Book Review: Ticket to the Moon
Ticket to the Moon
by Richard Sydenham
Published by De Coubertin Books
On May 26th 1982, Aston Villa, the club I’ve supported since my football awakening during Italia ’90, won the actual European Cup. In doing so, they became one of only five English clubs to triumph in the competition. Two weeks after this monumental moment, I was born, having missed the greatest achievement of my beloved team by just 14 days. And it’s been a bit like that with Aston Villa for most of my life, the sense of something magical very close by but never quite present.
These days Villa, one of the founder members of the Football League, have often been found looking a little bewildered somewhere in the middle of the Championship. Richard Sydenham’s Ticket to the Moon: Aston Villa: The Rise and Fall of a European Champion is a welcome reminder of better times, built as it is around that extraordinary moment when a perennial sleeping giant ever so briefly woke up. It follows the club’s rise through the 70s as it was shaped into a competitive force under manager Ron Saunders, before going on to chronicle the team’s rapid decline and eventual relegation in the aftermath of conquering Europe.
The book’s final chapters cover Graham Taylor’s Villa revival and departure in the late 80s and early 90s, shortly after which—and only hinted at in the photograph section of the book—came the appointment of Dr. Jozef Vengloš the manager the day I first stepped into the stands at Villa Park as a boy. Growing up with Villa, that European Cup win always felt like ancient history, our England ’66, so it was surprising to read that members of that cup-winning squad were still playing under Vengloš right on the cusp of the modern Premier League era. For me, much of my enjoyment of Ticket to the Moon came with realisations like this, where the generational knowledge gap closed, and my club’s greatest achievement became tangible.
The depth of research and the inclusion of multiple, sometimes contradictory, perspectives from staff and players, makes for an immersive experience. Through Sydenham we are placed inside the board and changing rooms at crucial moments, as well as being walked through the key matches that would ultimately convince the team they could be champions—first of England, then of Europe. It’s an exhilarating underdog story, which peaks with a telling of the brutal Super Cup Final with Barcelona that I didn’t have to watch footage of to feel like I’d seen. (Do take the time to see it, though. It’s quite something.)
It’s also a sad and frustrating story to read as a Villa fan, and raises troubling questions about Villa’s missed opportunities over the years. Despite Sydenham striving for balance, it’s very difficult to read Ticket to the Moon and not come away thinking the club’s almost immediate downturn following the win in Europe—and, arguably, the state it’s in right now—is in some way linked to chairman Doug Ellis’s decision-making being spiked by irritation at briefly not being chairman during those years of success. His tight grip on the purse strings always made him a target for fan vitriol, but opinion softened a little when he sold to Randy Lerner in 2006. On reading this though—and bearing in mind the poor state in which Lerner eventually left the club—it makes you reassess Ellis’s reign as chairman all over again.
While the book is a must have for Villa fans (and I did enjoy being able to reminisce with my Dad about the Villa team of his youth; turns out he was even there on the day of that Super Cup final), I do wonder how the book would be for neutrals. In opting for a strictly chronological telling, Ticket to the Moon lacks a driving narrative and can occasionally read like a long list of names and dates. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to player ins and outs, which can take up whole paragraphs and ultimately feel there for thoroughness rather than entertainment.
You find the thoroughness-over-entertainment approach used with player interviews, too, where quotes are included in their entirety, regardless of whether someone else has already made the same point elsewhere in the book. You sense Sydenham has done well getting so many insiders to be this open and honest, and understandably he wants to do right by everyone and give them all a fair hearing. However, it makes for an occasionally repetitive read, and perhaps one more editing pass might have tightened this up.
It’s not a dull book though, and there is plenty to entertain—particularly the behind the scenes anecdotes. Ranging from jaw-dropping to hilarious, they perfectly capture the era: Gordan Cowans and Colin Gibson managing to lose the actual European Cup while playing darts in a local pub, Andy Gray being told not to attend the ceremony for his joint PFA Player and Young Player awards, the mind games played between European clubs back when the host team got to select the visiting club’s hotel. There is also thoughtful analysis too, contextualising the many facts, and the section pulling apart the notion that Ellis decimated the European team is fair and compelling.
Ticket to the Moon contains everything you need to know about Villa during the greatest period of their history—and there’s plenty to recommend. I can’t help but think that from this very rich source there is another, more narratively satisfying, version of the story that could be told, one with the wide appeal of those books that brought Brian Clough to the masses such as The Damned United and Provided You Don’t Kiss Me. It’s a minor quibble though, and Ticket to the Moon is a must-own for any bookish Villa fan as well as anyone interested in this era of English dominance in Europe. It’s both an uplifting story of unexpected triumph, and, especially these days, a chilling cautionary tale.
S R Masters is a writer originally from the West Midlands. His first time at Villa Park he saw David Platt score a hat-trick. His debut novel, the 90s-set murder mystery ‘The Killer You Know’, is out now on Sphere/Little, Brown. You can order it here.