A fan’s lot

I gave up my long-held Aston Villa season ticket at the end of the 2005/06 season when we made our permanent move to France. I did so believing that I would be back and forth to UK on a regular basis to watch my boys. But I haven’t watched them live since, just on the television. It’s no real substitute and I oft cite Premiership football and my team as the things I miss most about living in France.

My beloved’s and my first date was at a football match, which Villa won. At football matches, other spectators would often comment that it was nice the missus had come too to which my beloved always replied that he was accompanying me, not the other way around. He often jokes that when we married he vowed to “loved, honour, obey and support Aston Villa”. I’m fortunate that he had no clear football allegiances having occasionally watched Spurs with his Dad, who hailed originally from north London, and Swindon with his maternal grandfather.

On the other hand my blood runs claret and blue. My mother was born not far from the club and all her relatives were Villa fans and my father moved from the south coast to play for the youth team. It was a no brainer really. I first started going to matches in the company of my Dad’s best friend and his father. Thereafter, I would either go on my own or with friends. You just cannot beat the atmosphere of a live football match. There’s something quite primeval and tribal about the whole thing.

In some season’s past, I saw every match home and away. No mean feat for a woman with a demanding job. While, Villa Park is obviously my favourite ground there’s many others I’ve enjoyed visiting. Unfortunately, as an away fan, you tend to get put in the worst spots in the ground and spend the entire match on your feet, despite having parted for a small fortune for a seat. Some grounds have great atmospheres, such an Anfield, but IMHO the ground with the most electric atmosphere is St James’s Park. It’s right in the centre of Newcastle and everyone, and I do mean everyone, on match day wears that familiar black and white striped shirt. I’ve even seen grannies with shopping trollies proudly wearing them. Away supporters are relegated to the gods, so there’s just a Geordie wall of sound around the ground.

Initially, we had season tickets for OGCN but my beloved’s travel commitments meant he missed more games than he saw, plus there’s never any problem getting tickets, despite the small capacity. The one things I hate about French stadia, as it’s outside, you can smoke whereas I’d long sat in a no smoking area in Villa Park. I have written to OGCN asking if, in the new stadium, we can have a no smoking area. I’m still awaiting a response.

For me yesterday’s match against Spurs summed up Villa’s current plight. We were played off the pitch (30% v 70% possession) by a vastly superior side who’ve invested long and hard in their team, no doubt hoping to recapture their glory days and a constant diet of European football. Our alleged 4-4-2 formation was just a thinly veiled excuse for 11 men behind the ball. Former Villa keeper Brad Friedel was rarely troubled. All we managed was 1 shot on target and 2 off. Of course, that one shot might have levelled the score and changed the face of the game. But, sadly, I suspect not.

As a fan, it’s hard to accept, perhaps, a team’s glory days are behind them and 6th in the Premiership, achieved in three successive seasons under Martin O’Neill, is as good as it’s ever going to get for the forseeable future. Our role is as a developmental squad, where we either train young players or bring on more seasoned ones for the “better” clubs. In recent seasons we’ve lost an entire midfield: Ashley Young, Stuart Downing, Gareth Barry and James Milner. Yesterday evening, it showed.

So if indeed our best days are behind us, allow me to wallow in them. AVFC are the 5th most decorated club in English football (no prizes for guessing the others) with 19 major domestic honours, 7 League championships and one of only five English clubs to have won a European Cup (again no prizes for guessing the others). We even beat mighty Barcelona to win the 1982-83 European Super Cup. We’re the only club to have hosted international matches over three centuries and have provided more England international players than any other club.

I’ve been fortunate to watch my beloved team at Wembley, and see them win the League Cups in 1994 and 1996. My most favourite moment

Thanks for the memories

remains, not unnaturally, that evening in late May 1982 when, having won the First Division Championship in 1980-81, we took on the might of Bayern Munich at the De Kuip Stadium in Rotterdam, and won.

Close run thing

I finally got around to taking my beloved BMC I down to my LBS (Local Bike Shop) to have the set up changed to that of my beloved BMC II. I also splashed out on a new saddle, as the old one was looking kinda sad after close on 30,000km. I had suffered a puncture while out riding this morning thanks to a tack which had left a large hole in my rear tyre and deflated the inner tube.

The hole was so big that there was absolutely no point in replacing the inner tube without first replacing the tyre. I would only have been setting myself up for multiple punctures.  Of course, I cannot possibly have mismatched tyres. So both back and front tyres had to be changed. However, nothing will go to waste. All the rejected bits and bobs went straight into the Burkina Faso box.

We rode back home and, after a shower, I slipped into my favourite lounge wear,the Qatari Airways freebie jimjams, and settled down to watch Stage 5 of the Santos Tour Down Under, 131km to Willunga. We only caught the last 5 kilometers which ended with a sprint finish among the small leading pack , won by Movistar’s Francisco Ventoso ahead of in-form Michael Matthews and Matt Goss. Cameron Meyer, a world champion on the track and Australian time-trial champion, remains in the leader’s ochre jersey and is poised to take his first stage race in Gamin-Cervelo’s colours.

Euskatel’s Gorka Izagirre, whom we’d last seen winning  in the Basque country, took a bit of a flier but was reeled in just before the line. He’s animated a number of stages and races in Australia and I’ll be keeping a look out for him this year.

Meanwhile my beloved football team were hosting Man “Money’s no Object” City at Villa Park. I was praying that we would not suffer the fickle finger of fate from the returning players (Gareth Barry and James Milner). Furthermore, I was hoping for some sign that £18m spent on Darren Bent had been a wise investment on the part of Houllier.

We won 1-0, after Bent had scored on his debut in the 18th minute. A spirited display, particularly by the back four and the first clean sheet for months. Let’s hope that this is a turning point in our season.

After last week’s 2-0 home defeat by Lille, OGCN are  hosting Olympique Lyonnais tomorrow evening in the French League Cup where, frankly, anything could happen.

We’ll be watching the match on the television after (I hope) having successfully defended our Regional Championship. Like the Departmental Championship, which we narrowly lost this season, competition will be fiercest from two clubs which, unlike us, are chock full of veterans (maximum point scorers). M Le President has rallied the troops and I’ll be there to chivy everyone as, unfortunately, he’ll be working.

Sporting round up

The continued downpour which has confined me indoors has allowed me to catch up with a number of sporting events. Yesterday, I watched the fourth and final competition of the “Four Hills” Ski Jumping Tournament from  Bischofshofen, Austria.

In years past, I have watched the first two legs of this competition live while on vacation. There’s nothing better than watching them launch themselves off the in-run, soaring  like big birds of prey into the darkening sky, snow swirling, the cheers of the supporters while you’re warmly wrapped up against the cold with a glass of  gluehwein in hand. Like most sports, it’s a much better spectacle live. Nonetheless, I’ve enjoyed watching all four hills (Obersdorf, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Innsbruck and Bischofshofen) on the television. The overall was won by Austrian, Thomas Morgenstern, current World Cup leader and a man in obvious good form.

Sadly, my beloved boys in claret and blue went down 1-0 at home to the Black Cats leaving them wallowing in the relegation zone. The fans are outraged but fortunately it looks as if sanity has prevailed in the boardroom. We cannot expect to repeat last year’s position having sold one of the lynchpins of that team (James Milner) and not having strengthened the squad in the same fashion as our nearest competitors. Not forgetting that a number of senior players were injured in the first part of the season. Houllier is re-building the squad and must be given time to do this. I admit I am hoping that this week end we’ll beat our FA Cup opponents and, next week end, emerge victorious in the local derby.

On the cycling front, Team Leopard-Trek was presented to the cycling world yesterday. I’m rather disappointed with the mundane kit. I had hoped with a name like Leopard we might see something a bit more imaginative. But no, it’s black, white and blue, like half the peloton.

I see that Stephane Auge, after 10 years as a Pro, has decided to hang up his cleats and climb into the Cofidis team car as a DS. Echapees just won’t seem the same without him.

It’s been reported that the Spanish Cycling Federation won’t be opining on the Contador case until February, as there’s loads of paperwork to digest. Given that whichever side “loses” will appeal to TAS, it’s unlikely that Contador will be riding this year’s Tour. I’ve passed little comment on the case largely because when I first heard that he’d tested positive for Clenbuterol, which aids weight reduction and helps you breathe more easily, I did wonder where I might be able to purchase it. Both of my cycling related problems resolved in one fell swoop. But here’s the rub. While it would undoubtedly aid my cause, it’s most unlikely to have aided Alberto’s.

Shock horror, Jeannie Longo, having just been awarded the highest civilian “Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur” has admitted to thinking about retirement. Please, don’t do it Jeannie, I’m not yet ready for the competition.

Twinkle, twinkle

Gratifyingly good performances from both England and France yesterday evening as they look to distance the disappointment of the World Cup in South Africa. For Capello it is business as usual, though injuries have prompted (forced) him to give opportunities to some promising players, notably Adam Johnson. Revelations about Wayne Rooney’s off field escapades have fortunately not affected his on-field form, quite the opposite. However, is it only me who thinks Capello might be better off leaving Lampard on the side-lines?  After two resounding wins, England top their Group.

Laurent Blanc has a much harder task with his “blanc piece of paper” but the signs are promising and, once many of his players return from injury and/or suspension, expect more score-lines like yesterday evening. Help may be at hand as I understand that Zinadine Zidane’s eldest is playing for Real Madrid’s youth squad. He’ll be 17 come the European Cup in 2012.

There may soon be a Gallic flavour at Villa Park. Rumour has it that Gerard Houllier is mulling over an offer to step into Martin O’Neill’s shoes. They have a potential banana skin away at Stoke this Sunday, after riding their luck to most recently scrape past Everton. They’ve been a bit of a curate’s egg and, with no additions to the squad following the sale of James Milner, will quickly need to bring on some of their promising youngsters.

OGCN are also playing on Sunday, when they’ll be home to Bordeaux now bereft of my favourite French player Yoann Gourcuff who’s hightailed it to Lyon. However, the first installment from the sale of Loic Remy has finally arrived into the OGCN coffers, allowing them to balance (cook?) the books. Nonetheless, OGCN have done their usual last minute shopping in football’s equivalent of Filene’s basement. Let’s hope they have unearthed some gems.

Gone, not with a bang, not even a whimper

As I was idly flicking through my emails on my Blackberry, a headline caught my eye. It chilled my blood. “Eriksson and Bradley favourites to take over at Villa Park, ” it said. It could only mean one thing. Martin O’Neill, the best thing to happen to AVFC in many a year, has left the club.

Villa fans are shocked and trying to come to terms with the tragic news just days before the start of the new season. It appears O’Neill felt the introduction of the recent “sell before you can buy” policy was contrary to the terms of his original agreement with Randy Lerner. Failure to climb into the top four, who enjoy Champions League football and its associated financial rewards, leaves the club’s best players vulnerable to predators with deeper pockets: players such as Gareth Barry and, now, James Milner.

I sincerely hope that the Swedish gentleman named above will not replace (as if anyone could) O’Neill. There’s no way he could fill those shoes. One of the Villa fans on the Teamtalk website has suggested a direct swap with the England manager. I think England would benefit more than the Villa from such a trade.

Of course, I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that the football season is here again, though it feels as if it never went away. OGCN have started, where they left off, with a home draw against Valenciennes, which they should have won. Apam has gone ,while Loic Remy is still playing for the club. But I expect him to be Premiership bound before the month is over, to balance the books.

Allegedly season tickets sales are down 40% at the Stade du Ray. But it’s understandable really: a small, decrepit, stadium and an increasingly disenchanted fan-base.  The best players are sold at the beginning of every season to cover costs. 

Good luck Martin and thank you for everything. I wish you well in your next role. You don’t fancy a spell in the South of France do you?

It’s started

I’d been finding it hard to work up any enthusiasm for the World Cup but once it kicked off on Friday I found myself naturally taking an interest. I watched France v Uruguay, a  tense match with few opportunities for either side. The French played some very attractive football but the tournament will not be decided on artistic impression and technical merit. The French press have castigated the manager and the players for their unimaginative play. In particular, Yoann Gourcuff, who even I admit did not have a good game,  was singled out for some harsh criticism.

This was not the only opener decided by a draw. USA v England, where two of my beloved boys in claret & blue were on England duty, resulted in a 1-1 draw. Emile Heskey played a blinder (technical term), easily his best appearance in an England shirt. While James Milner (being heavily courted by Man City), still suffering from the after-effects of an illness, was off the pace and substituted in the first half. Again, the England boys came in for some criticism from the press.  Take no notice boys, what do they know?

I managed to get tickets for the previous World Cup. My beloved and I saw one of the opening games, Brazil v Croatia, in Berlin. It was a mediocre match, played in a magnificent stadium, with the spectators providing a fantastic atmosphere. Indeed, we spent a long weekend  in Berlin watching matches on the big screen, just soaking up the atmosphere. Everything was brilliantly and efficiently organised by the Germans. The weather was warm and sunny and there was a real sense of carnival and occasion to the proceedings. I’m sure the same can be said of proceedings in South Africa.

The final of that World Cup was played the night before my beloved’s first attempt at l’Etape du Tour. We watched the match in a bar in Briancon, not far from where we were staying. After the match, I was approached by a young French boy in floods of tears. Well, they had just lost to the Italians. However, that wasn’t why he was crying. He’d become detached from his father and sister in the crowds. So I sat with him, calmed him down and tried to contact his father on my mobile. This proved fruitless as he was obviously ringing anyone and everyone to see if they’d seen his son. Fortunately, before too long he was reunited with his elder sister who had retraced her steps to try and find him.

This week I’ve been watching Alberto Contador and the Astana team in the Criterium du Dauphine. Bert said he’d come to test his condition, many thought he was sandbagging. He wasn’t. He won two stages, including the queen stage, which finished on L’Alpe d’Huez, the points jersey and was 2nd on GC. The race was won by Janez Brajkovic who having been let off the leash by Bruyneel, confirmed his earlier promise. However, don’t read too much into this. Come 3 July, Contador will be at the top of his game and primed to retain his Tour crown, ably assisted by his Astana team mates led by Alexandre Vinokourov. While only death and taxes are certainties, Bert to win the Tour isn’t too far off.

If only

I headed down to the rendezvous point for today’s club ride under a heavily overcast sky. It wasn’t particularly cold, but it was damp. There was a good turn out of members, most of whom I had to kiss on the cheeks. Once we had set off, I took the opportunity during the first few kms of the ride to update M le President on events of the past week.  The road turned up to Gattieres and, as is my wont, I slid from the front to the back of the peloton in nano-seconds. However, it was some time before they disappeared totally from view and, as our paths crossed later that morning, I realised I wasn’t too far behind the medium slow group.

Today’s programme featured a 31/2hr ride at my speed. Actually I felt much better than I had yesterday and enjoyed the ride up to Tourrettes via Vence. Where, having worked up a bit of a sweat, I was now feeling chilled so decided to descend via Vence and La Gaude to collect the Sunday papers and warm myself up with a quick cup of coffee before hurrying home for my simultaneous sporting action.

For Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the weather in Belgium was truly atrocious, not that it seemed to deter the die-hard fans. A large number of riders, having lost all hope of a decent finish, either hopped into the broom wagon or one of their team cars. In fact, there were only 26 finishers!

The light was so poor that it was difficult to distinguish the riders who were strewn all over the parcours largely thanks to the high winds. For safety reasons, the course was reduced in length (by 10km) and the winner crossed the line half-way through the first half of the League Cup final. It was Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil) who amply demonstrated Jens Voigt’s mantra that if you don’t try you’ll never win: he was one of the original breakaways. Rick Flens (Rabobank) was 2nd and Ian Stannard (Sky) who was 3rd had bridged up to Traksel from one of the splintered groups. Although a number of riders had tried to catch the trio, most notably Hushovd (Cervelo) and Roulston (HTC-Columbia), no one had gotten within 40 seconds of them.

Over on the other screen, Villa had gone ahead with a penalty (James Milner) after Vidic had brought down Gabby Agbonlahor. The pundits, to a man, agreed that the referee should have shown Vidic a red card (last defender) but he didn’t even get a yellow. Who knows how the game might have panned out with the Red Devils down to 10 men. Michael Owen scored in the 13th minute and shortly thereafter pulled his hamstring. This meant Rooney was going to have to come off the bench and play.

While my beloved boys in claret and blue played well in the first-half they were overrun by Manchester United, the cup holders, in the second half. That man Rooney popped his head onto a wonderful pass from Valencia and it was game over with less than 15 minutes to play. While Villa threw everything at their opponents, they held firm to retain their title.  

Last night, predictably, OGCN lost 2-0 away at Olympique Lyonnais and remain one place above the drop zone.