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The tragic way Aston Villa have started the first 14 games of this season means only supporters with the blindest of faith, won’t be considering the eventuality of relegation this season. It’s been four seasons in the making and while of course, you must fight to the last breathe, currently there doesn’t seem to be a bone of defiance in the players or the club.
The shocking state of Villa’s demise is like nothing we’ve experienced before over such a opening stretch of 14 games in the top flight. Never mind trying to get close to a 40 points finish, Villa at this rate will be lucky to reach half of that. They’re also still behind Derby County’s points total after 14 games, when the Rams recorded the lowest Premier League finish ever with just 11 points.
The Last Time
I personally remember the last time Aston Villa got relegated and the emotions involved with that. Five years after the European Cup win, chairman Doug Ellis seemed to be asset stripping and the incoming signings smacked of a lack of real ambition. A club that should have been still building a legacy with Ron Saunders, bar Tony Barton closing the deal on the European Cup and Super Cup, were left treading water with a young and unproven manager in Graham Turner (a familiar recent story).
Villa had started that season badly, losing six out of their first seven games. Nigel Spink being out for those seven opening games certainly didn’t help. A 6-0 hammering by Nottingham Forest cost Graham Turner his job after the first six games, as Deadly Doug swiftly swung the axe.
After a decent 3-3 draw at Anfield in his first game in charge, new Villa boss Billy McNeill’s team then recorded four wins in their next five games, which went some way to redressing the balance of the awful start of his predecessor, but the last of the wins, a 2-0 home win against Leicester on November 1st was the last time Villa won until Boxing Day.
After Villa’s first 14 games of the 1986/87 season, Villa’s record was:
Won 5 Drawn 1 Lost 8 – Points 16
Despite a terrible start to the campaign, compared to this season, Villa were still 11 points (and four home wins) better off than they are now.
Relegation didn’t seem to be a nailed-on until the final run-in. When you consider Billy O’Neill and Doug Ellis only saw fit to bring in a young Warren Aspinall to try and improve their fortunes, it doesn’t seem the club feared relegation until it was too late.
Relegation became a reality though after Villa finished the season in a similar vein to how they had started it, with only one win in the last eight games. The team was like a boxer who enters with final rounds of a fight expecting to be ok on points, only to find out their legs aren’t responding and their stamina is sapped.
Apart from throwing one last haymaker punch with a surprising 4-0 home win against West Ham, Villa offered little fight and relegation was seen largely as a blessing in disguise; to give Deadly Doug a reality check and a chance to refocus his stewardship of the club.
As a footnote, this was the same season that Ron Atkinson was sacked at Manchester United and replaced by Alex Ferguson. The rest as they, say is history
Interestingly, there’s a distinct similarity in the ages of the players in the 1986/87 team and the current Villa team, with the bulk of that squad 23-years-old or younger – including Martin Keown (22), Paul Elliot (22), Tony Dorigo (20), Steve Hodge (23), Paul Birch (23), Tony Daley (18) & Mark Walters (22).
To his credit Ellis sorted it out by appointing the ambitious, talented and proven Graham Taylor, who had done wonders with Watford and was actually persuaded to drop down a division to take over at Villa Park.
Taylor brought Villa straight-back up and his achievement cannot be underestimated, because the other two teams that got relegated with Villa – Leicester City and Manchester City – finished the next season stuck in mid-table.
A Cautionary Tale of Relegation
Villa were also lucky to go straight back up under Taylor. Supporters often forget Villa started to stutter between March and April with four losses in the space of five games, before one last hurrah got them over the line.
If you want a real cautionary tale about relegation, it came 20 years prior, with the fallout of Villa’s top-tier relegation in the 1966-67 season offering an experience that would be too horrific to contemplate nowadays.
After the first 14 games of the 1966-67 season, under the management of Dick Taylor, Villa’s record was still considerably better than the current season’s five points:
Won 4 Drawn 2 Lost 8 – Points 14 (using three points for a win).
Not a great start, but three wins better off than now.
Like in 1987, it was the Villa’s poor finish to the season that cost the club – they failed to register a win in the final nine games, which sealed their fate.
After they dropped, Villa spent EIGHT seasons outside the top flight, including dropping down to the old third division, until Ron Saunders dragged Villa back to the top flight in his first season in charge.
Imagine spending eight seasons outside the top flight now.
Villa now are facing a potential collapse in the Premier League akin to some of England cricket team’s worse batting displays. In the club’s previous two relegations, if the tail had wagged and they had chalked up two or three more wins in the run-in, they could have saved themselves. This season though, it’s all about the current squad staying in touch, before January reinforcements are brought in for hopefully a miracle-like finish.
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