Playing for the Villa, just one more time.

by John Tebbett

There was an expectant hush around Bodymoor Heath. It wasn’t yet 3pm, and kick off wasn’t till four, but already they were queing.

“When’s he arriving?” asked the guy from Denmark. He was the chair of the Denmark Lions, ninety members strong, and had just flew in from Copenhagen. Security didn’t know when: but they were out in force. This was a big match. Randy Lerner had instructed. Nothing must go wrong.

“There – that’s him!” shouted the Dutch chair, in perfect English, “the grey haired guy, that’s him alright.” There was a swell in the crowd, autograph hunters surrounded the car; security got anxious.

“Stand back! Stand back, I say!” They formed a cordon, a human cordon outside his car. He looked at the supporters, thronged outside, and he smiled; but he was nervous too. This would be the biggest match since his career ended. And everyone would be watching. The TV van had been here hours.

“John, John give us a wave, give us a wave, give us a wave.” John duly obliged. Supergrandadjohn, to give him his full name, his Villansworldwide trademark, duly obliged. He hadn’t seen such adulation for years and memories flooded back. The cup finals, the big occasions, the wonderful goals: they floated dream like before him as the crowd chanted for their hero. He’d come out of retirement just for this one game. Just one more game, just to please Randy and Martin and Dave, then that’s it. That’s yer lot – the boots will be locked away forever.

Bodymoor Heath. What a complex – no wonder it’d cost Randy millions. But if it produced players like him, the famous Supergrandadjohn, then those millions would be worth it. He was ushered inside.

“Your strip is in changing room 7, Sir, all laid out – with your instructions on the bench.” I entered the plush, sparkling white changing room, shaking hands with my team-mates for the day. I put on my pristine Villa kit.  How proud I felt.

“Hi Gordon, Hi Neil, hi Pat.” Cowans, Rioch, Heard: Villa heroes, all of them.

“Hi John,” said Neil. “I’m your captain for the day. Where do you want to play?”

I’d already been on the pitch, felt the atmosphere, heard the crowd. God I was so nervous.

“Anywhere on the left Neil – just keep me away from Sid.” I’d heard he was as good as ever. I read the instructions on the changing room bench. I only needed to play for 20 minutes. The crowd and the cameras would be OK with that. Randy would be happy. He had to keep the supporters sweet.

This was a huge occasion for Villa supporter’s clubs across the UK and the World. The Chairmen or their representatives had been invited to play a big competitive match in the best  training ground in Britain. The chair of the New Zealand Lions, Dave, had personally asked Supergrandadjohn to be his rep; to front the farthest flung outpost of Villa fans in the world. John had duly obliged. Randy had wanted it, too. He’d asked for me personally:

“Go on John – please. These supporters clubs are the heartbeat of our fan base. Do it for me – and for Dave.” I agreed. I could do no other.

It was a slow start to the game. I hadn’t kicked a ball for years. I looked around – average age 35. And some were good. Really good.

“Grandadjohn, Grandadjohn, Grandadjohn!” the crowd roared as I got my first pass. I crafted a ball up front that Sid would have been proud of; the crowd swooned. “It’s like watching Paul,” I heard one mutter, “God himself.” That spurred me on, that comparison. Me, like McGrath – I know I was good, but not that good.

They score first. The fans were hushed. They looked my way: what will he do? But I couldn’t do much. Not then – they were good, very good. They scored again, and again. 3-0 down. I could feel the supporters groan. I felt their sighs, I knew how they felt. So many times I’d watched the Villa and felt the same.

But something happened in the second half. We caught our breath, we found our rhythm, and we scored two goals. Back in it. Even the cameraman was getting excited. Could it be done? Could they draw level?

“Yessssssssssss!” roared the crowd. We equalised. God, we can win this.

“C’mon you Lions! C’mon you Lions!” the crowd were delirious as we pressed again. But then, on the break, they knocked the stuffing out of our weary bones. We’d left massive gaps at the back. They scored again. Damn!

“Let’s change it around lads,” Pat Heard urged, “we’re too one dimensional.” We changed it around. I was on the bench now; I’d done my bit. And I’d got applauded off as though it was me who’d scored our two goals. Even Sid had clapped in appreciation.

“Press up, press up,” Neil urged, pacing the pitch side.

“We will not, we will not be moved,” ranted the crowd. Neil looked at his watch. Three minutes to go.

“C’mon lads – you can do it,” I bellowed.

That shout just must have made the difference. Neil looked around, arms waving. Pat couldn’t believe his eyes. It was our centre forward. Five stone overweight but as clever as shit: he’d put the ball in the back of the net! No, we would not be thwarted. No, we would not be moved. Yes, we’d equalised, we’d drawn level in the dying seconds. Four goals each.

The ref blew for time. The crowd roared.

Supergrandadjohn waved his final wave to the faithful: now he could hang up his boots. Now he could retire, head held high. He’s done it for Randy, he’d done it for Martin. But most of all, he’d done it for Dave and the New Zealand Lions. The best fan club in the world.

John drove back to Yorkshire a very happy man. “Just can’t wait to ring you Dave,” he thought. “I’ve done it, I’ve done it.” I’ve played for the Villa, and I’m nearly 60. And even Sid was impressed!

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