01 May 2015

I know which team I want to win
… but does David Cameron know?

A panorama of Villa Park from the Trinity Road Stand, showing from left to right the North Stand, the Doug Ellis Stand and the Holte End (Photograph: Harry Vale/Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

The Aston Villa website boasts a number of very public fans, including Prince William, Tom Hanks, Redd Pepper, Nigel Kennedy, Pauline McLynn (‘Mrs Doyle’ of Father Ted), Oliver Phelps ... and David Cameron.

Well, Cameron claims he is a fan. But is he?

Early in the 2011-2012 season, he took his young son to watch Alex McLeish’s side as they faced QPR at Loftus Road.

He once said: “The first game I ever went to was an Aston Villa game and so I am an Aston Villa fan.”

It’s easy for him to have a proprietorial attitude towards Villa … after all, his uncle, Sir William Dugdale, who lived near Tamworth until he died late last year, chaired Villa from 1975 to 1982 and took the future Prime Minister to his first ever game as a 13-year-old.

But in a public blunder a few days, David Cameron gave a speech celebrating the diverse allegiances of British people in which he lauded Britain: “Where you can support Man United, the Windies and Team GB all at the same time. Of course, I’d rather you supported West Ham .. eh, hem.”

He later avoided questions from the media aiming to ascertain his level of support for Aston Villa, which he said he had supported since watching them beat Bayern Munich in the 1982 European Cup Final when he was a child.

In an interview with the Birmingham Mail, he has since claimed his “profoundly embarrassing” West Ham gaffe was down to thinking about cricket.

“I want to say how sorry I am,” Cameron said. “All I can explain is I went past the West Ham stadium the day before and I just said the word West Indies in my speech and I was making a point about the cricket Test and all the rest of it. I meant to say Aston Villa and I am profoundly embarrassed.”

Cricket? It is embarrassing. I never knew West Ham played cricket. I like cricket too. Indeed, as a Villa fan, I knew about Aston Villa’s associations with cricket since its early days. But does David Cameron?

Aston Villa Football Club was formed in March 1874, by four members of the cricket team at Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in Handsworth. From as early as 1867, the chapel was known as Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel. The four founders were Jack Hughes, Frederick Matthews, Walter Price and William Scattergood.
Local lore says they met under a gas-light in Heathfield Road to set about forming a new club. As cricket players, they were looking for something to keep them occupied during the winter, and they chose football after witnessing an impromptu game on a meadow off Heathfield Road.

The first match for the new side was against the local Aston Brook Saint Mary’s Rugby team on Wilson Road, Aston. As a condition of the match, the Villa side had to agree to play the first half under rugby rules and the second half under football rules.

The game was a scoreless draw at half time but Jack Hughes scored a goal in the second half to ensure that Villa won its first ever game.

Villa’s first official home game was at Wellington Road in Perry Barr from 1876. The new club was soon playing competitive soccer and won its first FA Cup in 1887, beating West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at the Oval. Aston Villa was one of the dozen teams that competed in the inaugural Football League in 1888. The first League game was on 8 September 1888, when Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers drew 1–1.

Aston Villa went on to become the most successful club in the Victorian period. In 1897, Villa moved to the current home ground, the Aston Lower Grounds. By 1900, the fans were calling it Villa Park, and the ground was bought outright in 1911.

By the end of Villa’s “Golden Age” and at the start of the World War I, the club had won the League Championship six times and the FA Cup five times. Aston Villa won its sixth FA Cup in 1920.

However, during the inter-war years Villa was on a slow decline that would lead to relegation to Division II in 1936 for the first time.

By 1957, Villa was a Cup-winning side once again with a seventh FA Cup win, defeating Manchester United’s “Busby Babes” 2–1.

I remember the 1971-1972 season, when I was spending a lot of time in Lichfield, and Aston Villa returned to Division II as champions with a record 70 points. I became a convinced Villa fan, and by 1975 the club was back into Division I.

In the 1977-1978 season, Villa reached the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup, going out 4–3 on aggregate against Barcelona.

The club won the league in 1980-1981, and went on to an epoch-making 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the European Cup final in Rotterdam on 26 May 1982.

Villa was relegated again in 1987, but was promoted the following year, rose to second place in the Football League in 1989, and was one of the founding members of the Premier League in 1992, when Villa finished runners-up to Manchester United in the inaugural season.

In 2000, Aston Villa reached the FA Cup Final for the first time since 1957, but lost 1–0 to Chelsea in the last game played at the old Wembley Stadium.

Now, 15 years later, Villa is back in an FA Cup Final once again. An eighth cup win would be so sweet after a a season that was often dominated by regulation fears.

I pass by Villa Park many times a year, on my way to and from Lichfield on the train. The King Edward VII, a landmark pub popular with Aston Villa fans on matchdays, has stood proudly on the junction of Lichfield Road and Aston Hall Road since about 1900.

However, local newspapers reported a few weeks ago that the pub is to be pulled down as part of a major industrial park development and a wider revamp of the junction with Aston Hall Road. According to the reports, the pub’s owner, Paul McMahon, plans to move his business to the nearby derelict Aston Tavern.

By accident, I have arranged already to be back in Lichfield on Cup Final Day. Once again, I shall find myself close to Villa Park. I must find a good place in Lichfield to watch the match. Any suggestions?

After all, I know which team I am supporting … but does David Cameron?

(Typographical corrections, 2 May 2015)