As a life-long (some might say long-suffering) fan of Aston Villa Football Club, when the chance arose to participate in a charity match on the hallowed turf of Villa Park – where I’ve spent many Saturday afternoons and midweek nights under the lights – I simply had to be involved!
Others felt the same – more than 100 employees of Gowling WLG, Aston Villa FC, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, some of the sponsors of the Games and clients of Gowling WLG came together in support of a truly fantastic cause, raising vital funds for the Aston Villa Foundation, the charity which delivers the community and social responsibility work of Aston Villa FC, and United by 2022, the official legacy charity of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. For all it was perhaps a last chance at footballing glory and, for most, the first chance to sample that long-held dream!
A warm up game was hastily organised in the week preceding the big day. A chance to knock the dust from many a pair of boots sought from the darkest corners of the garden shed, and of course, to blow the cobwebs off a few muscles and joints!
I, and many others, wiled the next few days away with dreams of heroics in front of the famous Holte End. For the Villa fans amongst us, it was the early 80’s and first division memories of Shaw and Cowans, or the Premier League years of the 90’s and noughties – Saunders, McGrath, Barry, and more recent feats of Coutinho, McGinn, and maybe even a little Grealish (it still hurts). For fans of other teams it was thoughts of scoring that crucial away goal to take the plaudits in front of their travelling faithful.
On match day, we congregated outside the players’ entrance, not a Lamborghini in sight. Six teams had been named, ready to face off in front of over 250 friends and family, gathered expectantly in the Trinity Road Stand, pies and drinks in hand.
In we walked, down the hallowed halls, feeling every inch Premier League even if we didn’t quite look it to the friendly staff on hand to support. Changing where we could, we sat in the away dressing room – a far cry from the padded seats and polished oak of the home team, illuminated by a thousand camera phone flashes. The borrowed shin pads went firmly on under a variety of socks of all lengths and colours, which themselves told tales of past sporting glories mostly beyond association football.
After photos and a brief warm-up which, in classic fashion, evolved into a hasty networking session as we memorised names, the first two teams took to the field as we watched on expectantly. As the final whistle blew, our time had suddenly come.
Lined up in the tunnel, with excitement and anticipation at the fore, and smiles as wide as the handles of the European Cup sat beaming in the cabinet besides us, we strode out onto the field to applause and the boom of Craig Armstrong’s Escape. Clapping the many friends and family in attendance (and the sold out Holte End of our imagination), a moment of silence was held and hands shaken.
Forming out onto the pitch we quickly realised that nine in attack wouldn’t do, quickly jostling into a formation the likes of which Villa Park, or even the local park, had perhaps never seen. We would make it up as we went, facing our opposition in green – made of Aston Villa employees, the Organising Committee of the Commonwealth Games, sponsors and clients. As the opening whistle blew we charged around the frankly enormous pitch as if it were the final game of the season and the title (or relegation) was on the line – it’s safe to say that at the end of the half even the fittest among us had an even greater appreciation for the professionals.
It was a game of two halves, as they say – the Green team were formed up well and controlled proceedings in the first 15 with two goals from their hat-trick scoring left winger, who it turns out had been on the books at Birmingham City and had played on the energy-sapping expanse in an FA Youth Cup game a few years before. In the second, ‘Gowling WLG Team 1’ changed up the formation in the hopes of clawing back a result – which nearly came late on – a clean strike bouncing off the crossbar at 3-2 down. A valiant effort, but the Green team were worthy winners in the end! With the final whistle blown, we left the pitch much as we joined it, with great smiles and a little sore, but certainly with enough energy left to do it all again – after refreshments, of course!
The evening, organised with the aims of bringing people together, did exactly that, with players of all teams gathered on the stadium concourse to discuss the play-by-play long into the evening. Most importantly of all, and the real reason we were all there, was in support of local causes, with donations going towards this year’s Aston Community Games – the annual event providing free sporting activities for families living around the stadium and the wider community of Birmingham – and to initiatives which ensure that the legacy of the Commonwealth Games continues on long into the future.
All in all, the evening had raised over £5,000, more than doubling the original £2,500 target – an achievement for which everyone involved can be incredibly proud.
…Same again next year?