Aston Villa played a midland rival on Sunday in front of 27,000 fans. Given that Villa Park can hold up to 42,000 that’s a disappointing attendance for a team of Villa’s stature. What happened? Remember when Aston Villa were considered a more than genuine threat to the top 4? There was no chance of 15,000 empty seats on a Sunday night then. In a relatively short time Aston Villa have gone from a recognized force in the Premier League that no one looked forward to facing, to relegation battles and mid-table mediocrity. What decisions were made? Why were they made? And what is their plan now if there even is one?
Think back to when Martin O’Neill took charge at Aston Villa. There was a constant optimism about the potential of the club and supporters were always worried about picking up points when they saw they had Villa away at the weekend. From O’Neill’s second season in charge in 2007/08 the club finished in 6th place 3 years on the trot, increasing their points tally with each season. During the 2009/09 campaign they were even comfortably sat in 3rd after 25 games had been played, a monumental collapse in the run in saw them fall to 6th but there was reason to be optimistic at Villa Park. The Birmingham club had been breaking personal records left and right since O’Neills appointment as manager. They’d achieved their highest points tally in just over a decade, they had also achieved their highest goal tally for a season in the Premier League era and the clubs highest overall since 1981. Success seemed round the corner, the possibility of breaking into the top 4 and a Champions League place was real. Everton had already done it and Tottenham were making roads to do the same as were the Villains. Martin O’Neill’s side even made the League Cup final in February 2010, the clubs first final in a decade.
When you look back at the players Villa had in the squad at one point or another during those years, it’s no wonder fans aren’t happy with the current product. Mellberg, Laursen, Carew, Young, Barry, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Berger, Friedel, Sidwell, Milner, Downing, Dunne etc. There was a wide array of talent that O’Neill had assembled to help bring Villa closer to the success of their greatest years. Ashley Young, Gareth Barry and James Milner have all gone on to win Premier League titles from their days at Villa. Stewart Downing was part of a big money move to Liverpool. They had talent in their squad that big clubs wanted, the performances they were giving in the claret and blue attracted attention of the Premier League’s biggest. This is what the fans were treated to during these years.
There of course was a rather unceremonious end to O’Neill’s tenure as Villa boss, when he stepped down as manager only a few days before the start of the 2010/11 season. Disagreement with the funds made available for transfers was given as the key tipping point in his relationship with American owner Randy Lerner. Lerner sighted no longer having a “common view as to how to move forward” as the reason behind his departure from the club. O’Neill didn’t think he was being given enough money to achieve his goal of a top 4 finish, Randy Lerner obviously felt that he had given O’Neill enough money already and perhaps felt no matter how much money he gave to the Northern Irishman he was not going to be able to secure Champions League football.
Since O’Neill’s departure Aston Villa, in order, have finished; 9th, 16th, 15th, 15th. In two of those season’s they never even cleared the 40 point mark. It’s hardly the kind of performances that will keep fans (who were starting to get a hunger for success again) interested. It can be argued whether Randy Lerner was right not to afford more money to O’Neill, he could’ve handed him a huge transfer budget every year for 10 years and O’Neill wouldn’t have been able to assembled and coach a team into the Champions League. Also, any money you put forward to build a top 4 side was being rivaled by how much money Man City’s owners could hand out to complete the same task. Others may believe O’Neill had it in him but that is open to debate. What is more important and ultimately worrying for Villa fans is the actions the club has taken since the summer of 2010. What is the direction of the club? They’ve plummeted down the table with startling rapidity, they don’t have any noticeable style of play you could associate with the team; they have almost been banished to mid-table mediocrity with no real sign of return.
At the beginning of the current season Villa had a very impressive run of form. The kind of form that was almost reminiscent of their days under O’Neill. They were undefeated for the first 4 weeks of the season, winning 3 of the matches including a 1-0 win at Anfield. It seemed as though this would be the season that breathed life back into the club. The good feeling didn’t last long. Right on cue Aston Villa went on to lose their next 6 fixtures. It wasn’t a surprise; the start to the season seemed far too good for a side that just seems to get knocked down whenever it shows signs of life in recent years.
Paul Lambert has been in charge of the club since June 2012. He has twice now guided the side through a relegation battle. But, Sunday night was evidence that he has lost the fans. There was still 27,000 in attendance for the Leicester City game but given what Villa park should look like on a matchday it seemed barren. When Lambert first took over there was evidence of a certain direction the club was taking. Lerner obviously decided he didn’t want to spend any more big money (wasting nearly 24 million on Darren Bent would lead most to that decision) and Paul Lambert had established Norwich City as Premier League club through buying potential from the lower leagues and giving them their chance to develop in the top league. It was admirable, impressive and Villa wanted it. Given that Villa had grown a reputation for producing highly rated youngsters from their academy Lambert seemed a wise choice to replace McLeish, especially since Villa seemed to have an issue when introducing these young players to the first team and developing them beyond youth level. Talent such as; Barry Bannan, Nathan Delfounso and Marc Albrighton were all players that the Villa fans were impressed by and the fans clearly prided themselves on their ability to produce this local talent, yet they just seemed to be missing the mark in the first team. I am of the belief that the fans were willing to suffer through some heartache as this young side developed because once they’d experience the tough times, the fresh faced talent would be battle hardened pro’s ready to bring success to the team. That could be naïve thinking but I am of the opinion the Villa supporters were willing to accept that.
Now, just a few years on it seems not only have Villa’s performances not been able to improve, they have also abandoned the approach of building a youthful team for the future. This summer saw pragmatism as Lambert’s approach to the transfer window. The Scottish manager brought in experienced Premier League talent with the likes of Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos. Professional, safe, yet underwhelming signings. The signings of Aly Cissokho and Carlos Sanchez were also slightly more established talents than Lambert usually brought in. Considering that, in his first summer in charge Lambert purchased the likes of Matthew Lowton, Joe Bennet, Ashley Westwood and Christian Benteke none of which were older than 23 years old. Couple this with the fact that the young talent the fans had high hopes for have all moved on to new pastures. Bannan, Delfounso and Albrighton are all no longer associated with the club. This all leads me to believe that the fans aren’t just upset by the standard of performance now, they are unhappy because the club no longer has an identifiable philosophy, meaning they have a lack of purpose within the division. They are not a threat to the big teams and neither are they a conveyor belt for young talent they had hoped they were. Aston Villa seem now to simply be a nothing team that might finish mid-table if they aren’t embroiled in a relegation fight.
The commentator’s at the weekend talked about how these fans expect European Cup wins like they did in 1982. I feel that’s unfair on the management and current players, it was 32 years ago they won the European Cup and the majority of fans who support the club will barely remember the win against Hamburg if they were even around to see it. What these supporters of today were starting to get used to was challenging the top 4 and believing they were capable of breaking the hierarchy of the league, even getting a cup final in for a really good season. They had three seasons of that so all the fans that were here to see it are still here to see them languish in the bottom half of the table. To most Villa fans it must feel like the rug has been pulled from under them, their status within the division changed so much, so quickly. What Villa have been able to do though is maintain their presence in the Premier League during this period. There are many clubs that when they go into a free fall like that they end up relegated and fighting the uphill battle from extreme depths. Reaching for that brass ring comes with its risks, you reach too far and miss you can end up falling and falling. Aston Villa have survived a couple of scares so far and they might not be over yet. What Lambert and Lerner need to do now is give the fans reason to come back through the gates and watch their club play to help give the players confidence. Winning home games would be a good start. I think expectations are high from fans at a club like Villa but I don’t believe they are unreasonable, they just don’t want to made to feel like idiots. They pay their money and they expect to be entertained or at least see 11 men in claret and blue give everything they’ve got to try and entertain the thousands in attendance.
The days of top 4 challenging are gone for now at Villa Park, but they are a club that have managed to keep themselves near the big dance with 27 consecutive seasons in the top flight, the hope is once again they can start to build their way back up the table. It would be good for the league if we could see Villa Park back to capacity and showing off that atmosphere it has been famous for.