A congregation of the masses, young and old, chase the Saturday afternoon with a palpable buzz in the air as thousands head under the Aston Expressway – this is Witton Lane’s answer to a bustling Broadway as the stars wait patiently in the wings.
It’s matchday at Villa Park. Beeping horns on the Queens Road separate the claret and blue persuasion like a funnel to the Trinity Road, this might not be the busiest part of the second city, but the surroundings of Aston Villa’s home, like the stadium itself, come to life on afternoons like these.
The colour returns. Floodlights invigorate the Birmingham skyline while sitting in the foreground, sizzling burger vans, crowded sidewalks and ‘Heroes and Villains‘ merchants offer the warm welcome home, all adjacent to one famous tavern.
Over 3,000 miles might separate the tens of thousands of Villa Park-goers and the New York Villans – who’ll walk under the shadow of the Empire State Building in a more scenic escapade to watch the match from a neighbouring pub – but while The Big Apple’s theatre district is a must-visit if only for its vibrant character, the aura of Villa Park holds its own unique sentiment.
With a spire clipping the darkening cloud, the accompanying Aston Parish Church sits opposite the moody green woods, from where, out the shadows, Villans continue to pour, plodding through their matchday routines and rituals.
They built it next to a church, the Aston Tavern too, where they served Ansells Mild, a Brummies favourite brew, floodlights for the dark and when they finished, they called it Villa Park.
Matchday was a perpetual operation. This proud club, a cornerstone of English football heritage, has witnessed a decade of turbulence like few before. Villa Park never seems to be quiet for too long, but after the Coronavirus pandemic struck, B6 is now quieter than it has ever been. The shutters are down, the fast-food wrappers flutter violently in malevolent gusts and the Trinity Road is no longer a fortnightly parade.
The longest Premier League season was, however, the stroke of luck Villa needed having been written off before Project Restart, and while there’s no question that loyalty is deeply rooted amongst these stands, in recent times, optimism has rarely been traded in these parts.
Locked chains secure the car park as a golden lion sits proudly, one paw raised, with the beautiful Holte End mosaic in the background. That mosaic is a masterpiece of broken promises from former regimes, but also one to provide hope. After some 12 months of gruelling weekends without the Villa approaches, it seems that those ninety minutes are indeed a lifetime and the eleven celebrated inside of Villa Park represent the thousands connected to the crest embroidered on their chest, more than ever before.
When fans return to the stands of Villa Park, song sheets of Allez, Allez, Allez will be dusted down, Holte End steps will be scaled, pork scratchings will be flogged in their dozens and supporters might well be watching the best Villa side for some time. The very heart of this passionate fanbase are desperate to make the wait all the while.
‘Villa Park is an escape that has been sorely missing’
Founded in March 2017, Project B6’s colourful displays based in the Lower North Stand had become a staple part of the Villa Park atmosphere. Project B6 aims to bring colour and vibrancy back to the stands, whether that be though flags and banners or mosaics – founders Andy Bishop and Conor Stares are making Villa Park a cauldron of colour.
Having come up with the idea of making a visual impact and boosting the atmosphere around the stadium, Conor hopes to return to Villa Park soon.
“I think it’s been tough for everyone really,” he said.
“Obviously, there are much bigger things happening in the world than sport right now, but speaking for myself and I get the feeling, a lot of people, going to Villa Park was an escape and a release that has been sorely missing.
“It’s a shame that everything happened when it did as we were just starting to gain some traction with the project.”
For football supporters up and down the country, the weekend visit to a football stadium nestled in the heart of a community is often a trip down memory lane, and Project B6 were helping create a unique atmosphere until Coronavirus put an end to fans congregating at Villa Park.
“For my part in the project, interacting with people interested in helping out and being part of the displays is what I miss the most,” Conor said. “Taking photos of my designs and those displaying them and being able to share them afterwards, it’s nice to see fans comment and point themselves out on social media.
“A lot of kids enjoy holding flags to wave, so hopefully they and their parents have good memories when looking back at the pictures.”
Having supplied flags and colourful displays for the Villa Park faithful for almost four years, Conor and Andy’s original idea to bring some life to the North Stand was taking shape before the pandemic struck football.
“Before B6 was a thing, my project partner Andy was posting online trying to get some interest in displays being brought back through his personal account”, Conor added.
“I saw the posts and offered to do some designs for promotion. There was a distinct lack of colour in the stands and understandably so with the position we found ourselves in for years and wanted to bring some back.
“We managed to get the ‘VILLANS’ mosaic display funded over the summer before our relegation season and that was the beginning. When we went down, we realised that the spirit and atmosphere was required more than ever and it’s kind of snowballed from there.
“As a result of growing popularity, we have been able to do some bits for charity through donating profits from our shop too which is how we mean to continue.”
Donations and money raised from online store sales go towards future Project B6 displays and if for any reason the Project becomes inactive, all remaining money will be donated to charity and the flags will be donated to the club. The Project’s success is testament to the support from fellow Villans.
Crowdfunding has helped Project B6 produce several displays, from tributes to Cyrille Regis and Ron Saunders, to banners celebrating modern heroes like Tyrone Mings and now Jack Grealish, who’ll be paying in front of his own banner at Villa Park very soon.
Thanks to the generous contributions from the Villa community, the next design to be unveiled at Villa Park will be a ‘Super Jack Grealish’ banner, which is now ready for display.
“We have a great set of supporters for sure,” Conor added.
“We wanted to try and do one big display this season if we could, even if nobody is able to get there. The banner is a way that everyone who contributed to the project and getting it made can be in the ground in a small way.
“The good thing about these fundraisers for big displays, in general, is that anyone from around the world can add a few pennies and can hopefully feel like that display is representing them at Villa Park, supporting their team.”
By the fans, for the fans: Villa Park a cauldron of colour
From pin badges to hoodies, stickers, t-shirts and now even masks, Conor has been the creative force behind Project B6’s impressive product portfolio, which has even caught the eye of some Villa’s heroes.
“John McGinn’s face, we just had to put on everything!”
“The face of his we used was one he made when he got to interview Stiliyan Petrov soon after joining us – buzzing. Everyone loves him – even James Chester contacted us to get a hoodie with his face stitched on!
“Most recently Emi Martinez asked if he could have a couple of the shirts dedicated to him too. A lot has been looking back through the former player’s archive and finding the best quality images we can to create a design in tribute that one day we may use.
“There have been a few tribute pieces that have been made quickly based on events. Like Dean Smith and John Terry joining, for example, we made a banner the same week.
“We always have ideas for mosaics, designs and displays. It always comes down to funding really. But the aim is to involve anyone and everyone who wants to wherever they are in the ground!”
With plenty of new fan favourites, from Matty Cash to Ollie Watkins, Project B6 are wary of keeping up to date with the latest trends, to ship their products all over the globe.
“We have folders full ready to go for when the possibility arises,” Conor said.
“I try to keep them quite simplistic purely because if we want to use them for flags and banners at any point, to be seen from a distance they need that bold contrast.
“Many have been used as a one-off before and come back around again. There are lots of former player designs that haven’t been used for anything so far.
“It’s pretty cool, really, people around the world have ordered from us. It’s nice they see the designs and feel like that would be something they would like to wear or to gift to someone to represent wherever they are from!”
With plenty of design ideas in the pipeline, it’s the hope that Project B6 will be bringing the energy back to Villa Park soon. But without being allowed to pass flags across the Lower North Stand for the foreseeable future, the past year has provided a moment of reflection for Conor and Andy to look back on their achievements.
“The big mosaic displays are always good moments, they are a while in the making and take everyone in a stand working together to get right”, Conor said.
“Capturing images of people enjoying themselves is another for me. Seeing everyone waving flags or holding banners with some of my designs on, is the culmination of many hours of work.
“Hopefully the proudest moments are yet to come and we can get progress further and get many more people involved – when eventually allowed to return!
“But when the team is playing well and the crowd is in sync, it’s a point where everyone is on the same page and differences don’t matter. That’s what football can do.”
Football stadiums are curious places. Few can be described as architectural wonders, but Villa Park, as it so often has, will continue to take our breath away. What makes it so special is the history etched into the four walls, and the people that fill the stands – when we return, it’ll be a homecoming like no other.