One of my many reasons for being a volunteer is because I enjoy going to and around sports stadia. So, when The Pack, offered a tour of Villa Park, I jumped at the chance, even if it is the ground of one of the Baggies arch rivals.
We assembled at 5.30pm, to a ground that has a striking Victorian stand, almost palatial. (Designed by Archibald Leach.) whilst the other stands were more modern, meaning that the ground is very 'disjointed'. We were welcomed by the leads of the functional areas, as well as Villa's Logistics staff. This was done with great humour, especially by the Villa's Security guy, who looked like Lurch and like many ex-policeman, had a dark humour, about what is a pretty dry subject. He explained that as we were volunteers, we would not be part of any emergency response, but because we were in uniform, we were likely to be looked to. He then explained all the calls. 'Stewards to Post' means that something is kicking off. 'Blue', 'Red', and 'Black' alert are the critical calls - crowd crush, fire and bomb respectively. From his size, it was no surprise when he announced that he was a rugby fan, and he and his stewards were looking forward not to have to say 'No', 'You can't go there', 'you can't do that'.
The Villa Event Manager ran through some of the history of the team, and as THE founder member of the Football League, and creators of the format, it was interesting to listen to his talk. Niall was formed by some cricket players who wanted something to do in winter. They played a half of soccer, and a half of rugby and decided that rugby was too rough, so stuck with football. Their loss. Villa Park have also held more semi finals than any other ground in the country. Handy for the 13 FA Cup Semi Finals that the Baggies have been in, the fans just had a short bus ride home.
He explained the work that had gone on over the summer, which Villa hoped would lead to the ground hosting more rugby games. 4G has been laid around the perimeter of the pitch as a mandatory requirement to protect rugby players against head injuries, along with the foundations for the rugby posts on the 6 yard line.
Being a 'statto', the Catering Manager gave us some interesting facts. in the 13 World Cup venues, there are 652 bars, with the prediction that 21 million pies, and 9 million pints of beer, (Heineken) will be drunk. I think that the number of pints drunk is a conservative estimation on how much beer will be drunk, as rugby fans, especially British ones, favour Guinness and 'Real Ale', and as Heineken have supplier rights, I anticipate the pubs around Birmingham, (Barton Arms anyone?) will be seeing an increase in trade, or at least I hope so.
The Media Manager explained that even at what is some of the lesser games, there will be 150 journalists and 88 photographers, all of which have to apply for tickets to get in. The post match process, is that 30 minutes after the game, the losing side, probably the captain and coach answer questions, 15 minutes later, the winning team, coach, captain and up to 3 players, answer questions.
There are a variety of media rooms, including rooms for 'flash interviews', which were once my favourite interviews as they usually had players being interviewed with their shirts off!
I enjoyed this evening far more, than the previous training, no silly ice-breakers or games, just the Event Managers and staff giving facts and figures about the matches, and our roles. I wondered if, although this was voluntary, the Organisers 'sheep dip' approach to training was too unfocussed and bland, and they had decided to respond with a training session that would give the volunteers a more sporting and focussed experience.
For the tour, Villa allowed us to visit all the critical rooms, including Tim Sherwood's Office, the Players' Lounge and the Changing Rooms. Whilst the ground is very traditional with little rabbit warrens of corridors, I found these key rooms strangely sterile, white walls, very few photos, or plaques etc. In the Players Lounge, there were these weird, 3D like pictures of key players, although I couldn't recognise them, not like the good old days of Peter Withe, Gary Shaw, and Gareth 'Pizza Hut' Southgate. Interestingly, the teams that won the toss chose the away dressing room, which seemed bigger when we visited, (although we were assured that it wasn't.) This has particularly stressed the South African coach, who is a big Manchester United fan. Manchester United have a fantastic record at Villa Park, not just versus Villa, but also in the numerous Semi Final victories there. South Africa lost the toss, could there be an upset on the cards, when they play here versus Samoa?
We also got to walk down the Players Tunnel onto the pitch, and Villa had put the stadium lights on, so that we could appreciate it. Like many grounds, the lack of sunlight can affect the growing of grass, and the warm 'cannabis' style lights were making up for it.
When we got back, we all met our Functional Manager. The Freight and Logistics guy was a top bloke, who will drive us hard but give us a lot of fun along the way. (He's taking us down the pub on Monday for 'lunch'.) He's also said we can work extra shifts, which is a bonus for me, as I am not working on the Captain's Run day. Now I can. If we want, we can also work at the Leicester game, as the pressure to set up and take down is huge. As fate would have it, Villa are 'hosting' the Bluenoses in the League Cup on the Tuesday before the game. Apparently, the Bluenoses will trash the toilets, as a thanks you for the Hospitality, so Villa have plumbers on standby to repair them post game, the stadium branding company will have to work 24/7, and pressure will be on us Wednesday and Thursday.