by Jamie Whitehead

When I was a teenager I was really fortunate that my dad worked for Land Rover. Not only did this mean that we always had a Range Rover on the drive (which does give you bragging rights in the playground) but due to Land Rover’s commercial deal with Aston Villa, my dad wrangled me and him complimentary season tickets for four years, with access to the Player’s Lounge and all the nonsense hospitality which people (rightly) complain has tainted the modern football experience. I missed three home league games in four years and I am very aware of how lucky I am, but there have been times I’ve wished Land Rober sponsored someone else.

A trip to Villa Park would usually involve arriving at the ground at 1pm, meeting my dad’s colleague Vince and his son and heading into the bar in the Doug Ellis Stand, the free programmes were collected and we’d get high on Pepsi and devour the buffet sandwiches before going to take our seats. We didn’t sit in a box, so we were kind of like normal fans.

After the match, dad and Vince would have a beer in the bar and myself and Tom would take our programmes and head to the Player’s Lounge to get them signed. I must be sitting on an absolute gold mine of signed football programmes. Any major star from the late’90’s, I have an illegible scribble from them somewhere in my daughter’s bedroom.

When Land Rover was the main sponsor of the game, we also had the privilege of a complimentary three course meal before the game in Villa Park’s Corner Flag Restaraunt. And it was one of these games, after a midweek defeat against Manchester United that I cried at Villa Park. So far, the only time this has happened. It’s worth noting here I do still attend matches at Villa Park and pay like the rest of us.

Another thing to note – when I was very young, my parents kept their spirits in the same cupboard they kept the breakfast cereal. I don’t know why, they just did. There was a bottle of either whiskey or brandy in there (I was too young to know the difference) and on the label it had an elk type creature. For some reason I thought this animal was an Asparagus. Yes, asparagus the vegetable. I thought it was an animal. Even though this was twenty years ago, I still think asparagus should be an animal. It sounds like it should be, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, February 18th. 1998. 

It was half term week and I had spent the day in Coventry shopping with friends. Later that night dad and I were going to Villa Park for a re-arranged game with Manchester United. I’d originally been gutted because the game had been scheduled for April 13th and we were on holiday at that point, so I would have missed the visit of the champions. But a forward thinking Manchester United employee had seen that United were starting to do better in the European Cup, and as the semi final was scheduled for that week, the game was bought forward over two months. It wasn’t to be. Manchester United drew 1-1 with Monaco, a young David Treziguet scoring and United went out on away goals in the quarter final. So 40,000 people were inconvenienced for nothing.

We took to our seats in the Corner Flag. My dad, Vince, Tom and myself were excited about the game. Villa were going on an awful run and if memory serves me correctly, Villa manager Brian Little was sacked the following morning. But there’s something about the big games that brings out a false sense of optimism. Well, we certainly had that at our table. We were also joined by two Manchester United supporters. From Bromsgrove, naturally.

The menu arrived and I chose a dish of chicken and asparagus. You can imagine my horror when the dish arrived with some chicken and a few bits of green veg thrown on top. “Where’s the asparagus?” I asked dad. I was expecting some sort of mixed grill type thing. “It’s those green things, you berk” was dad’s firm, but fair reply “What did you think it was?” I explained my situation about thinking asparagus was an animal and everybody laughed. It was a social blunder of the highest order. But worse was to follow.

I can remember nothing from the game bar the fact that Beckham and Giggs both scored in the final ten minutes (United won 2-0), the United fans ran on the pitch, as was custom for them to do back then, and Teddy Sheringham had an utter stinker.

We all retreated to the Corner flag. And with programmes in hand, we were off to meet the Manchester United players. We were very, very excited.

Dwight Yorke, still a Villa Player at this point, was huddled up in the corner with Andy Cole, Becks was on the phone to Posh (We could actually hear what she was saying, and his phone was the size of an iPad) and manning the room and keeping an eye on things was Alex Ferguson.

With great trepidation, we approached Fergie and asked for his autograph (we were fourteen) He was an impossibly nice man and was asked us about school and if we had enjoyed the game. He asked me who I thought would win the league that year and I said Arsenal.

It was time for the team coach to depart. Our fathers had come to collect us, but as we walked past the coach, we noticed a commotion. Ryan Giggs was signing autographs. We went and we waited. As we were waiting, Manchester United and England Striker Teddy Sheringham made his way out of Villa Park. “Teddy! Teddy!” I screamed “Could you sign my programme for me, please?”

Despite setting up Beckham’s goal, Sheringham had a nightmare of a game, missing two sitters in front of the Holte. This performance had obviously got too him, or perhaps Geoff Shreeves had just told him his dog had died. Either way, Teddy had the devil in his eye.

I shouted again “Teddy, could you sign my programme for me, please?” Without even looking at me, Sheringham snapped “NO! F*** off!” and stormed on to the coach, leaving a very embarrassed looking David Beckham (still on the phone) in his wake.

And then it happened. I don’t know weather it was shock, or embarrassment, or a combination of the two. But the floodgates opened. I started to sob uncontrollably. Not just tears in the eyes, but full on weeping. No one knew what to say. Remember, only a few hours earlier I had confessed to thinking asparagus was an animal, and now this. My stock had never been lower. It got so bad the bloke next to me gave me a Werther’s Original. It reminded of the time I was six and broke my arm.

Dad didn’t know what to say when we got in the car. I think he felt as stupid as I did. He put the radio on. Who was being interviewed? Teddy Sheringham. My eyes started welling up again.

Jamie Whitehead is one half of the 3for3 podcast and covers the Premier League for the BBC. He has never forgiven Teddy and genuinely believes that on a moor somewhere, Asparagus roams free. Follow him on Twitter @jamiewh_