This is a guest post by Craig Hamilton
Brother and Sisters. I have seen how the other half live, and at half-time they enjoy a pie and a beer…just like you.
On Monday 8th September we made a last-minute decision to go the Aston Villa reserve team game against Tottenham. We were looking forward to seeing Carlos Cueller in a Villa shirt for the first time and, not having had dinner, the prospect of chips and curry sauce at halftime. Arriving just before kick off and out in the street on Trinity Road, we were approached by a club official and things quickly took a surreal turn…
To our surprise we found ourselves invited into the newly opened McGregor Lounge, part of the refurbished hospitality area of the Trinity Road stand.
Ordinarily, throwing open the doors of such places to all and sundry defeats the object, so presumably the club were using the game as an opportunity to have a dry-run of their new facilities, and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Before we’d had a chance to consider any of this, or even if there was a catch of some kind, we were being ushered upstairs over plush carpet, through tiled-floor corridors and out towards the pitch, generally being treated each step of the way like Tom Hanks himself.
I’d taken my girlfriend to the reserves on one occasion before, a cold February visit to Walsall’s Bescot Stadium, where Villa occasionally play their reserve games, for the visit of West Ham. The whole thing had been intended as a joke, a back-handed romantic gesture – “Don’t say I never take you anywhere” etc – but, surprisingly, she’d really enjoyed herself and expressed a willingness to return. This being her first visit to Villa Park, I was hoping she’d be impressed and this was a nice bonus. We also had a Spurs fan with us, but we kept that quiet as we took our seats.
Whatever you think of Corporate Hospitality (and there’s a whole other debate to be had there) there can be no doubt that the club is moving with the times here. Football clubs are in the business of, amongst other things, putting bums on seats and it just so happens that these particular seats are intended for the very well-heeled bum. Indeed, with prices rising to £7,500 per person for a season ticket, it’s an experience that is unlikely to be repeated by this particular bum….and since a bum like you, dear reader, may never get the chance it falls to me to tell you how it all goes down, Prawn Sandwich style.
Starting with the obvious and most important, the seats themselves are absolutely tremendous, as you’d have every right to expect for a King’s ransom. They are padded like your favourite armchair, have more than ample leg room and, of course, afford cracking views of the pitch. You can see all the dugout action up close and you really do not miss a kick.
During half time we enjoyed the beer and pie I mentioned before – so far, so authentic matchday experience. However, and here’s the difference and the rub, folks, we were in a smart, spacious bar, the kind of which you may frequent or avoid on Broad St depending on your taste. The beer was a bottled Peroni and the pie was a thick crust steak and ale country pie which we ate with knives and forks and a fancy Aston Villa napkin. As the halftime minutes ticked away we enjoyed our food on comfortable sofas and drank the beers to toast our good fortune. Just then, and weirdly out of place at a football match, a polite theatre-style bell rang to inform us that the second half was due to start. We hurriedly finished up, but not fast enough for kick-off, and had the words of Royston Keane ringing in our ears as we made our way to the seats with the game already in progress. We’d been there for less than an hour and already morphed into one of ‘them’.
All in all it’s very impressive, sitting in the uber posh bit, and it’s fair to say we had a fine old time, particularly as it was an unexpected treat. Ultimately, though, it’s not my cup of Bovril. Call it inverted snobbery if you like, but even if I had the money (which I don’t) I’m not sure I’d want to spend my matchdays with the sort of people that do have the money, if that makes sense. I prefer my football with terracing, the freedom to smoke cigarettes and with the game taking place at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon – three things unfortunately consigned to the history of the game, so I may just as well pine for a return to one substitute, 2 points for a win and humble footballers displaying a degree of humility for all the good moaning will do. This, for better or worse, is where our game is at these days.
I’m not sure if the club intend to repeat this exercise at future reserve games (Note to Mr Lerner: It would generally be a good idea, I think) but what was a routine visit to the reserves became a really interesting night out, leaving us with a tale to tell. Furthermore, I suppose we experienced the feelgood side of The Lerner Effect first hand.
It’s easy to feel that developments such as this are yet another indication that football is moving away from ‘the people’, and in a sense that is absolutely correct. I have no head for business (hence offering this article for nothing) but if the revenue generated from such an enterprise helps fund the team and the stadium development then I suppose I can swallow my prejudice. However, if high-end hospitality proves as successful and lucrative as the club clearly hope then there is a danger of it slowly taking up a greater and greater percentage of the capacity as a whole, and that would be a bad thing. Time will tell. In the meantime, pass me a prawn sandwich…