AS I write this column Aston Villa are in very real danger of being relegated from the Premier League and returning to the Championship, just one season after escaping from it.

Mathematically we can stay up but by the time this column appears it may be that the pain of relegation can be added to the long list of reasons as to why 2020 will be a year to forget.

As a Birmingham boy born and bred it wasn’t inevitable that I would become a supporter of Aston Villa. Whilst I’ve always held that you support your local team in Birmingham, this was complicated.

There were no city specific dividing lines in Birmingham which linked geography to team – no river running through the city which dictated whose side you were on. In the end it was the passion of my one my best friends that led me to don the scarf for the claret and blue.

But as it turned out it wasn’t a football match that eventually got me into Villa Park.

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s football grounds were not a great place to be for a young Asian lad. As recruiting grounds for the far right they were off limits to me and my friends, who were relegated to being armchair supporters on the grounds that at least this reduced the risk of having your head kicked in by a group of racists.

But in 1984 I saw a poster which said that the American evangelist Billy Graham was coming to town and that he would be speaking at Villa Park.

More importantly, the tickets were free and there was a free bus going from the church across the road from where we lived. At last my chance to complete my pilgrimage and to go and worship at the temple of Villa Park had arrived. But it turned out a different religious experience altogether was awaiting.

When I got there Billy Graham talked about Jesus. He spoke about the love of God and hope. He talked about freedom and goodness and about a new life in Christ. At the end of his talk he invited people to come down onto that hallowed turf and to pray a prayer of commitment. I got up out of my seat and went onto the pitch and invited Jesus into my life.

That night I got home buzzing, excited, joyful and I lay in bed that night talking to God as if he was sat in the chair right across from my bed. I have never forgotten that night, never forgotten how different, new and wonderful it felt.

In the years that followed I have returned to Villa Park on countless occasions. As a season ticket holder I would delight and despair in equal measure the performances of my team.

But there is no game, no cup final, no trophy or win that would ever come close to being as life changing or transformative as learning of the love of Jesus Christ that night in July 1984.

In the Holte End of Villa Park the faithful sing “I’m Villa ‘till I die”. That will likely be true for me too, but for the 36 years since and forever more I’ve discovered that the best thing I can do with life is to be follower of Jesus Christ.

lArun Arora is vicar of St Nicholas Church, Durham