In America, if you go to school or university you are something – an eagle, a tiger, a buckeye or a Spartan. Students take pride in the college they attend and many maintain a lifelong affiliation to their ‘alma mater’. Being an American is incredibly important to the vast majority who are, with the American Dream underpinning the whole of society – some Americans don’t believe that those better-off should pay more in taxes because the American Dream they are chasing makes them believe that one day it will be them. The tragic events in Oslo have seen the country of Norway unite as a country. "I am a Muslim, Chirag is a Hindu and our friends they are also different, but we have never felt as Norwegian and we have not felt as much togetherness before as we do now, after 22 July," rapper Magdi Ytreeide Abdelmaguid said before performing the song (The Guardian). The Norwegian Prime Minister, speaking at the memorial service, added "Today time stops in order to remember those who died. We do it as one nation. Every candle has warmed, every thought has comforted, every rose has given hope. We are a small country, but we are a large people."The recent riots across country only serve to emphasise the lack of identity and the resulting pride that is missing in those that saw fit to smash and grab what wasn’t theirs. Many kids don’t have the same respect for their schools than that of their American counterparts, and whilst former students remember their university with fondness, it is perhaps only Oxbridge graduates that keep a lifelong affiliation.
With a void of any sense of belonging, people, especially young people, turn to anything that is willing to accept them. For some it is a local sports team, a music group of some sort, a youth group or just a circle of friends. For others it is a gang, a sect, a group that hang out. Taking part in the riots was a way to belong – to belong to a group of people angry, frustrated and let down by the government, by those with money – at least in their eyes. There is no excuse for the damage and violence of that week in August, and I applaud the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues who have come forward with information, as well as the on-going work done by the police. As with other major tragedies, the death of innocent British people has brought the country together. Over 25,000 turned out for the memorial service of Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir which caused ‘...the anger and outrage that stalked the streets immediately following the murders [to be] replaced with sombre reflection and solidarity that has spared Birmingham any further violence’ (The Independent). Surely we need an identity that is not built on tragedy, but that has a positive outcome and a longer-lasting effect.
We do have some institutions in this country that do hold our respect, pride and a sense of identity. Nearly 600,000 fans attended Premier League games in its opening matches (even with Tottenham/Everton called off and before Man Utd/Tottenham). There are similar figures in lower leagues, suggesting that around 2 million people attend a professional football match every weekend. Being a fan of a football club is an identity, it is a group to belong and contribute to. This identity varies in definition for different clubs. A Manchester United fan’s identity tends to be much more varied than that of say Oxford United. Some identities have negative images – perhaps that of Millwall fans. So what is the identity of a Villa fan, a Villain, a member of the Claret and Blue Army?
My observations of the loudest members of this group is of an identity that is proud of the rich history of the club – an honours list that includes 7 League Championships, 7 FA Cups, 5 League Cups and a European Cup (amongst others) is impressive and comfortably puts Aston Villa in top 10 of most successful English clubs. As a result, Villa fans expect success – the last of which was in 1996. There is, I think, a sense of pride in the stadium and surrounding infrastructure, including the Villa Village and Holte Pub. It is an old stadium that needs some modernising, but it is an imposing arena. This combination of historical success and fantastic facilities (which also includes the training facilities) creates a ‘big club’ mindset. This has the side-effect of creating a very frustrated set of fans, as Villa fail to live up to expectations.
Perhaps more importantly is the attitudes and identity of fans away from what is happening on the pitch. Randy Lerner has set the tone with large donations to other Birmingham institutions (galleries etc) and a commendable partnership with Acorns hospice – widely praised by Villa fans. Like many football clubs, Aston Villa have a useful community programme, particularly involved with those with disabilities, but also in providing active opportunities for children and in providing education opportunities. If you ask most football fans (I would avoid Birmingham City fans!), you will get a positive response towards Villa (see VV’s interviews with other fans). Perhaps Villa is seen as a harmless club – a club that is friendly and welcoming, but not really in danger of challenging the status quo of the top clubs. Whatever the reasons, Villa fans have a positive image, which should impact upon their identity.
It is almost as hard to pin down the identity of a Villain as it is of a Briton, but it is in our hands. The scenes at Bodymoor Heath after the appointment of Alex McCleish are not something that should be part of that identity. The ‘Proud History, Bright Future’ mantra taken up by Villa upon Lerner’s arrival is one that should. It will be a frustrating season for those fans that continue to expect Villa to win trophies – perhaps focussing on the Bright Future will prove more appeasing as more of Villa’s youth team break into the first team. I’m proud to be a Villain, perhaps even more so than being British, hopefully the club can continue to make me proud, but more importantly, my fellow Villa fans do the same.