Chris Wilson of The Sweeper Keeper Blog looks at Aston Villa’s current identity.
‘What is Aston Villa now?’ said former Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert in an interview with BBC Sport earlier this month. Find a Villa fan, and they will struggle to give you a comprehensive answer.
So, what is Aston Villa now? The sort of terminology once banded about to describe the state of limbo that has characterised the B6 club over last four years or so are no longer suitable. To say they lack direction would be an understatement. More than a mess, from the pitch to the board room Aston Villa is a disaster verging on the shambolic.
With Tim Sherwood shown the door after just 28 games in charge, new boss Rémi Garde was given a task of humongous proportions from the minute he entered Bodymoor Heath, where his most pressing task was to turn around a team utterly dejected of confidence and self-belief. Only a managerial magician will be able to haul the mismatched side – which has claimed just five points from a possible 36 so far – away from the foot of the table and certain relegation to the Championship. It’s a far cry from the Aston Villa that Holte Enders once knew and loved.
Just seven years ago Villa were enjoying some of their best seasons in the Premier League era. The Midlands giants were where every well-established top division club should have been, knocking on the door of the top four each season and finishing sixth three seasons in a row, improving year-on-year with growing attendances running alongside lofty board-room ambitions and increasingly impressive on-pitch performances.
In 2008, the Villa went into Christmas third in the table on the back of an outstanding start to the season which saw the likes of Gareth Barry, James Milner and Ashley Young surge to prominence whilst the more solid Martin Laursen, Stilian Petrov and Gabby Agbonlahor (yes, he used to be good) put in the hard work that allowed their teammates to shine.
Villa’s success was typified by one fantastic European night in mid-October when they overcame an Ajax side consisting of the emerging talents of Luis Suarez and Klaas Jan Huntelaar in the UEFA Cup. Running out 2-1 winners in a closely-fought encounter Villa Park was electric, and the victory encapsulated everything that the club should have stood for – progress, determination and fast-flowing counter-attacking football based on a solid defensive foundation.
A year later, after again qualifying for Europe’s second-tier competition, the club ran a promotional campaign which was intended to drive Villa forward into a new era of success. Martin O’Neill, lauded at the time but since heavily lambasted as the cause of the club’s subsequent downfall, was the face of an inspiring PR project that embraced everyone associated with the club.
‘It’s 25 years since Villa won the European Cup; a timely reminder of where this football club should try and get to’ he says in a marketing video over a backdrop of a triumphant musical crescendo and Martin Laursen leaping six foot into the air to win another commanding header.
At its worst, it’s corny promotional material. At its best, it symbolises everything Villa fans loved about the club – pride, passion and hunger for success. None of those can be said of the same club today.
Sadly for fans ‘Proud History, Bright Future’ all too suddenly became ‘Proud History, Sh**e Future’. Villa’s demise would begin with the reluctant sale of Gareth Barry, followed by O’Neill walking and then, the slow, painful losses of the last remaining standout performers – James Milner (whose head was turned before O’Neill leaving), Stewart Downing and Ashley Young. Aston Villa’s on-pitch identity was painstakingly being stripped away root by root, and the bigwigs in the executive boxes weren’t doing much to help matters either. No effort was made to adequately replace either the players or the management, and Villa was about to begin its irreversible nosedive towards mediocrity.
There was an attempt at a change of direction with the appointment of Gerard Houllier to replace the disappearing O’Neill. It was billed as a transitional season and the first season of a five-year plan with Villa fighting relegation until an end of the season rally, by which time Houllier was taken ill. His contribution to Villa is questionable, while he had to leave the club due to health problems, his leadership of the team had been relatively non-existent anyway.
Then came a move that EVERY football fan could foresee was destined for failure, Alex McLeish was hired as manager even after a supporter protest (and it takes a lot for Villans to voice their concerns in such a way). One year into his three-year deal his contract was terminated and Villa were caught up in perpetual ‘transition’ seasons with no progress in sight, as millions of pounds were lavished haphazardly on the likes of Darren Bent, Stephen Ireland, Jean II Makoun and Charles N’Zogbia. In hindsight, it was more like destruction.
And it was these pivotal two years that caused Aston Villa’s rapid descent into the team that everybody loves to hate. On the back of the Houllier and McLeish days, Villa have begun a slow and steady descent into footballing nothingness. As the Premier League’s whipping boys, the days when Aston Villa were feared as a threatening, dangerous opponent could not be further buried into the past.
Where Villa Park was once a fortress, it is now an away team’s favourite stomping ground; arguably the easiest place to go in the division and probably the opposite set of fans’ best day out. And that’s no surprise given the club’s well-documented woeful league form over the past three campaigns – who could forget that last season we failed to score in over 10 hours of football? On the back of the summer exits of Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke, Villa’s most creative influences of recent times, it’s hard to bet against such a stat being thrown up again this time around.
Tim Sherwood’s optimistic soundbites combined with Villa’s trip to the FA Cup final last May and the flurry of incoming transfer activity which followed, all did a sound job of temporarily papering over the cracks of what has become a broken, ruined football club bereft of any sort of identity and without promise of imminent change. Once perhaps a ‘sleeping giant’, it’s now not just dormant, it’s pulse is fading – so stuck in the depths of the ‘hole’ that a dejected, drained Sherwood referred to so bluntly in his last interview as manager, that not even the most optimistic of fans can see a way out.
And that’s what the new manager will have to deal with as he settles into his role at B6 in the coming week. The pressure for immediate results will be immense, before he can even think about trying to provide the club with a fresh identity.
Fans of the Claret and Blues will be hoping that Villa will be able to prove Paul Lambert wrong and show that beneath the turmoil and commotion, the backbone of a side remains one that wants to win football matches. In the meantime, to answer his question, nobody really knows what Aston Villa is any more.
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