Villa Park - Forever the Temple
I feel I must roundly and astutely bat away mutterings of abandoning out spiritual home to land developers in favour of a bowl stadium in the east side of the city. (See: Talking Point: Should Villa Leave Villa Park?).
Such arguments have grown from disgruntle ground in the last few seasons as the east side development of the city takes place. Since Villa Park first rose out from a Victorian amusement park in 1897 it has grown, through modernisation to become one of the most famous and recognisable stadiums in the country, a UEFA 5 star rated stadium and home to a football team born in 1894, the founding father of the league.
Of all the arguments for its demise perhaps the argument of "accessibility" is the most ill-founded spurious and miscalculated. Birmingham is the central transport hub of our rail, road and coach network and is directly accessible from all compass points. Villa Park itself is served by match day club transport to and from the city, various bus routes as well as two railway stations, one of which being on the door step, offering 5 minute bullet services back to New Street. Their exists a belief that some might say, 'Well, if only Aston Villa were right in the centre of the city I might support them.' If that is the motivation for supporting our great club then thanks but no thanks to that plastic stadium dream, its spiritless commercialisation and the immediate gratification and consumption that naturally follows from it. What spineless, crisp munching fare that is.
Further, for anyone who has had the opportunity to travel up north by train for a Villa away game on the day Manchester United are playing at home, or even to see Villa playing away at Manchester United themselves, will be familiar with the 'Glory Hunter Express.' Hop on any train heading toward Manchester from Birmingham New Street and at all the calling points -Wolverhampton, Stafford, Stoke, Macclesfield, Salford- you will be greeted by the site of shameless glory hunters boarding the train, sacked up to the nines in their devilish Utd clobber. People, it seems, will travel along way to be showered in glory and the purveyors of all things Salford Redsox have had a bucket load of it. Not located in central Manchester of course, but do they give two hoots sat inside the 75,769 capacity Theatre of Dreams that is Old Trafford? Answer: No they do not.
Having travelled away and seen what much of the Premier League has to offer, I can say with some confidence that we probably have one of the best grounds in the country and one I am very proud to call home, the envy of many in the footballing pyramid, served of course by world class training facilities. Indeed our problems are not based in facilities, logistics or infrastructure. No, they are based in footballing matters. No change there then.
The developmental plan has long been to rebuild the North Stand, to take our capacity to the 50,000 mark. That of course will depend largely on filling the current 42,788 seats we have at our disposal. The last time we achieved this was against Liverpool in December 2009. Indeed our average League attendance this season is 35,020, 82.3% of our capacity, putting is at 18th in Premier League attendance table. Patterns are as you would expect, with newly promoted clubs (Reading and Norwich) having the highest percentage attendance, with some of the top performers in the Premier League -Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea- following suite. Interestingly, Manchester City, current league champions, and occupiers of a centrally located modern bowl stadium, are 10th in current attendance standings with and average gate of 46,531 96.9% of their 48,000 seating capacity. However, from 1st to 13th in the current Premier League attendance standings, all clubs are within 5% of their full capacity. With big games yet to come and the big crowds that follow it is likely we will equal or eclipse our average gate for the 2011-12 season of 33,800 which left us 9th in the attendance table for a 16th place finish. What I think we can extrapolate from these figures is that there are complex factors involved in a clubs attendance, from the obvious pitch related performances to regional economic conditions. What it does tell us is that the clubs Geographical position within the city itself seems to have minimal influence when compared to sporting performance and the current forces of recession.
The only valid reason to consider moving your stadium is to meet commercial demand when the club's stadium or assets can no longer be developed . We do not have either of these problems for we have the potential to expand and develop the stadium and our assets further though we have no excess demand. When Arsenal moved from Highbury to meet the demand of the extra 20,000+ punters. It was economically and commercial valid, resulting in long term guaranteed profit. Under these arguments, it would make no financial sense for Aston Villa to move.
The Emirates boasts a capacity of 60,361 and as of this season they have sold 99.4% of their seats. First opened in 2006, the stadium to date has cost £470 million though since moving there Arsenal have won nothing. It has worked financially though it has not worked on the pitch, with Arsenal having seen their biggest stars leave. Perhaps the 2012-13 season is the first season in which the Gunners have begun to spend the sort of funds that the patrons of a 60,361 capacity stadium expect. No plain sailing then.
What of History. Should it not matter? Imagine a world without the famous Holte End, the Holte Public house, and a ground that stands next to the Jacobean, Aston Hall. Founded by Sir Thomas Holte -a former High Sheriff of Warwickshire- the Holte family lived at Aston Hall from 1631, defending the hall from over a 1000 marauding Roundhead soldiers in 1634 during the English Civil war. Sir Thomas Holte, a tempestuous man, was buried in Aston Church, which stands in the shadow of the ground. And on the badge of Aston Villa, a lion of England, prepared. Not many clubs can claim such lauded links to history or heritage.
For me it is all part of the spirituality of a football club, its community, born not only in geography, but in its history, both sporting and communal, preserved by those who profess to love the Claret and Blue. Indeed, I would further this by saying that travelling to Villa Park is akin to something religious for me. In the routine and commonplace nature of modern living, in the often unfulfilled individualised existence we all carve out, many of us turn to our clubs to feel the identity, meaning and intense belonging that we fail to experience elsewhere. Football grounds become modern temples, where we observe and pay homage to things greater than the average run of our lives. Glory and miracles can be known by all, rising out of that ticketed hope purchased every single match day. Villa Park, like many famous grounds, holds memories, feeling and history, preserved by all four stands, from which hundreds of thousands have come, generation after generation, to look down onto a stretch of marked out grass in the hope of wonder.
When we attend Villa Park we are not just consumers of it but custodians, here long after players an managers and chairmen long depart. We pass on our Villa blood; our life long love on to our children, our friends, carrying throughout out lives what it means to belong to Aston Villa Football Club. A soulless bowl of a stadium with some claret and blue seats opposite Birmingham Think Tank would kill this dead. Never in my lifetime.
Forever the Temple.