A Tuesday 6am flight meant the eyes were blurry. Even so, they could still spot the bright claret shorts and retro tops lined up at Birmingham International Airport.
Some Aston Villa supporters had chosen to make a holiday of the club’s first European campaign for more than a decade and were dressed accordingly. Others came 24 hours later, determined to enjoy going on a bonafide ‘European tour’.
A Legia Warsaw official smiled when asked about what atmosphere to expect. It was going to be, they said, cranked up to its maximum because of the game’s magnitude. “It is a different style, a different atmosphere to England. Non-stop singing. The noise is constant.”
Legia’s players admitted they watched the Premier League most weeks and knew all about their opponents. They went first in pre-match media duties on Wednesday afternoon with the halls inside the Polish Army Stadium cavernous but hollow. Staff were tucked away, preparing diligently. Waiters were in the hospitality suites, polishing glasses and laying tables. Catering, police, security and commercial staff had all been summoned in, going through the rigmarole of Conference League requirements.
The black and green of the Conference League tape was being stuck and draped around all four corners and above the dark green seats that Legia’s ultras call ‘The Jungle’. A couple of Villa officials had flown out early before the team had even set off. They walked pitchside, on their phones, relaying information.
A translator was stationed on a small desk 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 fixture will be like David vs. Goliath.”
“Believe me, spirit, fighting and doing everything for this club to make a story again… it will not stay in the dressing room,” Pesqueira declared. “Everything will go onto the pitch.”
In the room next door, a police meeting was being held. Legia’s ultras have a reputation in these parts and in a contest where David was trying to defeat Goliath with 27,000 people in attendance, security was tightened.
Villa’s president of football operations Monchi was sat at the back of the room as Emery walked into his evening’s press conference, 20 minutes late after their flight was delayed. It may have set the tone for the rest of the trip. “We are trying to enjoy being here,” said Emery. “It is a sold-out stadium and we will play in a very good atmosphere. It is special to start here in Europe.”
Emery’s anticipation of Legia’s atmosphere was prescient. As he would allude to afterwards, it disrupted his side’s equilibrium and empowered the hosts.
Villa’s fans, however, were making their presence felt in a different way and by noon on Thursday a sea of claret had mobilised.
Villa found Irish bars and Guinness while Legia supporters milled around the stadium mid-afternoon, with the exception of their ultras who always enter an hour before kick-off.
The rest of the Villa fans had arrived in Warsaw the night before and sung songs about defender Matty Cash, now an international for Poland. Many locals smiled and joined in.
“When I turn up at the airport, I normally get a few people asking me for some photos — I don’t know if that’s me being a celebrity,” said Cash. “I want to come here and do the best I possibly can for the country… if you want to mark me a celebrity I’d say yeah, probably.”
Legia’s ultras were not so enamoured with Cash and his teammates, however. They had filled the stand behind goalkeeper Emi Martinez and whistles met the start of the visitors’ warm-up.
A sea of white unfurled a banner that read ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, before a large tifo of a gorilla descended downwards, its eyes reddening as the two teams came out of the tunnel.
A gorilla makes an appearance in Legia’s Jungle… minutes until kick off. Villa fans respond “what the f*cking hell is that?”#AVFC fans (just to the right) in fine voice and Legia are trying to whistle over them.
Villa are about to be (officially) in Europe again. pic.twitter.com/04p07fegvl
— Jacob Tanswell (@J_Tanswell) September 21, 2023
The atmosphere was acidic, with constant whistling whenever Villa had the ball. Eight drummers were elevated in front of the ultras while a conductor spent the entire game facing them, rallying.
Legia staff admitted they could not beat Villa through quality but instead through sheer will and intimidation. Emery, speaking from experience, later accepted European atmospheres are different, particularly one that possessed a team which had lost only once in 27 home games.
Villa’s summer recruitment was partly influenced by signing players with experience in Europe, but even they looked sluggish and bedraggled. Conceding two identical goals made the challenge more problematic, a new-look defence struggling to defend large spaces, but Villa responded each time and were level at the break.
There was still an expectation that if Villa could gather themselves for the second half, all Legia’s noise would be for nothing. Instead, more passive defending – a by-product of rustiness and Legia’s astute game plan that exploited the spaces within Villa’s high line – resulted in the hosts going ahead once more. Villa could not lift themselves again. Emery slapped his knees in the dugout, screaming for calm and decided to use up all five of his substitutions by the 67th minute.
Playing in Europe requires rotation but the personnel who came into Villa’s starting lineup passed up on their opportunity. The disappointment was shared by Villa’s travelling contingent, who were forced to stay in the ground for more than an hour after the final whistle.
Defeat in the opening group game is far from terminal — in some ways, the performance was more disappointing than the result.
Legia’s description of ‘David vs. Goliath’ was apt. Runjaić was greeted with applause by the local press when he walked into his post-match press conference. “We survived somehow and won the game,” he laughed. Before leaving, he made a beeline for the English journalists, staying behind to field more questions and asking if we wanted any tips on where to go in Warsaw.
“The home atmosphere was the best I have ever experienced,” said Charlie, a Villa fan who had made the trip. “The overriding feeling is pride at ticking something off my personal Villa bucket list, following them into a European competition. Win, lose or draw, we’ll be there in Alkmaar and Mostar to do it all again.”
(Top photos: Getty Images)