We’re at Wembley today

This afternoon at Wembley, my beloved football team Aston Villa FC take on the might of Manchester City, a team whose market value greatly exceeds that of ours, in the Carabao Cup Final. While we’re languishing in 19th place, embedded in the drop zone, second-placed Manchster City have been chasing their tails and Liverpool in vain.

As a fan, I am hoping my boys will prevail. After all, anything can happen on the day even though the statistics indicate otherwise. The two teams have met 171 times in all competitions, including their first encounter way back in 1899. Villa have won 57, drawn 41 and lost 73 of the meetings between the two clubs. In their most recent clash back in January at Villa Park, Manchester City easily scored six goals to Aston Villa’s one. That’s a whitewash!

Manchester City have won the competition on six occasions, boosted by their recent domination of the trophy that has seen them win it in three of the past four seasons. Consequently, the bookies have them as huge 1/14 favourites to lift the trophy once again – even going as short as 1/33 in some places!

Moving swiftly on, let’s instead focus on the positives. Aston Villa have scored the most goals in the Carabao Cup this season, finding the net 19 times in six matches. Twelve different players have scored: Conor Hourihane, Jack Grealish, Ezri Konsa, Fred Guilbert, Keinan Davis, Jota, Jonathan Kodjia, Wesley, Trezeguet, Ahmed Elmohamady, Matt Targett and Anwar El Ghazi.

My beloved team do have an ace up their sleeves. Namely Jack Grealish, a life-long Villa fan, who is quite honestly indispensable. In this season’s Premier League he leads the way in most goals, assists, key passes, touches of the ball and minutes on the field. Grealish is Aston Villa’s most booked player and their most fouled player, the player who has made the most passes and been dispossessed the most. Small wonder Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, describes him as one of the best players in the league – hands off Pep!

The manager, Dean Smith, a lifetime supporter of the team, perhaps said it best at the Press Conference:

When I saw the team sheet [against Real Madrid] and saw David Silva wasn’t playing, Sergio Aguero wasn’t playing and Raheem Sterling wasn’t playing, I thought they must be worried about playing Aston Villa!

They’re a fantastic team, whichever 11 they put out, and they have a fantastic coach. That’s why they’re such massive favourites in the game and why they can go to a place like the Bernabeu and get a result like they did.

We also know that we can push them. We went there earlier in the season and there was an absolute belief that we could beat them that day. I like being the underdog because we can go out and play without anyone expecting us to win, but we have also have that drive to prove people wrong.

We’re most definitely underdogs and we should therefore just go for it! We should remember our venerable League Cup tradition – its first winners, in 1961, and victors of memorable finals in 1977, 1994 and 1996. Despite a trophy drought which stretches back a long and lonely 24 years, Sunday will be Aston Villa’s fifth Wembley appearance in six seasons, most recently overcoming Derby County in last May’s Championship playoff.

Sunday’s showdown will be our ninth appearance in the League Cup final – a tally bettered only by Liverpool – while Villa’s record of five wins is only one behind Liverpool and Man City in the all-time list. Indeed, while there are a plethora of daunting recent statistics which Man City can boast in this competition, Villa still hold the distinction of being the team to have won more League Cup matches than any other team in history (140). I’m holding onto that!

Differing fortunes

Yesterday evening, my beloved and I made one of our all too infrequent trips to the Allianz stadium to watch OGCN’s last home match of the season. It was a six-pointer against St Etienne who were one point and one position ahead of us in the league. Both teams are fighting for an all-important place in the Europa Cup.

That OGCN, a team which has spent the last few seasons defying the odds to remain in the top league, was in contention for Europe was nothing short of a miracle. A miracle wrought by the manager Claude Puel and two of the league’s leading goal scorers. Hatem Ben Arfa, who has risen like a phoenix from the ashes at Nice and who’ll no doubt figure strongly in the French squad for this year’s Euro Championships, and Valere Germain, a player on loan from neighbouring AS Monaco.

While qualification for Europe won’t help us retain the services of either of those three, it will help us attract reasonable replacements. Barcelona FC are eyeing up Ben Arfa, while AS Monaco, who were thrashed 6-1 away from home yesterday evening, will surely welcome back Germain with open arms. After all, he’s scored more goals than any of their first team players this season. Unhappy wealthy football club owners will undoubtedly also be eyeing up Puel, and the success he’s brought to OGCN, before bringing out the big bucks to tempt him away. It’s inevitable!

Of course, Nice have other players, such as Ricardo and Mendy, who will also no doubt have attracted the attention of richer clubs so once again the 2016/17 season will be one of rebuilding the team, but it’ll be much easier to do it from a position of strength with a place in the Europa League.

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Coincidentally, we won yesterday’s match 2-0. A tight and exciting goalless first half but then the Greens lost their heads and two men in the second half allowing Germain to strike twice in quick succession in the last 10 minutes of play. The fans were ecstatic. We had flares and a laser light show to bring down the curtain on a very successful season.

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A total contrast to the fortunes of my beloved Aston Villa who were ignominiously demoted without a whimper to the Championship. The clear out of dead wood has already begun and the quicker someone relieves Randy Lerner of his ownership of the club, which has stagnated under his stewardship, the better. Surely, there must be more Thai billionaires who’d like to have their own football team?

2015 Highlights

In a year of so many highs, which ones really stood out in yet another busy and thoroughly enjoyable year?

1. Richmond 2015 UCI Road World Championships

If I had to pick only one, this would be it for a myriad of reasons. Firstly a big shout out to the organisers and the people of Richmond for putting on a well-organised, well-supported fantastic World Championships. None will ever surpass my first in Salzburg  – a girl never forgets her first – but this one came pretty close.

Next, I (finally) got to meet Greig Leach as we began to collaborate on our second book together. On so many levels, it’s odd for him have an editor who’s not American, editing American prose. But I know that I bring my knowledge of the cycling world and obsessive eye for detail which is the perfect counter-point for Greig’s broad brush perspective. Our second book will be published in early February but you can order a copy now.

The World Championships are a great opportunity to meet up with friends old and new, including VeloVoices’ very own Panache. I’ve been working with these guys since 2012 and have still to meet everyone in person! I not only met Panache aka Chris but his lovely wife Audrey, who was nursing a broken foot, his best cycling buddy Chad and his equally lovely wife Belva. I helped Chris, Chad and another of their friends Scott have a memorable cycling holiday at the Tour a couple of years back. I think the next trip might well be in the Dolomites with their better halves! I am poised to lend a helping hand.

Sagan wins Worlds (image: Greig Leach)
Sagan wins Worlds (image: Greig Leach)

I love it when someone I know wins a race. Admittedly, Peter Sagan was one of the bookies’  favourites for the men’s road race title but, with only two team-mates and a season which had not perhaps gone the way everyone expected, the pressure was on. Peter delivered in spades with a swashbuckling attack, a risk-all descent and a hanging on for grim death finish. He was warmly congratulated by his peers and the fans after winning in style – something he does only too well.

2. Three Grand Departs

More by accident than design, this year I was fortunate to attend the start of all three of the grand tours. Impossible to pick a favourite as they were all special for many reasons. The Tour is always fantastically well-organised and I take my hat off to anyone who can organise the equivalent of 21 Royal Weddings with barely a hitch. It runs like a well-oiled machine but its sheer size mitigates against rider and fan intimacy which is much more easily achieved at both the Giro and Vuelta which are both rather more laid back affairs.

3. My Beloved Aston Villa

My late father (far left) holding 1957 FA Cup won by AVFC
My late father (far left) holding 1957 FA Cup won by AVFC

The boys managed to reach the FA Cup final where they were roundly beaten by a vastly superior Arsenal but, more importantly, they managed to (again) stave off relegation. Unfortunately, key players wanted out and were sold to be replaced with a bunch of very promising youngsters, including a player from my French team OGCN. A change of managers has not managed to lift the boys off the bottom of the Premiership where they languish easily in last place. I fear for them, I really do. Let’s hope they get their act together under Remi Gard (who is a disciple of OGCN Manager Claude Puel) and play (much) better in the first half of 2016. I’m hoping Gus will lend us Loic Remy, another ex-OGCN and OC Lyon player, who can score goals.

Farewell to Gareth Barry

I’m often asked what I miss about the UK, usually in anticipation of me reciting a long list which includes family and friends, baked beans, Branston pickle or other such cherished culinary icons. I’m sure you can understand that my popularity quotient has risen immeasurably since my move from central London to the Cote d’Azur. I have a guest bedroom (just the one mind), so family and friends can come and visit. Because there’s a lot of Brits living here, or who have second homes, most supermarkets have a UK section. Here you’ll be able to find Marmite, Wall’s sausages, baked beans, Branston pickle, Bird’s custard powder, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk etc etc However, I have no need to buy any of these products. Indeed, I never bought them when I lived in the UK.

No, I miss watching live Premiership football. Specifically, I miss watching my team: Aston Villa. I listen to their matches on the internet and watch them on satellite TV. But any sports fan will tell you, there’s no substitute for watching a live match, race, game, whatever. If you were to ask me to describe my perfect day it would most definitely include watching my team win LIVE.

Because this blog is largely about cycling, you might be forgiven for thinking it was my first love. But no, that’s football. My maternal grandfather was a Villa fan. My mother grew up a stone’s throw away from the ground. My father moved from Portsmouth to play for Villa’s youth squad. If you cut my arm off my blood would run “claret and blue”. My first date with my husband was a football match, which Villa won. He often jokes that when he married me he promised to “love, honour, obey and support Aston Villa”.

We were for many years Villa season ticket holders and we travelled all over the country watching them play, home and away. I now have a season ticket for my local team, OGC Nice, but I can’t work up quite the same passion and enthusiasm as I do for the Villains. You might be wondering what has occasioned this outpouring. It’s simple: today, it was confirmed that Gareth Barry has played his last match for Villa. He’s moving to Manchester City; coincidentally, the subject of one of my favourite sporting books “Manchester United Ruined my Life” by Colin Schindler.

After 12 years of faithful service, Gareth is moving on and taking a bit of me with him. He’s not my favourite player ever, that’s Paul McGrath for whom the famous violinist Nigel Kennedy (yes, him of Four Season’s fame), penned “God is Paul McGrath”.  He’s not even a local, he was signed as a youth player from Brighton but he’s played 440 games in a Villa shirt and, as is right and proper, he’s (at long last – well done, Capello) regularly donning an England shirt. I wish him well and every success at Man City, but obviously not at the Villa’s expense.

Unfortunately, when you’re trying to break into the Big Four (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) and fail, you run the risk that all those players you’ve so cannily bought and/or developed will be cherry picked by those clubs with bigger wallets and/or more (recent) trophies in the cabinet.