arch is gleaming. My forehead is already very, very sweaty. A man with a cigarette walks around in small circles saying "Any spare tickets, I'll buy any spare tickets" over and over again, to nobody in particular, like he is a theme park robot that has malfunctioned. I feel sick again.
13:00pm We're going to skip ahead a couple of hours here because you don't need me to explain to you the concepts of 'drinking beer', tedious line-up prediction chat in the form of the singular benefits of Albert Adomah versus Andre Green, 'drinking more beer', moaning about there not being Guinness on tap to drink instead and singing 'Sweet Caroline' more times than is probably necessary.
13:15pm I have literally sang 'Sweet Caroline' more times than Neil Diamond at this point.
13:30pm I win 1 (one) towering header with the inflatable giant football that is being batted around before a very miserable security man crushes it in his hands and is quite rightly jeered by the entire crowd. If you are reading this, miserable security man: you are my mortal enemy and I hate you with every single fibre of my being.
13:45pm 'We are the Champions' by Queen is played. No. No. A thousand times no. Please don't. I feel sick again. I see my old history teacher. He is looking a bit worse for wear. I respect that. I respect that a lot. Please stop playing Queen.
14:00pm I venture out along Wembley Way to meet my boss before the game. I also send several texts to my Dad about my current location as he is walking along the same stretch and should be able to see me. I tell him I am by the white tent. 'What white tent?'. There is literally only white tent, Dad. It is big, and white, and a tent. He can't find it. He gives up. I manage to find my boss almost immediately and, without even a hello, he puts out a hand as a greeting. In it contains a pint can of Stella. I like my boss. Please note @everyone: this is how I would like to be greeted for the rest of my life.
14:01pm Clearly unable to contain myself by this stage I snap the ring clean off the can of Stella without actually opening the can of Stella. I look at my boss. "I think that's a sign mate." I now have to bash through the top of the can of Stella with my finger so I can drink said can of Stella. I bash through the top of the can of the Stella so I can drink the Stella. It tastes good. It tastes like the best can of Stella I've ever had. My finger is bleeding. I am rapidly losing blood. Mmmm, Stella.
14:10pm We walk up the rest of Wembley Way before branching left, now surrounded by Derby County supporters. They are singing Derby songs. The Stella, once transcendently tasty, is now bitter. It is now awful. I don't like this. I don't like it at all. Thanks a lot, Derby. You have ruined Stella for me, Derby.
14:20pm We enter the stadium via the Derby end and mutter a comment or two about the game being gone due due to the Krispy Kreme, popcorn and pic 'n' mix stands, as is the new Wembley tradition.
14:30pm We get to our seats and watch the entire Derby end wave their black and white flags around in perfect unison whilst the Villa fans opposite are still trying to get to their seats.
Fuck me does Frank Lampard look good in a suit.
14:35pm I start eyeing up the weird, gigantic super-trophy that the play-off final has on the side of the pitch and imagining, should Villa win, Jack Grealish trying to lift it up, a trophy literally twice as large as him, because this is Jack Grealish, and at this point he should believe that he can do pretty much anything he likes, including playing the most important football match of his life in some boots that look like this:
Please Jack Grealish, you mean far too much, please don't go and win the play-off final but then try and lift up the fake mega-trophy, twice the size of you, because you think it is the actual trophy, and then get crushed underneath it, never to play the game again. Please don't do that. We need you.
14:40pm I spend at least 10 minutes marvelling at the fact that it is the year of our lord 2019 and I am about to watch Tom Huddlestone and Ashley Cole start in a play-off final. What a world this is.
14:51pm I tell my boss about the best football clip in the entire history of the world, the Tom Huddlestone shoulder dummy from a throw-in against Reading in the 12/13 season.
Note on the Tom Huddlestone shoulder dummy to end all shoulder dummies: how is it possible that somebody could pull off a bit of skill that outrageous, to beat four men with barely a twitch and create an incredibly dangerous break away, only to then follow it up by hitting a backwards 30-yard square ball to a fullback that isn't even overlapping to kill the move.
Ladies and gentlemen - the Tom Huddlestone experience. In all its glory.
14:55pm My boss checks the lineups and tells me we should be winning this no problem. I do not need to hear this five minutes before kick-off. That is literally the last thing I need to hear. Not now, mate. Not now.
To be perfectly candid, the game all comes and goes in a blur. The bits I can remember, and definitely, definitely know actually happened:
- Tyrone Mings lumping a 50-yard cross field ball immediately from kick-off
- Richard Keogh briefly turning into prime Paolo Maldini at various points for some reason???
- Anwar El Ghazi attempting to score the best solo-run wonder goal Wembley has ever seen every time he got the ball
- Tom Huddlestone passing exclusively sideways and backwards in his bright pink predators and never once breaking into something even closely resembling a sprint
- Frank Lampard clapping a lot and pulling his 'I am Frank Lampard, work harder' face to his players
- Watching John McGinn turn Bradley Johnson for about the third time in a row and telling my boss he could get in the Liverpool midfield
- My boss laughing at the above
- Accidentally clapping every time Villa win a corner in the Derby end, realising I am doing so, and meekly adding 'Good clearance!' so as to not arouse suspicion
- Arousing suspicion by repeatedly doing the above
- Also arousing suspicion by literally sitting there like a human heart-eyes emoji every time Tyrone Mings did anything
As half-time approaches we notice people leaving to get to the toilet before a queue starts to form. We start talking about the incredible anecdote of the Manchester United fan who missed Solskjaer's winner against Bayern Munich in 1999 because he wanted to squeeze a piss in before extra-time. Despite this conversation, I do, in fact, decide to head down to the toilets because that, simply put, is the kind of thing that would never, ever happen to me. In the urinals, however, the unzip of my trousers is followed by a faint roar, that, sure, flattered, thank you, that's kind, that's very kind, but probably isn't deserved.
A swarm of Derby fans come in swearing. In the distance: 'Number 22, Anwar El Ghazi!' I allow myself a single, clenched, fist-pump. Then I think about the fact that I missed the goal. For fuck sake. I am happy and a bit annoyed and I am relieved and gutted and happy, happy most of all, probably, all kinds of happy, and I go and buy a pint, because I don't know what else you can do stood in the wrong end of a football stadium feeling that way.
Gummy bears just won't do.
The second half vanishes into the air around it even quicker than the first. I spend most of it staring longingly at the claret and blue half of the stadium. We move into a small section of empty seats behind us because my nervous chair bashing has gotten out of hand. John McGinn does that thing John McGinn does and presses the entire Derby backline and goalkeeper on his own. His considerable efforts win a throw in, then the ball somehow ends up in the box, I have no idea how, and then the ball somehow ends up in the Derby net because again, John McGinn physically couldn't stop running, and bending the fabric of the universe to his Glaswegian, Irb-Bru will, and Derby have a man called Kelle Roos in goal.
This is the moment I remember best, McGinn sprinting away along the Wembley turf, sliding along his front to a wall of colour and noise behind him before jumping back up and waiting for his teammates to catch up. I clamp my boss's leg with my hand probably harder than is acceptable to stop myself jumping up. This is it. This is it.
And then, because this is football, and because this is Aston Villa, and nothing is in this world is ever easy, it is all Derby. Lampard makes his changes and, to their credit, the Derby fans roar their team on, even as the hope visibly drains out of them.
Fikayo Tomori, who was excellent, makes the pass of the game, releasing one of the subs, Martyn Waghorn, in behind the Villa defence. Tyrone Mings makes up the considerable distance with a heroic goal saving tackle but stays down, as Derby recover the ball, work it into the box and Jack Marriott side-foots home. Scenes and limbs in the Derby end. Oh no. Oh no no no no no. Not like this. As I watch Mings limp off, trudging around the perimeter of the pitch beneath me, grimacing in pain, it is the colour that starts to drain from me now and the head goes firmly into the hands.
When I look up, the Derby fans around me are all stood up, giving it to Mings. He is just smiling at them. He is just laughing. That helped. That really helped. This makes one Derby fan so impossibly angry that he spends the remaining eight minutes plus extra time just standing up and swearing things - the vague direction of the Villa bench, or the Villa fans, or the referee, or wherever Jack Grealish currently is - before sitting back down for a couple of moments, only to get straight back up and do it again as soon as there is a break in play.
I spend the remaining eight minutes plus extra time watching Derby pile on the pressure, listening to my boss repeat 'Keogh equaliser' to me, and shaking the empty seat in front of me loose out of its holdings. I don't hear the whistle, I don't think anyone does, I just see Grealish and McGinn throw their arms out in centre midfield and not know where to run. But they do it anyway. They just run. I think that's all you can do. I'm not sure what I did. I think I just stood there and stared, motionless. My boss leaves me because he has a flight to catch to Baku and I hop over several barriers to get into the Aston Villa section, just to get a bit closer to it all. Then I stop and I stand and I stare some more. Tears swell in the corner of my eyes without dropping down onto my cheeks. They just stay there. I don't know what to do. Hug a stranger? Tell them I love them? I don't know. I just soak in it. On my own, stood in the middle of the steps, watching. The complete and total joy, bouncing around the entirety of one half of Wembley, from one person to the next, atom to atom to atom to atom, happiness, from the fans to the players to the manager to a Prince to John Carew.
Aston Villa are back in the Premier League. This wouldn't have been how I wanted to write it. But then again, I wouldn't have written it any other way.
Thanks to 32Red for the tickets.