Boyhood Birmingham City fan Joe Newell eyeing Aston Villa scalp with Hibs
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The midfielder grew up supporting the Blues and joined their youth system at the age of seven, despite hailing from the relatively Villanous territory of Tamworth, and there has been plenty of banter flying back and forth with his pals and even within his own family ahead of the Battle of Britain – or should that be Battle of Brum? – clash for a place in the groups of European football’s tertiary competition. But the 30-year-old has a confession to make as well as revealing a big fear ahead of his upcoming wedding to fiancée Hannah.
“There’s one dodgy picture of me in a Villa top when I was four. My best mate Liam, who is my best man later this year, is a diehard and said it’s going to surface if anything happens over the next two weeks. He’s a season ticket holder, sits with his dad in the Holte End. My missus is Villa, my dad is Blues, my brother is Villa. It’s all over the place,” he explains.
“It will be a special moment for Liam watching me go out there against his team, especially next week at Villa Park. He’s coming up for the game and him and his dad are staying with me. It could get interesting! We’ll probably have a curry after the game no matter how it goes. The banter has been flying. Villa are a top side, aren’t they? It’s been tough as a Blues fans for the last decade to give any kind of banter back!”
Newell’s best moment as a Birmingham fan was watching them win the League Cup against Arsenal at Wembley in 2011 (with Hibernian links through manager Alex McLeish and substitute David Murphy) but since then, he says, it has been distinctly downhill. But he wouldn’t mind a repeat of the Blues’ famous win thanks to Obafemi Martins’ late winner against Arsene Wenger’s side as he points out that giant-killings can, and do, happen.
“Look at last year, with Darvel against Aberdeen,” he says. “No-one gave them a chance. So, it can obviously happen – you just need to go into the game with that mindset and with excitement.”
With two goals to his name so far this season, and two assists, all but one coming in European games, what chance is there of the English midfielder being the man to do the damage against Villa?
"It would be massive to score against them but I don't think I’m thought of as a goal-scoring midfielder just yet,” he laughs. “I think it will take a few more goals before that’s what I'm known as. Obviously, it would mean a lot but if we win 1-0 and it’s David Marshall who scores from a goal kick, it wouldn't bother me.
“But I genuinely think they are favourites for the competition. You look at West Ham last year and I think Villa are a better side than them. So the Battle of Britain side of things and the John McGinn element to it all meant it was huge for the club. We knew that going into the Luzern game. It was a carrot for all of us.
Newell will come up against a wealth of midfield talent in claret and blue on Wednesday night, and not just former Easter Road favourite McGinn. Manager Unai Emery can call upon Douglas Luiz, last season’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the year; Youri Tielemans – 60 caps for Belgium plus an FA Cup win with Leicester; £52 million signing Moussa Diaby, and Nicolò Zaniolo, who won the Conference League with Roma in 2022 and the Turkish Süper Lig title with Galatasaray last season.
“John will get a special welcome and so he should. He did amazingly for the club, won the cup and spent a good few years here. Nobody can speak any higher of him but as soon as the whistle goes it’s down to business,” Newell says. “But naming names in their midfield you can just keep going. I hope that can bring out the best in me but we can’t go into this with any fear, or looking at the stats about how much they have spent or how much players earn because at the end of the day, they are just 11 guys playing on the pitch against our 11 guys. All you would end up doing is worrying yourself for no reason. If we lose, we lose; it’s like anything in life, all you can do is your best and try your hardest. If you do that and trust in yourself and trust in your team-mates then hopefully something good can happen.”
He watched the highlights on Sunday night of Villa’s comprehensive dismantling of troubled Everton but insists Hibs have to focus on looking for a little bit of luck and ensuring that every player plays to their best, with one or two stand-out displays.
“I watched it and then we came in here and did our analysis on them. They are a good side, aren’t they? They have threats all over the pitch but we’re going to have a good solid base, we’re going to have to have everyone at 7 or 8 out of 10 with a couple of exceptional performances, and then we will have to look for that bit of luck somewhere and rely on the crowd and the atmosphere – and hopefully we will get something. No matter what happens it is going to be a great week, over the two legs, for both clubs.”