Part I: The Premise

It’s probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I enjoy following hockey and am more than slightly concerned about the likelihood of some sort of lockout occurring when the current NHL/NHLPA CBA expires on September 15th. Negotiations haven’t been going well, and even if an agreement can be reached, it seems as though some of the season might be lost.

In anticipation of this, many conversations on Twitter, and indeed in the real world, have started with “So, what are you going to do during the lockout?”. There has been talk of taking up new hobbies, completing those unfinished novels, and even, amazingly enough, spending more time with friends and family.

But for many of us sports aficionados, there is a gaping hole that can only be filled by the thrill of competition. Fantasy NFL leagues, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are to be believed, have all held their drafts in the past week. Baseball playoff spots are up for grabs with just weeks to go (especially with the new additional wildcards). The NBA, after its own lockout shortened season last year is less than a month away from starting up on schedule.

This is all well and good for many of my friends, and I wish them well, but I just don’t really connect with those sports. I’ve got nothing against them – they are as silly as any other sport – but for whatever reason I just haven’t connected. In a previous life I even played basketball and baseball (not well).

Beyond the connection there is also a lack of time to dig deep into many sports. A colleague of mine has a theory that unless you work for ESPN or TSN, the average sports-loving dude really only has the time to follow three sports intensely. I think it’s a fun arbitrary number, but it seems to work.

My favourite sport to play is rugby and I try to follow as much as I can (it lacks some accessability due to time zones and availability of games on TV). I’ve been playing for 14 years and despite a few bumps and bruises along the way, I’m in no hurry to step away from the field. This year I even took the next step and started working towards my coaching credentials, which I’m hoping to put into use in the near future.

My favourite North American sport to watch is NHL hockey, though I am an awful skater and my street hockey wrist shot would be described as “adequate” by the most generous of goalies. I’m pretty into fantasy hockey pools and have seen some limited success. Last season I finally won a regular season salary cap pool when colleagues of mine joined a pool on Cyberpresse.ca that allowed us to pick a full roster at the start of the year and make up to 5 adjustments each month. A bit of luck, followed by diligent substitutions led me to victory. My fantasy keeper league (where rosters roll over season after season) has been less of a success and more of a long-term project (looking forward to competing for a championship somewhere between 2016 and 2020). A terrible year and some shrewd trading ended up landing me with the 3rd, 6th, and 7th overall picks in this past summer’s entry draft. Looking ahead to next summer, and assuming that the NHL resumes, I’m a good bet to have two lottery picks in one of the deepest drafts in recent history (I’m fully onboard with the “Not Winnin’ for MacKinnon” strategy). I don’t even want to think about what happens if the entire season is locked out and some random lottery cheats me out of the best chances of landing a dynamic franchise player (or two).

All of this leads me to my sport number three: soccer (or football, as it is known globally). I play in an indoor recreational league where my two essential skills are: getting in the way and running around with a lot of energy. Occasionally I might score a goal. In any case, it’s been a fun thing to do on the side to my more serious pursuits with rugby, and is a more enjoyable alternative to running on a treadmill (which I can’t seem to get enough of…).

With the NHL lockout looming, I decided maybe this is the year that I double-down on my intake of soccer.

Pictured: double-downing.

I like to watch my fair share of the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes). I’ve even added Sportsnet World (formerly Setanta) to my cable package, as they carry the majority of matches. This year, with the possibility of an NHL lockout, knowing that my weekend sports might be limited, I’m putting in a special effort to get up on Saturday and Sunday mornings to watch as much of the beautiful game as possible.

This is where I should probably admit something. I support Aston Villa Football Club*. On the weekend, I will try and watch Villa play above and beyond any other games.

*[For those of you who don’t know, Aston Villa is traditionally seen as one of England’s big clubs, both in terms of its history and due to its substantial fan base. It’s fallen on hard times in recent years (barely avoiding relegation last season), but after Everton, it is the longest serving club in England’s top flight.]

But, I don’t want to only be some uninformed homer. I can’t stand that in hockey (when people who only follow one of the Leafs/Habs/Sens/Canucks/Oilers/Flames/Jets at the expense of being completely ignorant of the rest of the NHL). I want to know who the best players are, not only in the Premier League, but on each team in it. I want to turn on any game on any weekend and have a decent clue about who is starting for each team and what their chances are against each other.

Enter fantasy football (the soccer kind). A group of friends and I joined the fantasy pool at the official Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) website. In this pool you have to have a roster of 15 players (2 GK, 5 DEF, 5 MID, 3 FWD), with a weekly lineup of 11 (1 GK and a formation that has a minimum of 3 DEF and 1 FWD), and you are limited to selecting a maximum of three players from the same club (forcing you to look around the whole league). Oh, and you only have 100 million pounds to spend (an average defender costs 5 million, for example).

I named my team “Aston Vlaar” after new Aston Villa signee and Dutch international defender Ron Vlaar.

1) I’ll be disappointed if we ever sell him, and 2) it will hurt the most if it isn’t to another team with pun potential, like say Villareal.

Obviously, Ron Vlaar has to be in my fantasy football team (for pun purposes), but beyond that, I’ve tried my best to search high and low for the best players around the league. It’s meant that I’m now watching Swansea City games to see how my midfield duo of Nathan Dyer and Michu are doing. Gotta check in on Stoke City to make sure my boy Ryan Shawcross is defending the defensive line on the most defensive-minded team in the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes). Up front, I have this fellow at Arsenal Manchester United named Robin van Persie, who I hear scores the occasional goal.

Have you ever cared about Norwich City? No. Of course not. That is the domain of Stephen Fry (humourist/actor/Canary fan). And now, apparently, me, as I cross my fingers that Grant Holt is able to score as many goals as he did last year (so far: nope).

The other reason I want to keep my eyes on Norwich is that it is the former club of current Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert. Part of me wants to see whether that newly promoted club finished 12th place last season due to his managerial prowess or due to a talented squad (3 weeks into the season and the results are inconclusive). Likewise, Villa finished a devastatingly low 16th place last season. Can Lambert bring them back up to top half respectability?

Over the course of The Season, I’m going to try my best to keep track of the ups and downs of my boys in claret and blue.

Part II: The Prequel

This isn’t the first time I really got into watching soccer during an NHL lockout. It’s sad that I can even say that.  During the 2004-2005 NHL lockout I was in my second year of university. The previous spring had been filled with some of the most interesting and sometimes confusing hockey playoffs I had to watch/endure (sample: in the first round, my first NHL team, the Calgary Flames (birthplace/childhood) faced against my favourite team, the Vancouver Canucks (hometown/teenage years) – but that’s a story for another time). And then it was all gone.

That fall I moved into an apartment building in the small town I went to university in. The building had four apartments in it (it was built sort of like a large house). In our apartment were me and three buddies that had lived in the same residence in first year. Downstairs, in one of the other apartments lived two friends from the same residence. One of them was a huge soccer fan and he asked if it would be alright to come up on weekends and watch games on our cable*. I said that was alright, and so every weekend I’d wake up early, open the front door, put on some coffee and watch soccer with my neighbour.

*[These neighbours were notoriously cheap, so cable TV wasn’t in their budget. I don’t think they even turned on the electric heaters in their apartment in the winter, choosing to wear extra layers of clothing instead. University is a funny time.]

My buddy was a huge Chelsea supporter, and had been his whole life. It’s important I make that distinction now, because at the time, this was only one year after Roman Abramovich (gazillionaire oligarch) had purchased the team and injected a huge amount of cash to improve them onfield – inevitably leading to a huge wave of new supporters/bandwagon jumpers.

Well, what did I see during that season? I saw a lot of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. Chelsea were scary good. They had a new manager by the name of Jose Mourinho. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Well, the Special One led Chelsea to one of the most dominant campaigns in history, finishing with 95 points (12 clear of second place) and an impressive single loss.

And I watched this from the start. Unaware of who this team was or who they were playing, I quickly came to know all the names. It was simply one of the best ways to get into the sport. But they weren’t my team. They were my friend’s.


Part III: Happenstance

The next year I found myself watching the occasional game, but was a bit more distracted due to the return of the NHL. But I did end up going on an academic exchange to the UK and found myself studying in Worcester for a semester.

Worcester is in the West Midlands and is famous for a few things: the composer Edward Alger and that Worcestershire sauce by Lea and Perrins. One of the things it is not known for is football.

However, down the road, in nearby Birmingham were a couple Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) teams*. Living in a building with a bunch of international students, we all decided that before the semester was over we needed to attend a top tier match. Not knowing too much about the local sides, people were trying to just see which matches would fit their schedules/budgets. And then, as if by providence, the sole flatmate who was actually from the Midlands told us that we needed to go to Aston Villa. And that was that.

*[In the 2005-2006 season there were three Birmingham/West Midlands teams in the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes): Birmingham City, Aston Villa, and West Bromwich Albion. We never seriously considered West Brom, mostly due to not really knowing where the hell that was.]

I went to the last game of the season, it was Aston Villa, at Villa Park, hosting last place Sunderland. I bought a garish fluorescent yellow jersey from the club shop (the last few weeks of the season were good for getting discounted gear) and joined with the home crowd as they taunted Sunderland with jeers of “GOING DOWN, GOING DOWN, GOING DOWN”. Despite the win, Villa finished in 16th place.

That was it. My first Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) match. How do you not support that team from then on? I never had a real team connection before. I didn’t have expat parents that had forced me to follow their hometown teams like many of my friends. I didn’t watch soccer on TV in the 90s so I missed out on the bandwagon for Liverpool and Manchester United. This was MY team. And I barely knew anything about them. It was the last game of the year.

So, I started following from the start of the next year (2006-2007) and Villa, managed by the overachiever Martin O’Neill finished 11th. Then, in 2007-2008, they finished 6th. Again, in 2008-2009, they finished 6th. Where do you think they finished in 2009-2010? If you guessed 6th place, you were correct. Three straight seasons finishing in 6th place in one of the most competitive leagues in the world.

And then, things started to happen. O’Neill resigned and was replaced by Gerard Houllier. The cracks had been there. Fan favourites like Gareth Barry and James Milner* were being sold in successive summers to Manchester City, part of the reason O’Neill left.

*[I received my James Milner No.8 jersey in claret and blue in the mail just weeks before he was sold to City.]

Villa finished in 9th place. Gerard Houllier had heart problems and was replaced by cross-town villain and former Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish. More fan favourites departed, with Ashley Young leaving for Manchester United and Stewart Downing heading to Liverpool. Villa finished 16th place. McLeish was fired.

Paul Lambert was brought in.

Part IV: The Current Campaign

16th place is an awful spot to be in. The next season can really only go two ways: you improve and find new respectability or you continue to slump and find yourself playing in the lower divisions. For a big club like Aston Villa, you have no option but to improve. It has never played in the second division in its history.

When Paul Lambert took over, I felt a good deal of relief. I never cared for Alex McLeish (and it’s hard to admire someone being hired immediately after they saw to the relegation of another club). But Aston Villa is in need of a makeover. The Downings and Youngs and Milners and so on have all either moved on, or are nearing their expiry date. It became a bit of a shocker to realise that Gabby Agbonlahor, a rookie in that first season I started following Aston Villa, had now played over 200 matches for the club (it is also a bit of a shock to find that those seasons when Villa were playing their best also coincided with the last time Agbonlahor was a consistent offensive threat).

Lambert went about things in a businesslike way, acquiring some new signings. A few off-the-beaten-path, I might say, but a step in the right direction. Instead of trying to go out and overpay for players in their prime (*cough* Darren Bent *cough*), Lambert seems to have targeted some younger players who might grow into the Premier League (including former Chesterfield striker Jordan Bowery!). It’s a cautious and prudent approach, but one that seems more typical for a club like Norwich City. Given that the weekly wages at Villa had grown considerably over the last few seasons and because of the FIFA Fair Play rules (essentially mandating that clubs balance budgets), maybe these are the sort of moves that the club needed to make off the field.

On the field, well, it’s been a mixed bag. I missed the first two games of the season, but wasn’t too excited when I read the box scores on my phone. Two games played, two losses recorded (1-0 to West Ham; 3-1 to Everton). It wasn’t looking good when I glanced at the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) table. Who were going to be the easy matches for Villa to scrape together wins? This could be a long season.

Then Sunday happened. That small glimmer of hope. The Lambert Project might be starting to work. They didn’t win. That would be asking too much, but they drew, away, at a top club like Newcastle, 1-1.

Looking at the standings after three weeks played and Villa are finally on the board with a single point.  Time to start moving up. We’re only in 17th place.