In the 1990’s, when I chose to support Aston Villa, I certainly wasn’t choosing to make my life any easier. At that time, and probably still now, Villa were an unfashionable club to support if you lived in the South of England, and I would often experience ridicule for it in school. “So what if you beat Nottingham Forest!” retorted a classmate during one year 8 Maths class in 1999, “Your shirts are still really ugly and your team is still shit.” That was the typical high-brow way in which the debates went. I responded by using my Aston Villa-branded biro with pride for the remainder of the day. Take that. My pen is better than yours.
Villa certainly weren’t about to win the Premiership any decade soon, but still, I really liked them. They were different. Understated. Interesting. To support a team which won when it wasn’t expected to, felt more special than supporting a team that just expected winning and trophies and took those things for granted when they got them. I came from a family of Spurs fans and whilst I liked them too, they just didn’t pull me in like Aston Villa did. I suppose in some ways, I also just wanted to be different, and instigate lively discussions around the dinner table about whether John Gregory was a better manager than George Graham (he was, by the way).
Anyway. Once you pick your team you’ve picked your team. I’ve followed Villa throughout, though I would never class myself as a die-hard football fan. Sometimes I even withhold from telling people, simply because in that moment I’m not up for the inevitable arduous football chat once I do. It’s fun to follow but it’s just a game, and if I took it as anything more than that then, well, I’d probably be pretty depressed. In over twenty years I’ve yet to see my team lift a trophy, and apart from an exceptional few years in the late ’00’s they’ve pretty much constantly been linked with relegation, and even became victim to it in 2016, taking two years longer than expected to gain promotion to the top tier again. They’re the sort of team who concede a late equaliser just as you start getting a bit excited, and if it weren’t for a huge financial injection from a couple of billionaires in 2018, they’d possibly not even exist anymore. Magpie-eyed supporters of either of the two Manchester sides, or Chelsea, Liverpool etc.. probably don’t realise how easy they’ve had it by comparison.
But once you pick your team you’ve picked your team.
In the past couple of years, Villa have progressively improved and these days are a team that others genuinely fear playing. In an era when the game is dominated by greed and money, there’s been something hugely romantic about supporting a team both managed and captained by boyhood fans of the club, Dean Smith and Jack Grealish respectively. It’s just not something you really see anymore, and it’s something every Villa fan takes / took (spoiler alert) a lot of pride in. You can be paid to do a job and you can do your best at it in return for picking up a wage, but if it’s for a cause or company you always believed in, you’ll not only do your best but you’ll excel, without even trying. That’s what Jack Grealish did for us. He wasn’t just “a really good player”, he was an excellent player and as a fan of the club, he was also “one of us”. Every time he scored a goal, you just knew it meant as much to him as it did to the fans.
This month, 11 months after supposedly committing his future to Aston Villa (“My City, My Club, My Home!” he waffled on at the time, as he put pen to paper on a bumper new contract), Jack chose to leave his club for the Premier League champions, a team who win things all the time. He chose to move because he too wanted to win things all the time, and whether us Villa fans like it or not we can’t argue with the fact that he’s more likely to win things with his new team sooner than he would with us.
But for myself and many others this situation prompted an ethical debate which transcends the footballing context within which it’s placed. Somebody who professed to love the club, had been a part of it for twenty years, and played an integral part in its progress, was ultimately swayed by the promise of immediate riches with a team that his historic Tweets had suggested he disliked. Grealish choosing to leave Aston Villa is not just bad news for football and any other football club trying to improve, it’s a harrowing indictment of society: victory and prestige obsessed. Willing to jump ship at the thought of personal promise, no matter how much the remainder of those on board supposedly mean to you. There’s this fixation with winning and the mistaken assumption that if you didn’t win a medal you didn’t succeed, so do whatever you need to in order to make sure you take it home. Verruca Salt’s worn out father frantically instructing hundreds of workers to spend all the hours under the sun opening up chocolate bars to find a golden ticket.
Whatever happened to choosing to stand by those you love no matter what personal gain you might miss out on? Is it better to lose with those you love, than win with those you feel nothing for? Somebody on Twitter put it very well (I know, I hate myself for saying that too), but what’s the point in showing off that you’ve reached the peak of Mount Everest if you took a helicopter up most of the way?
Putting football, Jack Grealish and Twitter to one side, this is a really important question, and given the nature of the responses on social media it seems that many are divided on it. “But he plays so well, he deserves his chance to win medals!” reads a very reasonable argument. “But he promised his boyhood team – the one he professed to love – that he supported their project to progress and wanted to be a part of it. The team that supported his talents and nurtured him to grow. The fans who loved him” reads a very reasonable retort. So… which is the right answer? Is there even one at all? Perhaps not, but I know which angle I sway towards.
Jack Grealish, had he stayed with Villa, would have become a club legend no matter how many trophies we won (or didn’t). Us fans had thought he was loyal and loyalty is what really pays. Loyalty is what makes one really stand out and be remembered for years to come. Instead, he’s off to win medals but become a forgettable part of Manchester City’s history, and if you don’t believe me on that, have a read-up on Fabian Delph. A few years back, he made what was virtually an identical choice, but is now still renowned more by neutrals for his time at Villa than City, regardless of the medals he won at the latter. Delph barely contributed to that success, but he still got the medals. Is that really something to be proud of?
Ultimately it’ll always be hard work and loyalty that makes you a winner no matter what jangly things you do or don’t have to show for it at the end. Taking shortcuts to the top doesn’t make you a winner, whether you’re a professional footballer or a person who cheats or buys their way to any form of success in life.
Ultimately, it’s not about what you achieve, it’s about how you achieve it. It’s how you achieve it which determines whether you are a true winner.
Song of the Day: The Delgados – Child Killers
Scotland has produced so many excellent indie bands over the years. Teenage Fanclub, Trashcan Sinatras, Belle & Sebastian, my guilty pleasure Bis, and we can add the Delgados to that list too. Their existence was relatively short-lived from the mid-90’s before disbanding in 2005, but they produced so many excellent songs during that time.
Child Killers is a classic example of, “songs you listen to over and over then forget about for fifteen years, before Spotify chucks it back at you”. It’s also a classic example of a song which has such unhappy-sounding lyrics yet remains such a beautiful and uplifting piece of music. I have loved being re-acquainted with this song. People need to hear it.