3pm, Saturday afternoon. Thousands of men, women and children flock in their thousands to Villa Park proudly sporting claret and blue. The burger vans are busy, the Bovril is brewing and the scarves are waving. This is far from a bizarre and spontaneous mass migration, this is a stalwart of the local community and has been for well over a hundred years.
The visitors this week to Villa Park are Derby County who are currently 11th in the second tier of English football. The hosts, 17th in the league, will welcome the Rams to a stadium which first opened its gates in the 19th century.
The first time these teams played each other in the league, the USA had only 38 states.
From hard-working, industrious towns in the Midlands and the North, twelve middling football league clubs epitomise the world’s most popular game for the working classes.
Boys become men, men become fathers, fathers become granddads, and throughout the generational change one thing remains constant; your football team. It’s in your blood. You can change your city, you can change your religion, you can even change your wife but for the supporters of these twelve teams, you can never change your football club.
Twenty-first-century giants of the English game, like Chelsea and Manchester City, may have millions of fans across the globe and 60,000 seater stadiums but they are built on the foundations of 12 football clubs that have won a combined total of one football league championship in 30 years.
Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The ’founding fathers’ of the football league may not win any points for being sexy, but in the 129 years since Preston North End won the first league championship they have been a constant feature in the record books. With the exception of Accrington, all are still in the football league, and all have a hugely loyal following. Whether it is the European cup, league championship, the FA cup or the league cup all 11 current teams have won some silverware. And all have hopes and dreams of glory in the future.
The game has grown and metamorphosed beyond anybody’s wildest expectations. Football is the most popular sport in the world now, with over 3 billion people tuning in to watch the 2014 World Cup.
When Derby and Aston Villa first played each other in the league, the world’s entire population was less than 2 billion.
Now, in 2017, we find our beloved game tainted by corruption, gambling scandals and match fixing. Outrageous wages, huge transfer fees and multi-million-pound sponsorship deals make it easy to lose the love for the game. Football has become one of the biggest businesses on the face of the Earth and the days of the original twelve are admittedly, long gone.
However, romance in football is not lost. Every Saturday, at 3pm, millions of men across the country have a love affair with their team. The same team that was there the day they were born. The same team that broke their heart when they conceded that last minute goal. The very same team that, irrespective of results, will always have a special spot in their heart.
The elegance of football is mesmerising, the relationship between a fan and their team is inexplicable. Grown men cry and scream in unison according to the results on the pitch. Strangers unite in the most obscure of places, brought together by football.
It can have us tearing out our hair in clumps and it can make us yelp in ecstasy. Being a football fan will never be easy, a rollercoaster that can animate the most placid person. It makes us love and it makes us weep. It makes us feel.
And that is why we love the beautiful game, and this Saturday at 3pm in the outskirts of Birmingham we can all say a little thank you to the original twelve to whom, we owe it all to.
Photo Credit: Bradford Timeline/Flickr