Heartbreak of an Aston Villa fan


Today, as thousands of Liverpool fans in Singapore anxiously wait to find out if their team can lift their first English football league title since 1990, I'll be with them.

1990 was the year my life changed forever. Like all primary-school boys who come of age, it was time to randomly pick an English football team located 10,000km from home to support for the rest of my life.

Naturally I chose a top club. So I looked at the league table that year and picked… second-placed Aston Villa.

"That's what happens when you gei kiang", is what I'll tell any kid in the future who wants advice on picking teams. Gei kiang is Hokkien for act smart.

So when I say I'm with Liverpool, I mean I understand what it feels like to go 24 years (and more) without winning a league title.

What I won't understand is the feeling of actually thinking it's possible to win a title because I haven't felt that in a long, long time.

As such, although I knew I had to catch my first live Villa home game while I'm studying in England this year, I've been procrastinating. I wanted this game to be special, but with my team in the midst of another unremarkable season, no game was really significant.

Indeed, in the last 15 years, because of the way English football has evolved, teams like mine have become peripheral.

It's virtually impossible for us to dream of lifting any major title. To do that you have to be established as a brand with a global fan base or hope for some billionaire to pour a gazillion dollars into your squad.

When I first started watching English football, clubs such as Villa, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle, just to name a few, could challenge for honours. The final result may still favour the most famous teams, but upsets were possible.

More importantly, clubs could dream.

That death of the dream has been the hardest part for me to take. It's difficult to get excited when every season turns into another nine-month plod. The fluid league table of the 1990s has been replaced in the last decade by one where the top five spots are more or less decided even before a single ball is kicked.

These past few months, I've had to deal with pitying looks from my classmates - many of whom wouldn't remember English football before the 2000s - when they find out what team I support.

"We were a founder member of the English football league, you know. Historically, we're one of England's most successful clubs," I would say, when asked to explain my insanity. This is usually greeted by disbelieving, blank stares.

Who cares? I had a pilgrimage to go on and I finally did it on May 3 when Villa played Hull City.

As an unfortunate bonus, I got what I wished for - this game was important. After losing five of our previous six matches, we had turned into relegation candidates. With three games left and two of them being away games at Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, the Hull match became a must-win.

That prompted more sniggers from my classmates, but it gave my visit purpose. And that purpose was magnified when I arrived in Birmingham.

Villa Park was packed.

Oh my god, I thought as I eyed the crowd. I have never seen so many Villa fans in my life. In fact, I have never seen more than three Villa fans in one spot in my life.

And yet, here we were, thousands of people heading purposefully towards the ground in our jerseys and scarves on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I might have been creeping out some people, I was smiling so gleefully.

Over the next two hours, I went through the whole gamut of emotions: from blanket excitement before the kick-off (Fans! Take photo! Fence! Also take photo!) and delirium (a goal for Villa in the first minute) to frustration (sitting back and allowing Hull to equalise) and disbelief (seeing Hull almost score a second goal).

The biggest surprise was how the diehard fan in me burst out and blasted away years of apathy.

I was gesticulating madly at the referee. I got into a shouting match with an irritating Hull City fan. When out of the blue we scored our second and third goals, I was hugging and pumping fists with strangers around me.

We eventually won 3-1. Villa climbed to 14th place. Our prize was another season in the Premier League.

For the fans of big clubs, this may seem comically tragic. It's hard to explain to non-football fans why we care about 22 men chasing a ball. It's harder to explain to other fans why I care so much about this underperforming team.

But I do, like I have for 24 years. Even though we will not win anything when the season wraps up today, those 90 minutes two Saturdays ago were truly joyous. For those 90 minutes, the beautiful game had meaning. For those 90 minutes, I was home.