The first time I began paying attention to soccer was in 1994. That's when the World Cup was played in the United States, including the city of Chicago where I was a 13-year-old still coping with the first retirement of Michael Jordan and the impending work stoppage in baseball while my beloved White Sox were in first place. I didn't know much of anything about the sport, but I enjoyed watching it anyway. While I was an American, I took more of an interest in Italy because of my heritage and the fact, you know, that Italy was good. They reached the final that year before losing to Brazil.
I wouldn't pay any attention again until the next World Cup in 1998, and that's generally how my soccer fandom was until 2010. Shortly after the World Cup ended in 2010, I was hired by CBSSports.com to cover college football. It was my first full-time writing gig, and it allowed me to give up my regular 9-to-5. It also meant I was at home a lot more often, and this also coincided with European club soccer being shown on United States television and other streaming services. So, still taken a bit by my World Cup fever, I started following the Premier League as best I could. After a season of doing so, I decided watching it was fun, but choosing a club to root for was even better. I didn't want to be some bandwagon fan like so many of my fellow Americans and pick one of the top teams. I don't blame any of them for doing so, but to me, it just felt cheap and easy. I wanted a club that was big enough that I wouldn't have to worry about them being relegated, but one that would also provide a challenge.
I was down to Liverpool and Aston Villa. In the end, I chose Aston Villa because I liked their uniforms, and I thought Liverpool was a bit too popular. Villa had finished sixth in the Premier League two seasons before, and ninth in my first year watching. After officially becoming a Villa fan, the team proceeded to finish 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th in my first four seasons, narrowly avoiding relegation nearly every time. Then they couldn't avoid it any longer. In the 2015-16 season, Villa finished dead last in the Premier League and was sent down a level.
So much for choosing a club that would avoid relegation.
Still, as much as it hurt, I told myself it wouldn't be a big deal. "We're Aston Villa, we'll spend a season in the Championship (England's second-tier league) and be right back up." That wasn't how it worked. Villa finished 13th in their first season in the Championship. Last year was much better, as they finished fourth and qualified for the promotion playoff.
How it works is like this: the teams that finish in first and second place are automatically promoted. The teams that finish between third and sixth then play in a four-team tournament, with the winner of that tournament being promoted.
Villa reached the final against another former Premier League side in Fulham. They lost 1-0. It was one of the most depressing moments of my life as a sports fan because the loss didn't just mean another season in the Championship, it meant the possible downfall of the club. The team's ownership had spent a bunch of money for the sole purpose of being promoted, and they fell short. Now Villa was facing a summer in which it would have to sell off all its most talented players to recoup some of its losses. It meant they were starting over.
Thankfully, that's not what happened. New ownership took over -- including Wes Edens, co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks -- and Villa kept its star Jack Grealish. They had to be creative, but after a coaching change during the season, Villa went on an incredible run at the end of the campaign, winning 10 matches in a row at one point. That got them into the playoff once again, and on Monday in Wembley Stadium, they played Derby County for the right to get back to the Premier League.
This time they won, and it was one of the greatest feelings in my life as a sports fan. As a Chicagoan, I've seen plenty of championships. The White Sox title in 2005 is probably the only time I've been happier about a sporting event, and remember, Aston Villa didn't win a title. It won the chance to scratch and claw for survival in the Premier League again.
And I can't wait to see it try. I didn't know it at the time, but picking Aston Villa, and going through all these struggles with them, having them be relegated and then take three years to get back means so much more to me than merely picking Manchester United and winning a league title ever could. It's one thing I don't think fans of those top clubs will ever appreciate, and that's their loss.
Either way, I'm just glad to know that sports can still bring me a feeling of happiness like this. I'll never forget how I felt Monday morning while watching them celebrate from 4,000 miles away.