A Tuesday 6am flight means bleary eyes. However, they can still be seen in bright claret shorts and retro tops lining up at Birmingham International Airport.
Some Aston Villa supporters chose to make a holiday of the club’s first European campaign in more than a decade and dressed accordingly. Others arrived 24 hours later, determined to enjoy going on a bonafide ‘European tour’.
A Legia Warsaw official smiled when asked about what conditions to expect. It can, they say, crank up to the max because of the size of the game. “It’s a different style, a different atmosphere in England. Non-stop singing. Always the noise.”
Legia players admit they watch the Premier League most weeks and know everything about their opponents. They went ahead with pre-match media duties on Wednesday afternoon as the halls inside the Polish Army Stadium were spacious but empty. The staff is hidden, preparing diligently. Waiters are in the hospitality suites, polishing glasses and setting tables. Catering, police, security and commercial staff were all called in, going through the rigmarole of Conference League requirements.
The black and green of the Conference League tape is stuck and wrapped around all four corners and above the dark green seats that Legia’s ultras call ‘The Jungle’. A couple of Villa officials flew out early before the team. They walk pitchside, on their phones, delivering information.
An interpreter was stationed at a small table in the corner of the press conference room. A crossfire of languages between German manager Kosta Runjaic and a Polish journalist meant he had to work hard for his money.
“If you look at the market value, Aston Villa should be one of the favourites,” said Runjaic. “Tomorrow’s game will be like David against Goliath.”
“Believe me, spirit, fight and do everything for this club to make a story again… it will not stay in the dressing room,” Pesqueira declared. “Everyone goes on the pitch.”
In the next room, a police meeting is being held. Legia’s ultras have a reputation in these parts and in a match where David tried to defeat Goliath with 27,000 people in attendance, security was tightened.
Villa’s president of football operations Monchi sat at the back of the room as Emery entered his evening press conference, 20 minutes late after their flight was delayed. It probably set the tone for the rest of the trip. “We’re trying to enjoy being here,” Emery said. “It’s a sold-out stadium and we’re going to play in a very good atmosphere. It’s special to start here in Europe.”
Emery’s anticipation of Legia’s atmosphere was prescient. As he pointed out afterwards, it upset his side’s balance and empowered the hosts.
Villa fans, however, made their presence felt in a different way and at midday on Thursday a sea of claret was in motion.
Villa found Irish bars and Guinness as Legia supporters roamed the stadium mid-afternoon, apart from their ultras who often entered an hour before kick-off.
The remaining Villa fans arrived in Warsaw last night and sang songs about defender Matty Cash, now an international for Poland. Many locals smiled and joined in.
“When I get to the airport, I usually get a few people asking me for a few photos — I don’t know if I’m a celebrity,” Cash said. “I want to come here and do the best I can for the country … if you want to label me as a famous person, yes, maybe.”
Legia’s ultras were not too fond of Cash and his colleagues, however. They filled the stand behind goalkeeper Emi Martinez and the whistles greeted the start of the visitors’ warm-up.
A sea of white unfurled a banner that said ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, before a large tifo of a gorilla descended, its eyes red as the two teams exited from the tunnel.
A gorilla appears in Legia’s Jungle… minutes until start. Villa fans responded “what the f*cking hell is that?”#AVFC The fans (on the right) are in good voice and Legia is trying to whistle them.
Villa are almost (officially) in Europe again. pic.twitter.com/04p07fegvl
— Jacob Tanswell (@J_Tanswell) September 21, 2023
The atmosphere was acidic, with constant whistles whenever Villa had the ball. Eight drummers were raised in front of the ultras while a conductor spent the entire match facing them, rallying.
The Legia staff admitted that they won’t beat Villa through quality but sheer will and intimidation. Emery, speaking from experience, later accepted the atmosphere in Europe is different, especially one with a team that has only lost once in 27 home games.
Villa’s summer recruitment was partly influenced by the signing of players with European experience, but even then they looked tired and lethargic. Conceding two identical goals made the challenge more problematic, a new-look defense struggling to defend more spaces, but Villa responded each time and were level at the break.
There is an expectation that if Villa can pull themselves together for the second half, all Legia’s noise will be for naught. Instead, more passive defending – a product of Legia’s fitness and clever game plan that exploited the spaces inside Villa’s top line – resulted in the hosts going ahead once more. Villa could not get up again. Emery slapped his knees in the dugout, shouted for calm and decided to use all five of his substitutions in the 67th minute.
Playing in Europe requires rotation but the personnel in Villa’s starting line-up have passed their chance. The frustration was shared by Villa’s traveling contingent, who were forced to stay at the ground for more than an hour after the final whistle.
Defeat in the opening group game was far from terminal – in some ways, the performance was more disappointing than the result.
Legia’s portrayal of ‘David vs. Goliath’ is accurate. Runjaić was greeted by applause from the local press when he entered his post-match press conference. “We somehow survived and won the game,” he laughed. Before leaving, he made a beeline for the English journalists, stayed to ask more questions and ask if we wanted any tips on where to go in Warsaw.
“The atmosphere at home is the best I’ve ever experienced,” said Charlie, a Villa fan who made the trip. “The overriding feeling is the pride of putting something off my personal bucket list with Villa, following them in a European competition. Win, lose or draw, we’re here in Alkmaar and Mostar to do it again.
(Top photos: Getty Images)