Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,/Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;/Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile/The short and simple annals of the Poor.
–Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
I got to the Brewhouse in Atlanta around 9:45am, the lingering scent of stale smoke hung in the air like an unsigned postcard mixed with the reeking vomit of industrial cleaner which gave the floors a dim sheen. I was hungover and sleep-deprived, but there to fulfill the one ritual during my senior year of college that rekindled the childish sense of anticipation I had seen go missing once the rigors of an adult life began piling on. The Also-Ran Classic was my entertainment, waged twice (maybe three times) a year between Everton and Aston Villa. Frocked in my newly-purchased “Acorns”-bearing Villa jersey, I plunged myself into a strangely satisfying combination of a full English breakfast, coffee, and two hours of innocent fun (this was before Zonal Marking destroyed my ability to innocently enjoy matches).
Before I even settled into my place at the bar, erstwhile boo-boy Steve Sidwell had scored a trademark frozen rope from outside the box. Joleon Lescott (those were the days) got the Blues back on level terms in the 30th minute–I was halfway through my baked beans. In the 60th minute I moved from coffee to beer, and Ashley Young one-touched an horrific Phil Jagielka backpass over the sprawling Tim Howard to put Villa back in the lead. The game toodled by, the Martin Laursen led Villa backline stubbornly keeping the goal door shut. Just when (the 91st minute to be exact) I felt relatively safe in the notion that I could enjoy the forthcoming week, Joleon Lescott reared his ugly head (pun intended) again to put Everton back on equal terms. At this point, I had thrown the pen I had used to sign my credit card receipt in the direction of the bathroom and was struggling to remember the fastest way to get back to my car. Knowing I’d have to wait a week to see Villa play again, I forced myself to drink in the dying moments of the game.
I sulkily watched Gabby Agbonlahor and Ashley take the kick-off, noticed the ball get batted around a bit, sighed as it fell to Tim Howard. He hurried it up the field, presumably with the idea that Everton could score again. Laursen headed the long kick to the center of the pitch, and Gabby played a reverse pass in the direction of Villa’s furthest player forward, fated that day to be Ashley. It was the 94th minute. He ran onto the ball, played it through the turning legs of Phil Jagielka, and, in literally the last action of the game, sidefooted the shot from outside the box past Tim Howard for the win. I remember reflecting, watching Ashley wheel off, both hands on his ears, flanked by Laursen and Agbonlahor. Those are the kind of goals that make 93 minutes of watching a greasy ball flicked across a pitch worthwhile.
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth/A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown./Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,/And Melacholy marked him for her own.
My Aston Villa obsession took root in the spring of 2008, a year after Martin O’Neill signed an oddly lanky young winger from the middling morass also known as Watford. Ashley Young was the first player I ever watched on the flat screen at the Brewhouse–one day I gave a ride to a British friend and Villa fan and decided to stick around to take in a match. There was exactly one other Villa fan on hand—“Watch,” he implored me, shaking a long tress of dreadlocked braids. “That Ashley Young, man, he’s the future, man. He’s the future.” I watched. I saw a player the exact dimensions of a broom handle; a version of Peter Crouch a foot shorter but with the same proportions; a sapling the slightest breeze could have knocked down. Knobbly knees knocking, Ashley weaved and weaved, whipping through player after player, winning corners and free kicks in a way that I really hadn’t encountered before.
The growth of my obsession with Villa and his reputation as an English winger coincided with each other. After that night at Goodison, Martin O’Neill claimed he was worth 80 million pounds; he was linked alternately with Real Madrid and Barcelona; the courtship and admiration of the big four and their coaches began. I felt the nuances of my relationship as fan to player change and mutate. I wouldn’t buy his jersey because I was afraid he’d leave the club before I could properly wear it in. I couldn’t really say he was my favorite player, albeit I look like a dupe when he took off. I was all too cognizant of and sensitive to the Braun Drain of European soccer. The stories in the last five-ten years are endless: Wayne Rooney, Gareth Barry, James Milner, Fabien Delph, Dimi Berbatov, Frank Lampard, Andy Carroll. The first moment a player looks like he might possess that strange thing called genius, Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger perk up and begin sounding out figures. The end of Ashley Young at Aston Villa was written in his athleticism and finesse of that night at Goodison Park. “Can’t get too attached lest it be wrested from you,” my higher faculties told my gut instinct.
Coping with that sentiment is perhaps the most difficult facet of following a team in the Premier League having been raised outside of it. In American sports, players frequently leave their home clubs with passionate fan bases who obsess over them. Look at the LeBron madness, for example. Even pessimistic Cleveland fans never experienced the same heavy weight of inevitable loss when they thought about LeBron’s future at the club that I feel with Ashley every time I watch him play. Even up until The Decision, there was a good chance LeBron would stay in Cleveland. Some might argue that the hurt was sharper, more shocking to Cavs fans—true, but to have been prevented from ever fully enjoying a player knowing that one day he’d probably leave the club? The fanaticism is stifled and undeveloped. Supporting the Atlanta Braves growing up, we had great players—John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine. I was young, but I don’t remember other clubs with more money (the Yankees, the Red Sox, etc.) ever trying to poach those players off of us. I knew that one day those players would cease to be Braves; and yet I never experienced the existential, catch-22ish feeling of preventing myself and being prevented from fully enjoying their tenure there. Ever since I’ve begun to understand the dynamics of the Premier League, I’ve known that eventually Ashley would leave. I feel and have always felt like I was playing with borrowed toys.
Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault/If Memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,/Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault/The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Do I blame Ashley? Absolutely not. Perhaps if like Gareth Barry, Ashley was Brum through and through, and promised to stay at Villa forever, and then left for money in a prolonged transfer saga against the wishes of the manager and owner—after all that, perhaps I’d have reason to be angry. But I don’t think it’ll go that way. Ashley will be out of contract in 2012. He’ll probably sit down with Randy Lerner and General Krulak and say, “Look fellas, it’s been a great run, but I’m not getting any younger, and I’d like to win some trophies. I really respect everything you do here. Seriously. But I cannot forsee us cracking the top four unless you invest on the scale of Tottenham (at the least). Even then, we’d have to get lucky. I don’t see that happening, despite what assurances you will give me. That said, I’m not going to sign a new contract with you. I love the club, and I want you guys to get as much for me as possible. I’d rather go to United, but I’ll let you take the best offer for me as long as it’s from either Liverpool, United, or Arsenal.” I can’t blame him for that. Milner left under the same auspice, and while sad, I was not upset with him personally that he decided to take his talents to City of Manchester Stadium.
This experience is written into the idea of being a fan of the Premier League. For the hundreds of clubs in the FA and their hundreds of thousands of fans, there are a handful at the top who, like some perverted oligarchy, control the destinies of the country’s best talent. If you are lucky enough to have a transformational player come through your youth ranks or be bought young, you can pretty much guarantee you won’t get to enjoy watching him play for you during his peak. There are exceptions to the rule: Matt Le Tissier, for one (and there’s a much more expansive list here). I don’t want to generalize or make assumptions, but I know that this issue unsettles me because American professional sports culture doesn’t have the same sort of firm hierarchy. We have the storied franchises, but their status and history don’t guarantee reliable streams of talent. We have minor leagues, but there’s a clear relationship between minor league teams and professional ones. We have teams with more money than other teams (most clearly in baseball), but buying up all the best players in the league never guarantees championships (see the San Francisco Giants in 2010 and the deep playoff runs of the Tampa Bay Rays the past few years).
I’d like to draw (spurious) parallels between the politico-cultural histories of the two countries, one started with a foundation of democratic ideals, the other on the fabric of monarchy. I want to point out that none of it is fair, that losing Ashley to a bigger club is cruel. I’d like to make value judgements; say one is better than the other; scream for change, compromise. But neither can I seriously do any of those things or draw any of those parallels because the relationship of the game to its players, its history, its economics–is too complex. In all seriousness, I’m lucky to be a Villan. We’re an old club with a rich history, a good owner not afraid to spend on the transfer market, a charter EPL member with plenty of airtime and punditry opinions. I often asked myself what it would be like to support a Championship or lower league team, where the conditions I’m describing are theoretically exacerbated. I know there’s something to be said for the simple pleasures of supporting a small town team with its accessible and vibrant personalities; I hope I’d find following the sport just as interesting. When I think of the moment Twitter tells me Ashley has agreed to terms with a bigger club this summer, I try not to imagine my favorite player wearing something other than the claret and blue. However, as with all other events, I’ll move on and [insert appropriate stock idiom here]. And, as cliche as it will come across, I’ll always have that morning in December 2008, sitting amid the reek of piss in the Brewhouse, watching Ashley run into the night.
 I mean that as a compliment.
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 I was really new to the game, mind you.
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 If you aren’t familiar, most minor league teams have feeder relationships with professional clubs and are often run by the same owners.
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