It’s hard to say where my love of football comes from. Dad’s never really been into it, despite watching Leeds United a few times during their 1970s heyday, and neither has the rest of my immediate family.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were Birmingham City season ticket holders, but they died when I was quite young and I never went to a match with them. Their lingering influence, in the form of a woolly Blues hat I was given as a child, might have something to do with it.
Most people at school notionally followed Aston Villa or one of the big teams. Supporting someone outside the Premier League, and therefore largely invisible to casual observers, was cause for mockery. Lacking a guiding influence, I flirted with the idea of Manchester United before my affiliations hardened. It’s a source of eternal shame.
Birmingham were the first team I ever went to watch, with extended family at the age of seven. We beat Bristol City 4-2, but I remember very little of the match itself. Only an online search revealed the identity of that first game and the goalscorers. Although I didn’t commit such things to memory, I watched far more intently than my cousins and am the only one who retains an interest in football.
Over the next few years I would see five or six games a season with Dad. He was never particularly keen on the competitive nature of sport but always supported my interest. I would occasionally ask to see a game or we’d go if there was an offer on. Months could go by without a trip to St. Andrew’s, something I could never imagine now.
Although I became increasingly obsessive over time, back then I followed the general rhythms of the season rather than the exact, blow-by-blow nature of proceedings. The Trevor Francis era was characterised by high hopes fading into play-off despair.
It wasn’t until I turned 12 that I began pestering Dad for a season ticket. It was eventually agreed that we could get a couple if I accompanied him on a five-day long distance walk through Cumbria and the Lake District in the summer of 2004.
I don’t particularly recall this being the case, but he gleefully recounts the terms of the deal every so often, so I’ve reluctantly accepted his version of events. We returned unscathed and I was soon introduced to regular home games and ritual disappointment.
But before I got to witness the joys of Damien Johnson, Kenny Cunningham and Stan Lazaridis on a fortnightly basis, there was my first ever away match. It was the fourth clash with Aston Villa since Blues had returned to the top division, and up to that point we were unbeaten.
We’d won the first two in a couple of raucous night matches featuring an infamous Peter Enckelman own goal, two red cards, pitch invasions, and the inescapable sense of justice being done after years of playground insults and unwarranted entitlement from Villa supporters.
Following the antics of the previous year, all subsequent league meetings between the two sides were scheduled for early on a Sunday afternoon, the police and FA having decided that an evening kick-off would invite fans to drink themselves into fighting mood beforehand.
The third game was a dour 0-0 draw, but Blues at least maintained their undefeated record against Villa in the Premier League. By the time the reverse fixture rolled around in February 2004, we were in ninth place and hopeful of finishing above our rivals again.
Leading up to the game, Dad said that a friend at work could sort us tickets in the Doug Ellis stand, in with the Villa fans. It would be my first experience of the derby atmosphere – and deep in enemy territory. While Dad seemed concerned for our safety, I was too excited to care and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear my Blues top, despite promising to keep it hidden under my coat.
We boarded the train to Witton, with more supporters from opposing sides piling on at each stop. Tensions were already building when we got off and were escorted towards the ground. Riot police with shields and helmets lined the way, adding to the general feeling of unease. It was more like a battlefield than a football match.
Worse was to come as Villa took the lead and we were forced to play along with the celebrating home fans. I had naturally assumed we’d win – any other outcome was unthinkable – and yet they were in complete control. Blues barely created a chance.
After a quiet half-time discussion about what had gone wrong, play resumed and Villa grabbed a second goal – Thomas Hitzlsperger thundering the ball in from just outside the area.
At that point we were tempted to leave. I’ve never been one to head home early, no matter the scoreline, but it was so painful to have to outwardly celebrate your team’s downfall, surrounded by the jeering hordes. Mercifully, we stayed put.
Somehow, everything turned. Clinton Morrison and David Dunn were brought on to spark Blues into life and we pulled a goal back on the hour mark. Perennial pest Robbie Savage rolled the ball into Morrison’s feet and he laid it off for the prolific Mikael Forssell to finish.
My joy was concealed by groans and contrived concern at Villa’s lax defending, while over in the corporate section a few people were outed as Blues fans and subjected to abuse. Despite having won their last four games and dominated the first 60 minutes, Villa fearfully retreated and invited us to take the initiative.
Desperate to cling on as the final whistle approached, the home team kept clearing their lines, only to come under pressure once more. In the 94th minute, Darren Purse smashed the ball forward one last time and it fell kindly for Morrison. His shot was pushed into the path of Stern John, who fired the rebound high into the net.
The feeling was indescribable, and yet I couldn’t show it. There was a snatched yelp of excitement before I caught myself and realised where I was. Those sat near us bemoaned the fact that Villa had thrown the game away. One fan slumped forward and headbutted the seat in front of him.
Birmingham’s staff and substitutes swarmed onto the pitch while limbs flailed wildly behind the goal in a riotous away section. I just about managed to feign despair while looking on wistfully, wishing I’d been there all along.
The Game I’ll Never Forget: