Just before the start of this season Robbie Iscariot Savage caused a bit of a stir in the media when he predicted that Aston Villa would be relegated. It was a typically provocative act by a mercenary tosspot man not well-disposed to the club, and the feeling was reciprocated, naturally. Villa fans and blogs were outraged at comments being uttered by a former player of the hated Birmingham City.
Now, while it is also worth pointing out that Savage, the Welsh Benedict Arnold, is even less popular amongst Blues fans for his jaw-dropping act of treacherous avarice, the reaction was as angry as it was for reasons other than his time at Blues.
It rankled as it was not an unwise prediction and had touched a raw nerve. There was good reason at the time to think that Villa would struggle this campaign. Our own DC, capable of rather more astute analysis than Savage, commented just before the start of the season:
Inheriting a squad short on depth and woefully lacking in quality, Lambert has added only Eredivisie journeymen and a League 1 full-back to the mix…….. (they’ll finish) Lower-mid-table if Lambert is all he is alleged to be but will be in for a relegation scrap if he is merely a good manager.
And following Villa’s fairly dismal 1-1 draw at home to relegation rivals Norwich City on Saturday, it is starting to look like DC has once again been vindicated and Robbie Savage may, probably inadvertently, have also hit on something. Villa have accrued a pitiful 6 points from nine games, their worst start in many a year. And as I’m sure I don’t need to point out to you, a failure to improve significantly on that form in short order spells the dreaded drop.
How did it come to this?
When boyhood Villa fan Randy Lerner took over just 6 years ago, hopes were high that the club would re-take their place amongst the game’s elite. And yet now, they are in arguably worse shape than in the last years of Doug Ellis’ reign, and fans are quite reasonably calling for Lerner to go.
What has happened at the Villa in recent years is a troubling reminder of what awaits clubs who spend big and fall just short. Put simply, the three sixth place finishes of Martin O’Neill’s tenure weren’t quite good enough, and largely because that number 6 was never a 4.
DC has also dwelt at some length on Martin O’Neill’s failings, so I won’t re-tread old ground, other than to say that vast sums were squandered and with the benefit of hindsight his approach to tactics and team selection was somewhat hidebound.
And when O’Neill’s reign petered out, it became clear that Lerner didn’t want to play anymore. He no longer harbours ambitions of making Villa a regular top four club. The wage bill has been slashed and successive managers have been appointed that point to a less ambitious approach. Although hard to imagine now, at the time O’Neill’s appointment at the fag-end of Ellis’ tenure, coupled with Lerner’s takeover, marked a serious commitment to breaking into the elite. O’Neill’s successors of course have been even less inspiring.
Gerard “I don’t mind losing 3-0 to Liverpool” Houllier never really had time to show that he was up to it but I doubt he would have anyway, even without his dicky ticker.
Alex McLeish’s accession to Villa throne appeared to be simply an act of stubborn bloody-mindedness by an owner worried that he was looking weak in the face of fan protests. McLeish presided over a listless, spineless, soul-destroying campaign that had it been replicated in previous years would have seen Villa relegated. I’m sure Villa fans are uneasy being reminded that last season McLeish garnered fewer points than the previous season, when he was managing Blues, and took us down (and I’m pretty sure it’s Mcleish’s dismal record of two relegations in three years that prompted the wave of fan anger at Villa Park, not that he was managing Birmingham City……..)
Paul Lambert has a far more impressive CV admittedly, but the results and performances have been so poor thus far that the sheen has long since come off, and already some Villa fans are wondering aloud if he is up to it. I think it’s a little premature to be talking in those terms, but then I haven’t watched them much this season so can’t attest to exactly how poor they’ve been.
Now to a degree this lack of ambition is perfectly explicable. Despite Lerner’s obscene wealth, he knows that he can’t compete with the spending power of Chelsea and Man City, and the club cannot generate the kind of revenue that Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal and possibly even Newcastle can, and has cut his cloth accordingly. In a previous generation a man like Lerner could have bought success, but that is no longer the case, and in an ideal world I’m sure he now wants out.
The problem is that his lack of commitment spells serious trouble for the club. Players have been sold and the cheaper replacements have been sub-standard, and almost inevitably that means a slow decline and eventual relegation. Whilst I don’t think James Milner, Stewart Downing, Gareth Barry and Ashley Young are world beaters, not by a long stretch in some cases, the players that have been brought in after their departures have been even worse. Amongst others, Stephen Ireland has been unfathomably poor, Jean Makoun was (predictably) desperate and Charles N’Zogbia is a second-rater, frankly.
Promising but raw academy players have been promoted largely because there is little alternative, and as already pointed out Lambert’s signings this summer are those of a manager who knows he can’t seriously compete in the transfer market. Limited triers would seem a good summary (and one struggles to see the rationale for leaving Norwich when he appears to be signing exactly the kind of players he would have brought in there…….) There is also an increasingly pervasive sense though that Lambert prefers working with players without flair but who put in a shift in, a la O’Neill. It’s a slightly small-time mentality, not really befitting a club of Villa’s stature and previous accomplishments. Hard graft can only take you so far in football.
So Villa are in a bit of a bind. On the one hand their fans quite reasonably place them amongst the biggest clubs in the country, but on the other the owner seems happy for them to tread water.
The only problem with treading water is that unless you start swimming at some point, eventually you’ll drown.