Aston Villa’s brief five-match unbeaten run – halcyon days in the wider context of the season – came to an end in ignominious fashion at Upton Park on Tuesday night as Jordan Ayew’s elbow condemned Remi Garde’s side to a 2-0 defeat to West Ham after a positive start.
Here’s a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Villa’s 15th defeat in 24 Premier League matches this season, and where it leaves our once-great club.
Things were looking fairly bright for the first quarter of an hour, with Villa moving the ball around in midfield nicely and even threatening to get in behind the defence, although a couple of corners were about all that we had to show for a promising opening period.
Even after Ayew’s red card after only 17 minutes for an assault on Aaron Cresswell, Villa defended admirably for the remainder of the first half, most notably when Micah Richards made a superb last-ditch intervention just yards from his own goalline despite the close attentions of four Hammers players. Though the resistance crumbled in the second half – understandably, given the numerical deficit – Garde’s men did at least show spirit in the face of adversity.
The biggest credit, however, must go to the fans who made the Tuesday night journey down to London, only to see their efforts met with Ayew effectively throwing the chance of a positive result away with barely a sixth of the match gone. Even in the face of inevitable defeat, the away contingent were loud and they were proud, and even the West Ham official Twitter account praised them.
— West Ham United FC (@whufc_official) February 2, 2016
I have written before in this column that when it comes to the fanbase that this club has, Randy Lerner and the boardroom really don’t know how lucky they are. To have over 30,000 people still turning up to home matches, and to have away sections still being filled (despite club not taking full allocation) on a regular basis despite everything that the supporters have had to endure on and off the pitch in recent years is nothing short of a marvel, and long may it continue.
There is a myriad of reasons for the club’s devastating decline, but one of them which is coming back to bite us in recent weeks is poor recruitment last summer. Back then, Villa were a club likely to be facing another battle against relegation this season, but we were also FA Cup finalists with some serious money to spend after the sales of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph.
Benteke, of course, was never replaced, but it is more than that. There is a startling dearth of quality throughout the squad, and even some of the more technically gifted players brought to the club in the summer – the likes of Ayew and Jordan Veretout – have taken so much time to adapt to life in English football that by the time we have started to see their true qualities it has been too late.
The policy of recruiting from foreign leagues such as the French top flight is not inherently a bad one – every so often in unearths a gem such as Benteke, who arrived from Belgium – but in order to succeed for a struggling club like Villa it has to be part of a balance which also sees a number of signings boasting Premier League experience. That simply was not the case.
Of Villa’s 11 senior summer signings, just two – Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott – had regular game time over a number of seasons in the English top flight under their belt, although even Richards had not racked up a double-figures appearance total in the Premier League since 2011-12. Consequently, rather than building a side prepared to fight a relegation battle, Villa brought in the kind of player who could potentially thrive in a lower-pressure, mid-table environment and threw them into a desperate relegation battle at a club increasingly embroiled in off-field turmoil.
All that meant that this was always likely to be the season in which a club which had flirted with relegation for four years finally surrendered to the drop, although I will admit that it nobody foresaw it being this bad.
It has got to the painful stage where gallows humour reigns supreme – when Villa won a late corner on Tuesday night, the camera panned to a 30-second shot of the travelling fans’ tongue-in-cheek celebrations of winning a set-piece. The resultant corner was dreadful (of course), and West Ham immediately broke downfield and scored a second to end the match. I’m sorry, but I had to laugh.
Click through to the next page for the Ugly