Leeds United fans will have had a familiar sensation over the weekend when absorbing news of the shenanigans on the pitch at Villa Park; a few collywobbles in the pit of the stomach and that nervous, recurrent thought: “Crumbs – what if that had been us?”
Depending upon what you’ve read this morning, the – count them – two pitch invasions during Villa’s 6th Round FA Cup win over West Brom were either harmless if boisterous high spirits – or an almost literal attempt to go for the jugular of former Leeds star Fabian Delph, who commented memorably afterwards that he had “felt teeth” as he tried to escape his fans’ voracious adulation. Despite claims in other quarters that the mood had been merely celebratory, young Fab confessed that he’d found it “very, very scary”. And it takes a lot to scare a lad who’s shared a dressing room with the likes of Richard Naylor and Enoch Showumni, so it’s a statement to take with due respect.
“My armband got nicked, someone got my left boot, but I could appreciate the relief the fans are feeling after a result like that,” Delph recalled, adding though: “It was dangerous. Someone tried to take my boot off. People tried to kiss me and were biting me. It was scary.”
Being bitten by a horde of success-starved Villa fans might be enough to frighten anyone, but some are attempting to make rather lighter of the situation, conscious, inevitably, that the investigative processes of the FA are about to grind into motion. There is some fear out there among the Villa faithful that serious sanctions might be applied, maybe even to the extent of being chucked out of the FA Cup altogether – which seems to me to be a fear too far.
Now, if it had been Leeds – then that part of the internet which revolves around all things White would have been in a frenzy of semi-satirical pessimism by now, predicting fifteen or thirty point deductions, dissolution of the club and having Massimo Cellino hanging upside down by piano wire from a convenient lamp-post on Elland Road, I shouldn’t wonder. All good knockabout stuff, but reflective of that inner conviction in most Leeds fans’ hearts that every other bugger gets away with stuff that would see our own beloved club violently hammered – whilst the gutter press slaver away approvingly in the background, like the pack of jackals they are.
In a fine piece which appears in the excellent online magazine Sabotage Times, Emma Flowers has leapt to the defence of her adored Villa, cogently arguing that what unfolded after the match (and a bit before the final whistle too) was more a “rediscovery of Villa Park’s soul” than anything too nasty. Ms Flowers is clearly appalled by what she terms sanctimonious bleating from all parts of the media; to someone unaccustomed to seeing their club eviscerated in print and online, it really must seem a little thick. But Emma, trust me – you ain’t seen nothing. The Leeds fans’ lament that we always cop it tougher than other clubs is not mere hollow paranoia – it’s grounded in bitter experience, and plenty of it.
For instance, the demands for public shaming in the cases of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate stopped not all that far short of an Emergency Debate in the House of Commons. The furore over one idiot choosing to jump on to the pitch at Sheffield Wednesday and pole-axe their goalkeeper was a veritable tsunami of hatred and persecution, compared to the mere ripples Villa are feeling now. The Bowyer and Woodgate thing never really died down until both players had left Elland Road and had therefore ceased to be natural targets. Woodgate in particular is viewed far more sympathetically now than when he was convicted of affray whilst on the strength at Leeds. But of course, he played for the sainted Spurs and it would have been dam’ bad form to maintain a Leeds level of scorn and horror for a lad plying his trade at Tottenham. And ever since the Hillsborough scandal, Leeds fans have been branded as vile animals – initially by the self-important Wendies manager at the time, Dave Jones – but it’s sort of stuck as a label too (not least because some Leeds fans do rather wear it as a badge of perverse honour).
Whether Villa fans will be plastered with such epithets as “vile” has to be a matter for some doubt. There’s just not the same baseline level of national hatred as exists for poor old Leeds, so it’s highly unlikely that this fledgling storm will find its way far out of the teacup. I’d be massively surprised if swingeing sanctions were applied, though its always difficult to tell which way the FA and the game’s other authorities will jump. But I’m a lot less worried for Villa – hated by Birmingham and West Brom, but largely ignored elsewhere – than I would have been for Leeds. And if that’s paranoia, then I’ll hold my hands up and insist you’re out to get me.
Let’s not make light of this Villa thing though. There are serious issues if a victorious skipper can’t get off the pitch without his own fans trying to sink their teeth into him. The truth of this matter is somewhere in between the hand-wringing of the sanctimonious and Ms Flowers’ hopeful dismissal of the matter as boyish high jinks. But players are any club’s most valuable and fragile assets, and the likes of Delph and his fellow Villans must be protected against any repetition of what does sound a rather disturbing experience. If the FA can find a way of inflicting a suitable punishment without taking the draconian step of removing Villa from the Cup (and without deducting points from Leeds United), then that would probably best fit the bill.
And perhaps then we could then be spared the likes of Mark Lawrenson crying into his coffee about what a disgrace it all is, a throwback to the eighties, and all that breast-beating rubbish. Because, let’s face it – and I’m with Ms Flowers all the way here – some people’s over-reactions really do make your teeth curl.