Book of the week: Cleavers, cowgirls and a football team

Villa Park: 100 Years By Simon Inglis (Sports Projects Ltd, hardback, pounds 24.95)
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The Independent Online
The affinity felt by football fans towards a club is often bound up with a powerful sense of place. Remember the successful fight to get Charlton back to The Valley? Or the vain campaign to preserve the Shelf terracing at Tottenham? More recently, Evertonians warned their chairman, a food-hamper magnate, against relocating the Toffees with a banner warning: "A hamper is for Christmas - Goodison is for life".

No one has articulated such emotions with such authority, affection and style as Simon Inglis. His Football Grounds of Britain was a triumph of writing and research; likewise the follow-up, about European stadiums. Now he has turned to a subject close to his heart, the home of Aston Villa, and the result is another work of exceptional quality.

A whole book about one club, making only passing reference to games and goals, may appear to hold little interest for those not of the claret- and-blue persuasion. But while Villa Park, like Highbury, Ibrox and the new venue at Huddersfield, possesses design features worthy of preservation, this is no mere architectural homage.

Rather it is a social history, brimming with larger-than-life characters and extraordinary events. In charting its development from rural idyll (with a fishpond where the pitch now lies) to inner-city citadel, Inglis takes the reader back to 1606. It was then that Sir Thomas Holte, whose name lives on in the Villa "end", attacked his cook with a cleaver. He split his head down the middle and was fortunate to escape an FA disrepute charge.

After the Industrial Revolution, the Lower Grounds, as the land was by now known, became "a place of fun and frolics, of high and low art, of modern marvels and ancient mystery, of repose and romance". It was, says Inglis, "both Alton Towers and the Botanical Gardens... a village green for Aston yet also the Wembley of the Midlands".

Annie Oakley, whose sharp-shooting was not eclipsed until the advent of Gary Shaw, appeared there. So did Buffalo Bill, parachutists, fire- eaters, opera singers, actors and acrobats. There was cricket, cycling, athletics, ballooning, skating and lacrosse, played by Iroquois Indians, and, in 1878, a football match "under electric light!"

Since Villa moved in, the ground has been rebuilt twice and survived the attentions of the Luftwaffe. It has also accommodated everyone from Pele and Billy Graham through Dick Turpin (the boxer) and Desmond Tutu (another fighter) to Bruce Springsteen and Australia's rugby union tourists, who ran in the fastest-ever try there. Plus, of course, the occasional decent Villa side.

The centenary brought no telegram from the Queen. This superb volume, which is also sumptuously designed and illustrated, should just about compensate.

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