You were born in Great Barr, north of Birmingham, on July 13, 1969 – has Aston Villa been part of your life since that day?
I come from a family of Villa fans: my father, my grandfather... only my uncle was Birmingham City, just to p*ss off my grandad! Anyway, my dad hung out with John Sleeuwenhoek and some other Villa players of that era.
My grandfather was a friend of the Shillcocks, the family that owned the sporting goods store in Birmingham from where, in 1895, the FA Cup trophy won by Villa in London against West Bromwich Albion was stolen. The original cup was never seen again and was replaced by a replica.
Who were your heroes of Villa Park in the Premier League era?
Steve Staunton, Dean Saunders, Gareth Southgate, Dwight Yorke... but above all, Ian Taylor – a true Birmingham boy. At the beginning of his career, he played in the amateurs and in the meantime worked in town. Soon after, he became a professional and had a good season at Sheffield Wednesday, then we bought him ourselves. But no one knew him well and it was only later we discovered that playing for Villa had been his lifelong dream!
It's always nice when a guy gets to play in his hometown team, but often the players don't really care as much as they would have you believe. But he was f**king incredible from day one wearing the claret and blue shirt. When he came on the field he was so determined: nothing was beyond him. He was almost uncontrollable!
Today you can meet him at away games and, despite working as an ambassador for the club, he always stays with the common people and not in the VIP boxes.
So when you watch the matches at Villa Park now, do you join in the choruses with diehard fans?
More than anything else, I enjoy watching the game, and occasionally I join in the classic choruses. I love to sing and hear the songs at the stadium, though I certainly detest the racist chants and insults.
How, and how much, has the Taylor Report changed the face of British football?
After the terrible tragedy at Hillsborough, change was inevitable. The Taylor Report has brought more safety to our stadiums, but at the same time they have lost a little of the atmosphere of the past. It would be nice to get back some terraced areas – it would be perfectly acceptable – but I doubt it's one of the priorities of the federation.
Today, I don’t like having a steward looking over my shoulder who tells me off me even if I breathe in the wrong direction. In general, I don’t like that constant sense of observation from above. On the other hand, returning alone to my car outside Elland Road at Leeds a few years ago, I caught a fist in my face out of the blue and for no reason. I just copped it and kept it.
From the '60s onwards, pop music and football success went hand in hand with Manchester and Liverpool, while the image of Birmingham has been more working-class and less fashionable. Why?
Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, as well as Sheffield and Derbyshire, have had many social and historical similarities: over the last 50 years they were plagued by poverty first, and then harassed by the Thatcher government because the working-class mentality and the anti-conservative sentiment were strongly entrenched. And Manchester and Liverpool began to play a prominent role at a cultural level too. Of course, the football successes of Manchester United and Liverpool in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s aren't comparable to those of Villa!
Anyway, people over-romanticise the local thing a bit too much; I find it a distraction from the important things in life. I love my city and I still live not too far from where I was born, but that doesn’t mean I wave the banner of 'pride of Birmingham' every day.
You witnessed the Handsworth Riots in July of 1981 first-hand, didn’t you?
I remember them very well because Handsworth is located a few miles from where I lived. The policy of the Conservative government was pushing the disadvantaged classes further down. When you treat people like animals, people react like animals. I don’t condone the use of violence as a form of protest, but I completely understand where it came from and the anger of those guys. They weren’t even treated as second-class citizens, but third. It's not fair, it should never happen.
During the '80s you were a close observer of the hooligan phenomenon...
I was pretty young, but I already had an alternative lifestyle through punk rock, hardcore and heavy metal. I wasn't personally involved with the violent side of football fans, but I knew some guys who were part of the Villa firms. On their own they were almost all nice people, but together they felt... intoxicated.
In hindsight, would you say the '80s were a very dark time for British society?
The atmosphere was horrible. I wouldn’t like to give a simplistic explanation, but if you weren’t able to conform to the unbridled conservatism that was slowly introduced by Margaret Thatcher, you could rot in hell.
I remember the dramatic miners' strike of 1984-85 well, for example, which of course I supported. The public service was privatised and that was the most terrible f***in’ mistake because it reduced the services which were most needed to their knees. Also, the way in which Thatcher manipulated the police, who used increasingly repressive methods – it was frightening. There was a hint of a sort of camouflaged impending dictatorship.
She caused so much hatred among common people and tried to destroy an entire community. They were strange times, and very bad times. In my life I try not to hate anyone, but I can say I hated Margaret Thatcher.
Back to the football – what is your fondest memory of the golden age of Aston Villa, 1980-83?
Nigel Spink’s incredible saves just after coming on for Jimmy Rimmer and Peter Withe's goal in the European Cup Final against Bayern Munich.
The funny thing is that when Villa are involved, things can never be simple. When we saw Tony Morley’s pass to Withe, even though he was brave and strong, we all thought: "Oh God, he’s going to miss!" – even though it was technically impossible. And he nearly did miss!
At home we had a small television in the kitchen and when he scored I jumped and hit my head against the cupboard. While everybody was cheering and hugging each other, I was semi-conscious from the pain!
Who was the most grindcore Villa player of all time?
Paul McGrath, no doubt. He played for at least a decade at the height of his career with his knees f**kin’ shot to pieces until he couldn’t train any more. And that makes it even more legendary, because during a game he was still able to perform the most spectacular recovering hook tackles that I've ever seen when an opponent passed him at speed. How the f**k did he do that?!
What do you think of the club's current captain, Stiliyan Petrov?
He has had his ups and downs, and some people criticise him, but I stand up for him. I've never questioned his dedication to the cause. I hope as well that Darren Bent will stay with us for a long time, although he has the reputation of a player who changes teams frequently.
Do you support any other team besides Villa?
I liked Celtic as a boy. Outside the UK, I feel an empathy for several teams that have a tradition of leftist and anti-fascist supporters, like St. Pauli, Fortuna Dusseldorf and Union Berlin in Germany and Livorno in Italy. And I’m also fond of Copenhagen in Denmark and Spain's Athletic Bilbao, who have a certain charm.
Abroad, there is sometimes a feeling of brotherhood and friendship among the fans of different teams that we don’t have over here.
Interview: Angelo Mora.
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