Much like Aston Villa’s journey to the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, I too had my own adventure at the home of English football on Sunday.
Not only did I get to see the club I’ve supported since a kid beat Liverpool to book a cup final date against Arsenal in May, but I was also given a bit of VIP treatment along the way. For someone who usually lacks any kind of importance, being deemed ‘very important’ was a welcome change!
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I was given two complimentary tickets to the Aston Villa v Liverpool semi-final by The FA. I’m a massive football fan and write about the beautiful game as my job, so the chance to see a fixture at Wembley was very exciting.
What’s more, Villa had somehow managed to reach the latter stages of the competition, despite having another poor season in the league, which made the opportunity even more special.
My first dilemma was trying to decide who to take with me on my FA Cup adventure – or FA Cup DADventure, if you will. I toyed with the idea of taking Baby L, however reluctantly thought better of it – Wembley Stadium is kid friendly with things like baby changing facilities and family seating available, but me, an eight-month old and 85,000 other fans probably wasn’t the most sensible of ideas.
Instead, I took my mate, Dan – it was an act of charity in a way considering that he’s a long-suffering Barnet supporter who’s not used to any type of footballing success (says the Villa fan).
Match day soon came around, much to the relief of the missus who I made sure was updated on all things Villa in the week leading up to the game. Armed with tickets, my 1994 Coca Cola Cup winning Villa shirt, a youthful exuberance and the butterflies in my stomach that only a football match can create, I set off on my FA Cup adventure.
I got the train to Harrow and Wealdstone, before getting the Overground to Wembley Central. Both the claret and blue of Villa and red of Liverpool had descended upon the Capital and painted a colourful backdrop for my journey to North London.
Having reached Wembley Central station and waited a few minutes for Dan, it was at this point that I realised I was a complete numpty. I’d accidentally told my mate to meet me at the station at 1.30pm rather than 12.30pm as we needed to meet the guys from the FA at 1pm. Bollocks. I messaged him to let him know that I’d royally ballsed up, before setting off on the 15-minute walk to the stadium.
I’d been to Wembley once before, but had never seen a live game there. The missus had bought me a stadium tour of Wembley last year which was really good, but nothing compares to a proper event. I could feel the rising excitement and anticipation as I approached the ground, took a few quick snaps and looked for the Photographers Entrance where I was set to meet my hosts, the lovely (but Arsenal supporting) Jen and Joe.
I was taken through a special door and up a secret passage (neither of which are euphemisms), before we reached the stunning Wembley pitch. The grass was in perfect condition – it was incredible to think that the first semi-final had been played there less than 24 hours prior. (N.B. Remind me to get the name of the groundsman to see if he can do something about our patchy grass at home.)
We had a slow walk around the pitch and soaked up the rising atmosphere whilst I got a bit snap happy. It was a great experience to be given the freedom to be so close to that hallowed turf. I had to do everything in my power to stop myself running on to the pitch to have a kickabout, or getting naked and having an Erica Roe moment. Either way, I managed to control my primeval urges whilst developing a swagger to make the growing number of fans, who were taking their seats, think I was someone special.
As we nearly completed our lap of honour, we stumbled upon the guys from BT Sports going through their preparations prior to going live on air. Literally feet in front of me stood former Premier League and England legends David James, Michael Owen and Steve McManaman as they tucked into their lunches. Robbie Savage was also there…
After taking a few photos of the footy pundits and making them feel pretty uncomfortable, Dan rang me to say that he’d arrived, so we headed back out to pick him up. On our journey, we passed a few of the Villa team (Alan Hutton, Ashley Westwood, Jack Grealish etc) who had made their way out of the tunnel. We also stumbled upon the Liverpool coach which had just arrived and parked up. It seems like it’s not just Jose Mourinho who knows how to park the bus, ba dum tss!
We then came back into the stadium and did a bit more footy celeb spotting – to my list, I added Jermaine Jenas, Stan Collymore, John Gregory and new Homes Under The Hammer presenter, Dion Dublin. I know, I’m still getting over the shock of seeing the Villa legend on my TV every morning.
With an hour to go before kick-off, we parted ways from the Jim’ll Fix It-esque Jen and Joe (due to them making dreams come true, nothing else!) in order to grab a pre-match drink and snack. I say snack, but the huge sausage in an undersized bread bun felt more like a meal!
As kick-off approached, we headed to our awesome seats to watch the final preparations which included the Villa lads completing their warm ups. The atmosphere was electric and all of the fans around us were in great spirits – a few had obviously consumed a few spirits before the game too! There was no trouble though – this was a celebration for the Villa fans. It’s not every day that our great club reaches Wembley, so this FA Cup adventure was as much about the fans as it was the players.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t massively confident ahead of the game. Something inside told me that we had a chance, but I’ve come to realise that football is a cruel mistress, particularly as a Villa fan. Our defence has been shocking at times this season and I didn’t really fancy our chances against a talented Liverpool attack. However, Sherwood’s arrival at Villa Park has given the whole club a lift, and most importantly, he has found a way to get Benteke scoring. With the big Belgian upfront and a fair bit of pace in the Villa side, anything could happen.
The first half was surprising – Villa were often in the ascendency as they comfortably passed the ball around and limited Liverpool to a few half chances. Despite Villa being on top for most of the opening 45 minutes, Liverpool took the lead on the half hour mark through a Coutinho goal. An injury to Baker had not helped Villa and they conceded after some shocking defending at the back. Same old Villa?
However, the Villans hit back just six minutes later – some great footwork by Delph sent him clear and his cross was converted from the edge of the area by Benteke. The Villa fans went berserk. Game on!
As the second half kicked-off, Villa continued from where they started. Surprisingly, Liverpool just didn’t look up for the match. Within ten minutes of the restart, Villa scored what turned out to be the deciding goal. Again, Delph was pivotal in the move – he picked up a Grealish through ball, turned a defender and slotted into the net. Villa fans dared to believe. The magic of this famous cup probably made Houdini celebrate in his grave.
Villa kept Liverpool at bay for the rest of the match, although were pretty lucky when the linesman disallowed a Balotelli goal for offside when the replays showed he was on. The Reds had one or two half chances, but ended up resorting to long-ball football as they failed to break down the Villa defence.
With four minutes of stoppage time feeling like eight, the referee finally blew the whistle. Villa were going to Wembley. Again. The fans went wild, the players celebrated and the Liverpool fans quickly left the ground. What a result!
Although the underdogs were victorious, Villa were undoubtedly the better side on the day and we deserved the win. The 2-1 triumph secures the Midlands’ outfit their first FA Cup final appearance since 2000 and means that ambitions of lifting the famous trophy for the first time since 1957 are still very much alive. It has been nearly 20 years since we won a domestic trophy, so let’s hope 2015 will be our year.
My magical FA Cup adventure may be over, but Villa’s will continue – the final stop on the journey being a meeting with current holders Arsenal on 30th May. It had been an amazing day – not only getting to see my team win at Wembley, but also having the chance to go behind-the-scenes and hang out pitchside at an incredible stadium.
A day later, I’m still buzzing from the experience. However, you’ll be pleased to know that I was deep in crappy nappies and messy baby food as soon as I got home.
So much for continuing the VIP treatment I had come to expect!
N.B. I received complimentary tickets to the FA Cup semi-final from The FA in exchange for writing a blog post about my FA Cup adventures.