My team Aston Villa may be going through an, ahem, transitional period, but there’s no denying that the club has one of the proudest histories in world football. What better way to experience it than on a stadium tour of Villa Park.
If you’re going on a stadium tour, the meeting place is the Players Lounge near the North Stand. There’s free and safe parking outside Villa Village on non-match days – it seemed strange being able to drive right up to Villa Park without being asked if I want my car “looked after” by a bunch of scallies.
We were met by our guide, Keith, who gave us a few anecdotes about what previous players and managers get up to before games. I won’t mention any here as I don’t want to spoil your fun (or get Keith into trouble).
First stop on the tour was the press room, where we were encouraged to take photos (the official line is that you’re not supposed to take videos, but Keith said “I won’t stop you, as long as you don’t put me on YouTube”). Before going through the ground’s main reception, we were shown a statue of former club committee member William McGregor. Frustrated at Villa’s opponents not turning up to friendlies after the club was founded in 1874, he founded the Football League in 1888 – Villa were one of twelve founder members along with the likes of Accrington Stanley, Blackburn Rovers and Notts County.
After a quick whizz around the executive boxes and the 1874 Suite, we were taken to the best seats in the house, the comfy padded seats in the Trinity Road Stand level with the half-way line where VIPs sit, for a history lesson from Keith.
Next up we popped in to the dressing rooms – we were told the home and away dressing rooms are similar in terms of size and comfort. A lot of grounds have horrible facilities for visiting teams to give any advantage to the home team, but not at the Villa. Because we have hosted FA Cup semi finals and the odd international, we have to ensure equality.
Players’ shirts were set out in one room with massage beds, a big screen and a tactics board for half-time team talks, with another room for showers and ice-baths.
The highlight of the tour for me was walking down the tunnel and out onto the pitch – the pre-match fanfare played, as I strode out towards the Holte End. The pitch itself was out of bounds as huge industrial lights were installed to help the grass grow (although I’d been on it before celebrating our 1994 League Cup semi-final victory vs Tranmere Rovers). The dugout was available to all for photo opportunities.
Villa may be pretty awful now, but they are currently the 4th most decorated club in English football behind only Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, although Chelsea will overtake us very soon. Our honours include 7 league titles, 7 FA Cups, 5 League Cups and our piece de resistance – the Champions League, or the European Cup as it was called when we won it in 1982. We beat Bayern Munich 1-0 in Rotterdam with a miskick off the post from Peter Withe, although when I reminded a Bayern fan about this in Munich last year, he did not believe me.
Granted, most of these honours came back in pre-TV days. Our last trophy was the 1996 League Cup when we beat Leeds 3-0. This was in the halcyon days of Paul McGrath, Dwight Yorke, Ian Taylor, EURO ’96, Britpop and Trainspotting – even Wembley had its twin towers.
Throughout the tour, Keith was not too sycophantic and acknowledged that we were crap these days, although you could tell he was proud of our history (and a bit sad about our present).
There are plans in place to build a club museum to show off these trophies, rivalling that of FC Barcelona. Until then, the European Cup, FA Cup and European Super Cup are on display in the tunnel, presumably to inspire our players and intimidate opponents before kick-off. The ploy hasn’t worked to date, so let’s hope the museum is built soon and there’s no need for a Championship Winners 2016/17 trophy.
At £15 for a two-hour tour, it was great entertainment and value – probably better than watching a match from the stands!