A day in the life of a Premier League fan, on game day, is a mind-boggling mix of emotions.
You'll never forget your first trip to your beloved team's stadium, nor the biggest winning margin you've ever been present for. Even season ticket holders, who attend more than half the games in a single season, get that jangling of nerves and gut feeling of excitement before each match.
On Monday, April 29, Aston Villa hosted Sunderland in a crunch Premier League game.
The ramifications for both teams, but in particular Villa, were staggering: Win and they move five points clear of the relegation zone and just three off the fabled 40-point mark.
Lose and 18th-placed Wigan Athletic slowly begin to lick their lips, knowing a win in their game in-hand would see them leapfrog Villa and clamber out of the dreaded drop zone themselves.
For such a pivotal clash, the nerves begin when you wake up. Breakfast, the game's on my mind. Afternoon coffee, the game's on my mind.
At 5 p.m. we set off with a lunch/dinner meal deal to keep us company—it's an evening game with an 8 p.m. kick off, and with the traveling involved there's no chance to stop for dinner.
|Weapon of choice:||BLT Sandwich, Lucozade|
|Distance (one way):||98 miles|
The excitement builds up when you're getting closer, and when you see the signs for Villa Park it threatens to boil over.
I know a shortcut, through an unkempt estate via some burger vans, and avoid a bulk of traffic in and around the ground. Car parked, it becomes clear before the stadium is in sight that the turnout is massive.
Walking up the famous Witton Lane is always an enjoyable experience—the road, cordoned off to allow reams of fans to walk up toward the stadium from designated parking areas, boasts the famous Holte Pub and an official club shop.
I drop into the shop to take advantage of a £10 offer for an official shirt; I've already got one, but £10? Much obliged, Randy Lerner, I'll take a short-sleeve one this time.
Our seats are in the famous Holte End. On its day it's one of the loudest stands in Europe, and the fervour surrounding this game ensured that the public turned up in their numbers to get behind the boys.
The massive, searching mosaic on the outside of the stand glitters in the failing sunlight and remains a piece of art I will never cease to stare at in amazement.
We climb the steps, we enter the stadium, we take our seats.
As soon as the stadium announcer begins his volley of lineups, starting with "No. 22, Brad Guzan!", the nerves kick in. You remember how important this game is and start to feel uneasy, but you remind yourself that you were well aware of this when you booked the tickets online, so you've only got yourself to blame.
The game kicks off, Sunderland enjoy the lions' share of possession the first 10 minutes and begin probing our left side. Joe Bennett is under threat but does well and Nathan Baker heads off all attacks from his central defensive position.
An uneasy energy around the stadium begins to build, but finally Villa get their foot on the ball and start playing; Gabby Agbonlahor goes within a whisker of opening the scoring to get us on our feet.
After a sustained spell of pressure and a couple of shots that have rebounded, it falls to centre-back Ron Vlaar on the halfway line.
We scream "shoooooot!" for a joke, as he's miles out, but he takes it down and batters it from 30 yards. It swerves violently in the air and nestles in the bottom corner. We in the stadium are almost certain he's broken the sound barrier with that strike.
Pure elation, relief and joy sweeps around Villa Park, but it's short lived: Sunderland come straight up the pitch and fire in a really well-worked equaliser, Danny Rose the architect.
We take the lead through Andi Weimann, then spend the halftime break watching both scintillating goals back.
The feeling, as we resume the second half, is that the next goal is pivotal: We've already survived one heart attack after Brad Guzan dropped a catch and Danny Graham stuck it in (it was called a foul) and we're not sure how much more we can take.
No matter, as Christian Benteke steps up to follow a deflected Agbonlahor shot in, heading in easily to make it 3-1. He's the crowd hero, the fan favourite, and a goal from him lifts the entire fanbase.
Shortly after, a towering header at the back post from the Belgian made it four, and again, in the world of massive exaggerations in the stands, we're certain he's jumped 15' in the air to put it in.
We're in control and Sunderland are all over the place but this is Aston Villa we're talking about: We never make it easy for ourselves, and trepidation continues to linger.
Stephane Sessegnon—clearly irritated by proceedings—goes in rashly on Yacouba Sylla. "Off! off! off! off!" we chant, more in hope than expectation, but the referee produces a red card.
This game is over.
There's still time for two critical goals, though. Benteke completes his hat-trick and rips the corner flag out of the ground with sheer joy; high-fives the front row of the Holte End, sending us into a frenzy; I start hugging random men I've never seen before, overcome with joy.
"We want six! we want six!" is the chant from Villa Park and Gabby rounds the keeper to make it so. The humiliation is complete, and we cheer every completed pass as our claret and blue heroes kill the game.
Making our way out of the stadium, the fans are still singing. "Ooooh, Christian Benteke" deafens the residents of Witton Lane as we make our way back to our cars.
The car park is packed, it's utter gridlock, but we don't care. The singing continues, fists pump, the occasional jubilant face can be seen in the dark. Traveling 98 miles back in the other direction, we arrive home just before 1 a.m.
Desperately tired after a long day, ankle hurting from working the clutch in my car in immense traffic, voice gone from singing my lungs out all night.
But it's a night I will never, ever forget.
A standout, remarkable day in the life of a Premier League fan.