Monthly Archives: March 2010

7 – 1

Ashley Young is back to his dangerous self: Causing full backs all sorts of trouble and delivering cross after cross of goal scoring opportunities. John Carew is proving to be the player I knew he was – and he’s doing more…

I tried to find the positives of Saturday, I really did – but let’s be honest, we were beat by a six goal margin in the most crucial run in we’ve had this millennium.

After folding to the feeble threat of Wolves and Sunderland, an ambitious gut fooled my head into thinking how typical it would be of Villa to then go and turn over a title chasing Chelsea. 3 points at Stamford Bridge and all would have been forgotten. And dare I say it: fourth place would have been secured.

And for 40 minutes, we fought. For 40 minutes, we withstood the threat of Chelsea and for 40 minutes, we looked every bit as competent as they did. Martin O’Neill was quoted to say that,

“We stopped competing at 3-1…”

Second Best

In truth, however, we stopped competing at half time.

After drawing level courtesy of another young-carew combo, we looked in good shape to carry the fight to the home side. I was thinking such was our away form that we could probably nick the win. Instead, after an inspiring 10 minutes following the equaliser, we were undone at the back in the 42nd minute with some expert clumsy defending – and what was to follow in the next 50 minutes will unfortunately forever be remembered in this club’s history.

It was almost as if it was a race to score the third – and whoever got it, crossed the finishing line. And that’s exactly what happened: Lampard slotted the penalty in the net and at 2-1, Chelsea were home and dry before half time. Walking into the tunnel at the whistle, heads were down. Returning to the field for the second half, belief was minimal and very surprisingly for and O’Neill outfit: effort was scarce.

Unorganised and disinterested. How often does this current Aston Villa side get labelled with such tripe? Justified tripe in this case. After taking the foot off the gas against Wolves, I could see through the Sunderland result – we were good, and deserved all 3 points – sometimes that happens. But to surrender so cheaply in the heat of battle shows tremendous lack of character. Giving up is never an option and it is certainly not a desirable trait to have in any sphere of life.

Walter Payton

Walter Payton, former Chicago Bears running back, wrote in his autobiography, Never Die Easy, that if an opponent were to overcome you then they should have to earn your death first. Put simply, they would have to go to the very edge with you before someone falls over. Even at that, you should struggle to be pushed over – never die easy. Teams lose … it’s something we have to accept as football supporters, but surely we can expect our teams to lose with dignity. Surely we can even walk away with pride in defeat – granted the opponents have earned their victory. I remember our hard fought Goodison Park victory of last year when Young fired us ahead in the last kick of the game after Lescott had equalised deep in stoppage time. Analysing the post match interviews, there was nothing bitter about David Moyes. He was sad to lose of course, but you could tell from the nature of his talk that he knew his team had pushed Villa to the very limit and to snatch victory, we needed something special from our very last roll of the dice. There was a certain honour and respect that day amongst both teams, and rightly so.

Don’t get me wrong, Chelsea are a decent team. They were my tip for the league all year (although United are looking even stronger) and there is certainly no shame in buckling under the unrelenting pressure of Stamford Bridge. The pace of their attack was admirable; they were exciting and were cutting through Villa like a warm knife through melted butter. But only when they were given the chance.

And didn’t we just give them the chance. Because as we went in at the break, a goal to the worse, self pity was rife and we came out flinching until we were knocked firmly on our backsides straight after the restart. And instead of getting up and fighting, instead of standing tall and pushing back, we lay on our knees and took whatever punishment Chelsea had in them to give. We afforded them space, time and freedom and watched on in helpless woe, through the fingers covering our coward faces, waiting for our opponents to retreat. At half time, our heads were already on the team bus. At full time, the players found the haven of the road back to Birmingham; but left behind their dignity, their honour and their respect.

And now I’m hearing we might not even get another run out at Wembley. And I’d probably agree with that decision too: because the Chelsea, Villa semi is probably better to be staged at Twickenham – they have a bigger scoreboard.

 What next for Villa?

Well they can continue to freewheel down this treacherous path or begin to climb back out to where they want to be. The path they are on now is deceiving – it’s the easy option to take. It’s downhill and rose tinted, and requires absolutely no effort. But it is downhill for a reason. Because as per the nature of free falling, there is always a rock bottom to hit – and this rock bottom promises only FA Cup elimination and 7th place (Everton results pending). And what a pointless voyage this season of hope would be should we show no backbone and fold to the temptation of our current pathway.

 “Losing your way on a journey is unfortunate. But losing your reason for the journey is a fate more cruel.”

Yes, Villa have lost their way – but it would be so much more tragic if they were to lose their purpose. When Martin O’Neill took charge in 2006, he spoke of the pride of 1982 and stated that ultimately, European success “is the dream”. Why lose sight of that now? Why render our endeavours futile? All hurt and physical sickness aside, we were always going to lose that game away to Chelsea so we have not lost ground. We did slip up in our previous two games but have a massive chance to rectify that against Bolton (a) and Everton (h). Tough games, but if we were to steal all six points then our season is well and truly back on track. Remember Spurs’ horrific run-in and hopefully they will fall short. The situation as we have it now is with 7 games left – 6 wins are an absolute must, and I’d go as far as saying that no more defeats are afforded. This is the road we have sidetracked off, the uphill rocky mountain which has no place for the faint hearted or the self-pitiful. But it is the road which we must climb back onto and crawl back up because at the end of it, lies Champions League riches and a possible crack at another cup. At the end of it, lies the reason for our journey. And should we fail to make the 70 points mark, should we fail to reach the end of the road, we might find ourselves slipping back down or falling over edge – but if so, I’d like to think that we didn’t die easy.

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Let’s All Boo the Boo-boys

Out of Order - even homegrown star, Agbonlahor, was targeted by Villa's fickle fans

Last night, I made a conscious decision not to write about Aston Villa. With the knuckles bruised from my living room wall, the remote control smashed and a few more strands of grey hair on my 21 year old head, I thought it was best to avoid any further kneejerk reactions and have a go at some sleep.

 This morning, my scars have certainly not healed. The bitter taste in my mouth is still consuming and the League Table positions are still static. However, as much time as I’ve had to reflect on another abysmal home result, I’ve had the same time to contemplate how far we’ve really come.

 When the final whistle blew on Wednesday night, I was probably as vocal as anyone about my harsh feelings towards O’Neill’s men,

“Bottlers” … “Wasters” … “Lazy ****” … to name but a few of the reactive insults that were fired from my mouth as surely as my beeping phone was fired under the bed for the night. Even worse, the descended red mist turned my short term attentions to the ‘incompetency’ of my beloved Martin O’Neill. Of course, I had my usual rant at Heskey and Cuellar and even criticized the manager’s overall policies. I was enraged at his “pointless” summer buys – because we still continue to play the same team over and over, with no rest for the first XI. I fumed at his decision to play two big men up front and I was even questioning his ability to get the team firing at such crucial stages in the season. Fortunately though, this mindless ignorance was contained within the walls of my home and to the ears of my family (who knew rightly that this was nothing more than just another schoolboy hissy fit).

 With the morning light, the irrational blinkers are removed and it’s always much easier to see the picture as a whole. As I awoke, I was feeling more disappointed than angry and it was at that moment I was almost sick remembering the jeers echoing around our ‘fortress’.

I thought of my own obscenities and shook my head as I recalled calling the most hardworking outfit “lazy”.

I questioned my questioning of the manager’s decision to play the two big lads up top together – would I have picked Delfouneso in that situation? Would I have played 4-5-1 at home to Wolves and Sunderland? No and No.

Why has O’Neill played the same players every week? But … has he? Although Villa have still the lowest tally, they have increased the number of players who have started to 20 this year – and has this paid dividends? Absolutely. Excuse MON if he thinks it’s important to find consistency in this crucial run in and stick with the same back 5 that has leaked the fewest league goals this year. Excuse him if he thinks the orchard of youth at Villa, in Delph, Albrighton and Delfouneso, is yet to bear fruit. And I think we’ll forgive our manager for the untimely injury of Gabriel Agbonlahor, our top scorer, our ‘out man’, and the only player of his kind in the squad. Finally, O’Neill should maybe be pardoned for his expert eye deciding that the rest of our squad players simply are not good enough – and more importantly, by not using these, we have embraced two extended cup runs and have gave ourselves a fighting chance at fourth.

Sometimes, I’m ashamed to call myself a Villa fan and associate with the likes of the fickle boos at Villa Park.

 So I ask the question: Boo-boys, what do you want?

Yes, we’re expected to turn over the likes of Wolves and Sunderland at home; and yes, we’re expected to fight for 4th – but this expectation has derived purely through the achievements of Martin O’Neill. We’ve never expected like this before in the past, we’ve never hoped. We might have put up with O’Leary had he not let us succumb to 31 defeats in 2 seasons. We might not have expected anything of O’Neill had he carried on his predecessors’ form of 42 goals a season … 42 league points before he took over. In their final years, Taylor and O’Leary ensured we avoided relegation – keeping us afloat in 16th spot, didn’t our former managers make our club proud?

Messiah

 Conversely, O’Neill has served to immediately stamp out our heavy loss tallies – making us difficult to beat, losing 10 games each year (the same amount of defeats suffered by the Villa team of 1993 – who consequently finished league runners up). Moreover, in just his second season, MON’s side banged in an impressive 71 league goals – the highest ever scored by a Villa Premier League side. Indeed, the closest Aston Villa ‘goals for’ tally in the Premier League came in its first season (92/93) with the 2nd placed side, who managed only to notch up 57 goals. And lest we forget, Martin O’Neill’s signing Ashley Young is the only player to ever receive 3 player of the month awards in the one season (2008-09). And maybe we’ve turned a blind eye to his contribution to the careers of Young, Gabby, Gareth Barry, Curtis Davies and James Milner – all of whom have propelled to the international stage under the guidance of the Northern Ireland man. And rather than taking us backwards along the same route of every past Villa manager (premier league), we have developed into a stronger and stronger outfit each season. Racking up a higher points tally each year (62 last year – the last time Villa won 4th place, they got 63) in the face of the 21st century superpowers of the Premier League, O’Neill has ignored the chains of modern day football and continues to push his way to the peak of the league. And of course after spending less than all of his rivals, MON has still secured Villa’s rightful place in the top 7 of today’s league brackets – and what is more, has made them even more difficult to beat than previous years with only 5 losses recorded in this season’s league campaign. Such form would prove pivotal in cup runs (as proven this year), and such form is why Aston Villa’s 16 year wait for a trophy wont prolong much farther.

 How dare anyone, therefore, mutter even a restless sigh at Villa Park. Yes, I’ve cried and complained within the confines of my bedroom – but I’d like to think if I was lucky enough this year to sit in the Holte End, I’d have the appreciative manners to understand just how far we’ve come under Martin O’Neill. I know I would support our tightly knit unit, playing for our cause, instead of making them anxious of coming home. And in any moment of frustration, I’m sure that I have enough common sense to realise the steps taken in the last 3 and a half years to restore pride in a once battered club. The fact that boos ring out at an opportunity wasted for 2 extra points is testament to the rejuvinated pride amongst our faithful – because we know we can do better; we finally believe we can do better. But let’s not forget where we came from. Let’s not allow unreasonable short term anger to have a lasting effect on our team. Let’s not throw our football knowledge, our self-respect and our club down the drain just because O’Neill has allowed us to expect again. Unless you actually think it’s time we brought back Graham Taylor or David O’Leary, place your trust in MON and his vision for the football dynasty he is creating. I hear Phil Brown and Tony Mowbray are available …

C’mon! Let’s wake up and praise the Lord that we have Martin O’Neill in our midst.

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Milner For England

Beckham out. Lennon out. Crisis? What crisis?

Ready

The start of the summer transfer window at the beginning of this season spelled danger ahead for Villa. We had fought long and hard for the duration of 08/09 but came up short – some way short. On top of this, our most prized pearl was being stripped from our necks and we had no palpable replacements. Gareth Barry; our leader, our heartbeat, our hope had smelled the next door neighbour’s cooking and jumped ship at the mercy of temptation. What I didn’t realise was that, in our midst, we had everything we were losing and more in a capable James Milner.

 Thankfully, I’m not a Premier League manager and couldn’t see that Villa were not in a ‘crisis’. I would have panicked, overreacted and probably wasted money trying to find a clone of Barry. But O’Neill did not panic, and he did not overreact. In fact, he took the loss of our former captain with a pinch of salt and carried on his predetermined plans for Villa’s season, unshaken. Bolstering our once flappable defence with 3 solid acquisitions in Collins, Dunne and Warnock, MON ignored the apparent hole in the heart of our midfield and went about securing the signing of his long term (and injured) target Stewart Downing (under the nose of our rivals Spurs). So we’re lining out with presumably a weaker front six than last year with Sidwell replacing Barry in the engine room, yet we’re competing. We’re not just competing, we’re performing, and we sweep aside the threat of Liverpool and Chelsea all before Stewart Downing is even introduced. In the absence of Barry (and no replacement), Villa flew out of the blocks and stood toe to toe with the rest of the league in the months between August and December which would stand as a solid stepping stone for the rest of the season. The players had clearly matured with Milner and Gabby looking 5 times the competent players they once were. Then, Stewart Downing is introduced at the perfect time to push us through December, to freshen up our ideas and to move Jamesy inside (and of course, the rest is history). League Cup Final, FA semi (so far) and a much improved shot at 4th place is concrete testament to the development of our squad and to the advancement of our central midfield area (all using the lowest number of starting players in the League); And all without our supposed necessity, Gareth Barry.

 So now, England’s World Cup plans are in theoretical ‘meltdown’. Yes, Beckham is a technical marvel, a centurion and of course, a leader (pretty similar to Gareth Barry of Aston Villa). Aaron Lennon, no doubt, has improved in epic proportions. I was never a fan of the Spurs winger (and he’s still suspect to inconsistency), but he has turned his pace and control into effective directness – and, admittedly, will be a loss to England should he lose his fitness battle. Fortunately for Capello, he has the gift of hindsight and would have seen Martin O’Neill diagnose Villa’s ‘crisis’ with an apt prescription of James Milner. Even more luckily for the England manager, in Milner, he has a player better equipped to take on World Cup opposition than Beckham or Lennon would ever have been. And now, with his 2 closest positional rivals out injured, the right midfield slot on the England team must surely reside with Mr Consistency, James Milner.

 Not only is Villa’s number 8 a tireless worker, and an all round midfielder (similar to a young Steven Gerrard) with a high aptitude of all the physical and technical skills required, he is a player with a proven track record of making goals. In fact, when you analyse England’s current right sided challengers this season, Aaron Lennon has performed well – second only to who else, but James Milner. Lennon has indeed racked up 8 assists and his natural replacement, Shaun Wright Phillips, boasts a tally of seven assists. However, they both lag behind Milner and Young when it comes to scoring goals – and that been said, they lag behind Milner’s assist record anyway! (James has an incredible 11 this year)

More importantly, Milner lies streets ahead of his counterparts when it comes to actual impact each right sided individual has on their respective teams. Subjectively, we can talk all day about who’s good and who’s not (I think Milner would come out of this conversation well anyway), but when you’re looking for an output from your players, when you’re looking for results, I don’t think Theo Walcott’s 1 goal and 1 assist sounds too appealing. Does it? Maybe the Arsenal player hasn’t got as much game time as the others, but I know I wouldn’t be playing a player who hasn’t played all year just because he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Not in the World Cup anyway! What does sound attractive to me however, is when you take Milner’s 11 assists and 5 goals, and put it into context of his team’s season, he is directly responsible for 44.4% of all Aston Villa’s league goals (pre Wolves match). In fact, none of his rivals can even come half as close to that when comparing their effect on their own teams. And if I was being bold, Gareth Barry has contributed to just 12% of Man City’s league goals (playing in the same position as James) – maybe it’s time Milner got a run out in the centre for his country (if the transition works as well as it has for Villa, then England are laughing).

 With more assists, more goals and lets be honest, more technical ability than the rest of his remaining right sided contenders, it’s about time the nation’s second most in-form player (Rooney number one of course) got at least one chance on Capello’s stating team. I don’t think it is an audacious statement at all – if Shaun Wright Phillips, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Leighton Baines and Emile Heskey can all line out for their country, why is it so difficult to imagine someone of the higher calibre of James Milner getting the nod (be it anywhere in the midfield)? In fact, it would be an insult to the player, an insult to England, if he didn’t.

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The Underdog Principle

“It really don’t matter if I lose this fight …

All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, and that bell rings, and I’m still standin’; I’m gonna know, for the first time in my life, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.” (Rocky Balboa 1976)

No Pain

They say that everyone loves the underdog, because everyone can relate to the underdog. No matter what level you’re performing at, no matter which sphere of life, everyone feels that they are not given a fair crack of the whip. I disagree. I believe that everyone loves the underdog simply because people love it when someone rises from the ashes. People love it when someone comes along and defies popular belief, defies logic. Someone who makes the hair stand in the back of your neck out of sheer ignorance to the boundaries of normality; Someone who can reach out with the smallest arm and touch greatness, reminding us all that the world is full of magic; Someone who can inspire the uninspired. In 1976, a 30 year old part-time boxer rose from the ashes and shook the heavyweight champion of the world. In 2010, Aston Villa can banish the odds and create football history by gate crashing the Premier League top 4 in true, inspiring, underdog fashion.

With four teams jostling for position as we enter the home straight in this enthralling league campaign: Aston Villa sit seventh place, 6 points from fourth. Liverpool, City and Spurs, all above them in ascending order, are amongst the top 5 spenders in the league. Liverpool, boasting the likes of big money signings Torres, Johnson, Mascherano and Aquilani, have of course the pedigree to clinch the Champions League spot once more – but they look wounded. Tottenham have had the unique capability to acquire six players dearer than Villa’s transfer record, on top of the ridiculous bonus of countless £7m – 12m additions. Indeed, 3 of Spurs’ plus £15m crew have, in effect, been deemed surplus to requirements at the Lane with Darren Bent plying his trade elsewhere, Robbie Keane shipped north of the border and record signing David Bentley featuring 8 times in this year’s league campaign. But for whatever reason, they aren’t good enough. No need to analyse Man City’s money matters.

And so, as every tide turns and every dawn breaks, every writer wants to tell the story of the underdog. Sometimes they fall short, sometimes they don’t exist. But the mere principle of the idea of an underdog is enough to make people believe that if they themselves push, if they themselves dig, then they themselves can find special things inside. People want to believe. And trying to look at the Premier League run in from a neutral point of view, it is very difficult to see how anyone could be cheering for anyone else besides Aston Villa for the top 4 spot. History would suggest that Liverpool will take the scalp. Finance would point to the overpowering of Manchester City. The Media would back their London darlings Tottenham Hotspur, and the “people’s manager”, Harry Redknapp. The bookies split the odds in 3, with a patronising mention to the ‘outsiders’. How fitting would it be therefore if the underdog were to prevail victorious in the face of unfavoured chance. How fitting would it be if the unchanged 13 names on the Villa team sheet were to gather enough momentum at such a late stage in the season to steam roll right over the top of their fancied opposition; and in doing so, casting aside the chaining myths of history, finance and odds.

With the most predictable first XI in the league, O’Neill’s side is really only boosted by the use of two other squad players in John Carew and Luke Young. Yes, in Randy Lerner, we have a superb chairman with a generous wallet and a coveted trust in the team’s manager. Of course, we don’t have the spending might of City or Spurs, or the lure of Liverpool Football Club, but Aston Villa has spirit. Aston Villa has the voice of ’82 whispering behind them and the capable hands of Martin O’Neill in front of them. Aston Villa has a closely knit pack of players who are not only talented, but play for each other and their manager. O’Neill has moulded an harmonious English-speaking environment and has steadily increased it’s productivity each year. The manager is a conqueror. I remember when he first joined, a quote from his former Celtic centre back, Stanislav Varga, emerged saying something like,

“The players must prepare for the day O’Neill looks them in the eye and asks, ‘do you believe you can be a winner’…”

Securing trophies at Wycombe, Leicester and Celtic, Martin O’Neill knows what it takes to be a champion and surely would not be hanging around if he didn’t believe he could make winners out of Villa. He is an expert at building an imprinted squad to play how he wants – very much like his former employer, Brian Clough. And somewhere out there, Cloughie is sparking up a cigar and watching his protégé emulate his ability to turn middling clubs into champions. Somewhere out there, Cloughie has a smile on his face because of the re-emergence of the underdog.

More importantly though, Aston Villa has a hell of a fighting chance. With 11 games remaining, the ball is very much in our court and although we may have the least populated squad, the least experienced individuals and the least amount of points; the stage is set perfectly for a true underdog story – and crucially, like Rocky had his left hook, Aston Villa have Martin O’Neill.

The underdog has nothing to fear and everything to gain. The underdog dismisses norms and demythologizes his opponents. Deep down, the underdog is never out of the race. The underdog is relentless in the fight, and do you know what? … A puncher always has a chance.

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And the Boys Go MARCHing On

I would say excuse the pun, but I don’t want you to – they’re too good to be ignored! As a matter of fact, I think it’s about time that the world finally embraced the pun.

Anyway, Aston Villa…

Football is a wonderful thing. It really is. I think it was the ineffable David Brent who once said,

“Life is just a series of peaks and troughs. And you don’t know whether you’re in a trough until you’re climbing out, or on a peak until you’re coming down…”

And how perfectly facsimiled was life’s unpredictability in the recent week of Aston Villa.

10 days ago, I was darkness personified. Having had our League Cup dreams crushed at the merciless hands of the champions, I was left picking up the pieces of my heart from the rocky road beneath my feet. But exactly one week after our Wembley disappointment, the Good Lord had answered my prayers and John Carew got his deserved starting berth (albeit at the expense of the wrong forward). And exactly one week after our cup defeat, my unreasonably limitless hope is once again justified (for the meantime at least).

After succumbing to the bludgeons of chance, I only really appreciated the new heights we had reached when we were indeed coming back down. And after fearing for the rest of the season and even worse, expecting a successive cup exit at 2.15pm last Sunday, I can see that we’re climbing back out of the temporary trough we had tripped into and I once again, have my rose tinted glasses on.

Because where an inexperienced side would have wilted, O’Neill’s apparent words of inspiration at half time at the Madejski ensured that our ever-developing crop of talent timely blossomed to slap the face of adversity right out of our path. And where a lesser man (maybe a wiser man) would have huffed, John Carew has continued to put in his vital shift for the team – despite the fact that a player of Emile Heskey’s limited calibre has constantly been named ahead him. What an insult to a man of Carew’s ability. But rather than jump ship, our beloved Norwegian has fed off the crumbs from the table and still proved an integral member of our squad – and more importantly, proved to be a leader of men. Cue Agbonlahor’s illness: Carew hatrick – action!

Back in the 27th of January, we had 4 massive games ahead of us in a 2 week period: Arsenal, Fulham, Spurs, United. At a time when the nation was looking on in anticipation of our wheels coming loose, I had predicted that if we acquired 8 points from those fixtures we would without doubt finish in the top 4. Six points and no defeats later, we emerged unscathed from the potential minefield and ensued to carry on our silent assault on the coveted Champions League spot. Today, I write with a smile on my face in the knowledge that O’Neill has banished his ides of March. No victory in 3 annual attempts in that particular month was oddly ridiculous, and maybe testament to where we were coming up short when it really mattered. Maybe we hadn’t the squad. We were possibly inexperienced before. Perhaps in the past, our team had not yet developed to carry on a full season’s burden into the last crucial 2 months. But after ruthlessly disposing of Reading in another 10 minute blitz (similar to that against Burnley), the boys have shown that they have both mentally and physically matured. Destroying the notion that O’Neill can’t win in March, his players have done so off the back of an extended League Cup run. And with the 3 defensive summer signings proving they are the best in the league (just 21 goals against), maybe, just maybe we have acquired the right ammunition to finish off the battle for the top 4 this year.

Of course, we have been aided with the demise of Liverpool, but it’s about time Stevie G stopped pulling them out of trenches. Unfortunately for the Merseysiders, their decline has come at a high tide for the surrounding clubs who are accumulating more and more points each season. And what is more pleasing is that looking at the remaining fixtures, I actually believe that clinching that last remaining European Cup spot is very much in our hands – and at this stage, very much out of the long serving Champions League residents’ control. An in depth analysis of the top 4 challengers’ run ins would suggest that Villa and City should be favourites to clinch the prize – I just hope that Liverpool’s ‘been there done that’ experience runs out of games to gain sufficient points. My biggest fear is that Man City finish fourth (of course I would absolutely hate to see Harry Redknapp succeed but needs must). I worry that if the blues can gain Champions League qualification, then of course we’ll see an even greater influx of extravagant players and a new, unsurpassable top 4 will emerge (with City replacing Liverpool).

However, today is a good day. I was actually excited about the prospect of taking on Chelsea in the next round of the FA Cup – this Wembley nonsense is getting tedious now! MON will have the Villains set up well and difficult to beat and one thing is for sure, I bet Chelsea did not want to see our name out of the hat to play them. So here’s to a good month of March. And here’s to a top 4 dogfight which is destined to go right to the wire.

How the final fixtures could play out:

  Villa   City   Pool   Spurs  
Points 45   49   48   49  
  Stoke (a) 1 Sun’d (a) 3 Pomp (h) 3 Bburn (h) 3
  Wigan (a) 4 Ful (a) 4 Utd (a) 3 Stoke (a) 4
  Wolv’ (h) 7 Ever’n (h) 7 Sun’d (h) 6 Pomp (h) 7
  Sun’d (h) 10 Wigan (h) 10 Brum (a) 7 Sun’d (a) 10
  Chel (a) 10 Bburn (a) 13 Ful (h) 10 Arsn’l (h) 10
  Bolt (a) 11 Brum (h) 16 West (h) 13 Chel (h) 10
  Ever’n (h) 12 Utd (h) 16 Bburn (a) 16 Utd (a) 10
  Pomp’ (a) 15 Arsn’l (a) 16 Chel (h) 17 Bolt (h) 13
  Brum (h) 18 Villa (h) 17 Hull (a) 20 Bburn (a) 16
  City (a) 19 West (a) 20     City (a) 17
  Bburn (h) 22 Spurs (h) 21        
  Hull (a) 25            
                 
Final Points Total 70   70   68   66  

 

  • The results for each team against the corresponding opposition were considered in a fair, calculated and unbiased manner.
  • Where numbers are added in the column beside each fixture, this is the prediction of points the team will have added to their run in form after each game has been played. (For example, I expect Villa to lose to Chelsea so their points tally remained the same)
  • The accumulated run in points were then added to the team’s current points total (as of 10/03/2010) to estimate their potential total points for the season.
  • Away to City on the 1st May looks like it could be the Champions League spot decider.

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Emile Heskey: Conman Extraordinaire

Is it just me? Surely the managerial nous of Fabio Capello and Martin O’Neill cannot be wrong. Liverpool Football Club doesn’t make bad signings … does it? Michael Owen doesn’t credit any old player as his favourite strike partner. Why is it then, that I can’t see it? Why is it that every time I see that number 18 line up on the centre circle, I know I’m in for a frustrating afternoon’s viewing? Why is it so, that Emile Heskey starts everywhere he goes?

Goal Machine

Emile Heskey … even the sound of his name makes me cringe. I remember sitting as a young fan in the Anfield Road end at Liverpool amongst the passionate home supporters; Aston Villa were in town. Having swapped the tickets outside the ground (we were originally supposed to be seated at the Kop!), I had my claret and blue colours well concealed inside my bomber coat. Watching the game in silence, containing my excitement for the away team attacks (which were few and far between anyway), my allegiances were soon evident when out of nowhere I heard a few spurious chants emerging from the far side of the stadium. Thinking the Pool supporters were singing the name of Emile Heskey, I quickly dismissed this crazy idea and tried to get back to reality. When all of a sudden, the noise got closer and more concise until the whole of Anfield erupted to the sound of “Emile Heskey! (clap clap clap)” – I think the Villa fans would have joined in too considering how laughable it was. And as I sniggered louder and louder, in direct correlation with the volume of the chant, I could see some home fans glancing at me in mystified disappointment. It was as if they didn’t understand what was so funny … maybe they didn’t realise which player they were chanting for. But as their blind ignorance refused to wilt, I remembered that when you play for Liverpool, “of course you’re a good player” – in the eyes of their fans at least. And it was at that moment of unrelenting faith from the Merseysiders that I made a promise with myself that I would never be so unreasonably objective to criticism of my team.

Fast forward 6 years and I’m happy to announce that I have not been bit by the same biased bug. In fact, I might be a bit too fair sometimes (if that is possible). Fast forward 6 years, and I most certainly am not singing the name of Emile Heskey, regardless if he plays for my team or not. Not to say that I didn’t give old ‘Hess’ a chance either. When we were first lining him up as a transfer target, I thought “brilliant”. I wasn’t shouting it from the rooftops and jumping with joy but I at least thought he would make a competent replacement for Carew. He was holding the ball up well at Wigan and had secured a starting spot on the national side – on top of this, we were struggling for depth up front (and considering Heskey’s form, we still are). Never in my wildest nightmares though, did I think he would ever be keeping our treasured Norwegian out of the team and getting away with game after game of uninspiring, apathetic performances.

Admittedly, when the ball is played right into Emile’s chest, he can (most of the time) demonstrate a great first touch and has the strength to hold any defender in the world off. But then what happens? When he does the hard work and gets the ball under control for us in opposition territory, he is more than happy to roll the ball back to the same player who passed it, time after time. However, as a pure hold up player, Heskey is probably technically better than Carew – but how often is the ball played right to his chest? And that aside, how frequent is the art of holding the ball up used in a game? For 5 seconds every 5 minutes maybe (probably generous). The rest of his game (and I mean the REST of his game), leaves an awful lot to be desired. Yes, he tracks back. But he tracks back so slowly and sluggishly that it’s the only time in football you can be annoyed at a player for working hard. And when he eventually does get back (and sometimes makes himself useful), he strolls back up the pitch in such a lethargic manner which suggests he doesn’t really want to be there in the first place. Some hold up player who can’t even get up front.

When I say that the rest of his game isn’t good enough, it would be pretty easy to decipher his appalling strike rate. When, as a forward, your first shot on goal for the season comes on the 21st November, something isn’t going right. Heskey is content standing with his back to goal and playing the ball back to where it came from. Watching the League Cup final on Sunday, I’ve never been more frustrated. Our 6’2 “hitman” (that’s Heskey by the way) spent the whole match either: a) lying on the ground having been bundled over by players 2 stone lighter b) standing in an offside position, making himself unavailable as an attacking option for our midfielders to use c) walking out of our right back area, before strolling back in. Honestly tell me, does anyone remember Emile playing in that cup FINAL? One time he deflected the ball off the back of Vidic, but I bet very few people can point to even one telling involvement the England international had on our biggest game in 10 years. This is the player Capello has chosen to lead the line for one of the World Cup favourites; yet, once again, in our hour of need: Emile Heskey was nonexistent.

Shall I go on? After his decent 14 goal season with Liverpool, Heskey has transformed himself into a striker who can guarantee managers one goal in every seven games. And that isn’t through any wrongdoing that he was injured or suffered a dip in form; but more in the fact that his last 3 individual seasons have each represented a consistent pattern of 1 goal in 7 games.

–         07/08: 28 appearances, 4 goals

–         08/09: 34 appearances, 5 goals

–         09/10: 21 appearances, 3 goals (Richard Dunne: 3 goals)

Even worse statistics have shown up in seasons gone by, but this is the form of consistency which the goal machine has developed. Furthermore, his questionable spot on the England side (which seems bizarrely set in stone) has only brought a return of 7 goals in 57 games (Yes, that is actually one goal in EIGHT games). But more importantly, only 3 of these goals have been scored in competitive fixtures – and these fixtures have all ended in a minimum winning margin of three goals for England. Compare this to our best forward, who has been frozen out for no known reason. John Carew has featured in 105 games for the Villains (most of which this season have included 20 minute run outs at most) and delivered 36 goals. Not prolific by any means, but at least the lap dancing fan is sure to provide a goal in under 3 games for us, compared to Heskey’s 7 goals in 42 appearances (okay okay – that’s a strike rate of 1 out of 6 in all competitions), meaning our number 10 is scoring goals more than twice as fast as big Emile.

“Yes but Heskey is a selfless player who brings other players into the game…” I think it’s about time we dispelled this myth as massively inaccurate. Whoever thought it up in the first place, I don’t know. Heskey does bring other players into the game, and probably passes more than most forwards – only because he doesn’t want the ball himself. If we were to call a spade a spade, Emile Heskey hides on the football pitch and has demonstrated a chronic case of avoidance motivation. How long is it until his useless playing safe is called for what it really is. Shirking responsibility and bottling decisions, Heskey is nothing less than a nuisance for us up front who is only slowing down our otherwise lightning and exciting attack. I don’t mind if players lose the ball – as long as they try to make something happen. And with 1 assist to boast this season, and 3 assists each in the two previous seasons, the goalless forward is devoid of making absolutely anything happen and surely the notion that he compliments other forwards can now be put to bed for good. In fact, the year his “dream partner” Michael Owen nothched up a goal tally of 19, Emile Heskey was only credited for 6 goal assists that year (his highest league tally ever) and how many of those were involved with Owen’s goals, I don’t know.

Statistically, Emile Heskey is a poor acquisition. With an ineffectual ability to directly set up goals, and a goal record which makes me wonder if we would be better off with Stefan Moore (banging in 22 goals in 27 games for Halesowen Town!), Heskey is unquestionably a player at the wrong side of an already tiny hill.

Subjectively, Emile Heskey is a poor acquisition and it is extremely difficult to see what he brings to our team over the course of 90 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope this isn’t seen as a personal attack on the lad – he actually seems like a lovely fella! But when it comes to successful football management, all empathy must definitely be thrown out the window. O’Neill demonstrated this ruthless desire to succeed by admirably selecting Friedel over Brad Jr in the Carling Cup Final. It’s about time Heskey’s card is marked now too. It’s about time we started taking our Champions League ambitions seriously, and it’s about time that big, bad John Carew is recalled to the starting line up to do so.

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The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

Monday mornings are generally the worst time of the week for Villa fans of the past 10 years. You might wake up to a beautiful sunrise, a cool aired freshness and maybe even some chirping birds – but the memory of the weekend’s events is always only a few seconds away, reminding you that today’s morning light is nothing more than just another false dawn.

Aston Villa has often been referred to as “the sleeping giant”. As the 4th most successful English club, a coveted fan base and a proud history; supporting the Midlands leaders would seem to have its perks, but certainly not to a 21st century teenager. Because as “giant” a past the Villains might have had, there seems to be absolutely no waking the promised beast; who at this stage, must surely have fallen into a deep, deep coma.

Born in 1988, I thought I might have uncovered a hidden gem in Aston Villa. Consistent top 4 finishes and a realistic appetite for success actually made it easy to stick by the claret and blues. But when your trophy mission dries up with an apathetic FA Cup final defeat at the turn of the millennium, it’s hard to sustain those brief feelings of 90s glory when your last cherished football memory was as an 11 year old boy.

So why is defeat so hard to take this time round? After the Ron Atkinson era, the thriving Brian Little performances and even John Gregory’s majestic top of the table gate crashes, Aston Villa has offered zero hope. The dark Graham Taylor years were epitomised by his smirking interviews as if he hadn’t realised what he had let Villa become. As one of only 7 clubs to secure Premier League status every year since its inception, it was unnacceptable that we became relegation battlers. David O’Leary … didn’t he con us into thinking we could at least start to hope once more? But with his fledgling on and off pitch antics, we saw an increase in his cry for money. Maybe he could have turned us into the next Leeds. The point being that the noughties have offered Villa fans absolutely nothing to get excited about, that being until the magic of Martin O’Neill came along.

When, in 3 years, you can go from 16th place to top 4 challengers – it’s hard not to get carried away, isn’t it? Not only this, O’Neill has brought consistency to Villa’s form in that we are still banging down the Champions League door one year later.

So we have reached Wembley for the first time in 10 years and surely nothing can stop us claiming that all important first trophy. The crowd invasion onto the pitch at Villa Park after the Blackburn victory suggested that something big was happening. The annihilation of Burnley and the FA Cup victory proved we were coming of age. O’Neill was piecing together the first part of his football dynasty. He even wore a suit for the final! With our constant improvement, and my “gut feeling” – how could anyone stand in the way of our first major honour in 14 years?

Unfortunately, Manchester United were in our way. And even more unfortunately, winning trophies is what they do. My first incline was to once again question the selection of Emile Heskey (that’s a story for a whole different blog) and the omission of Luke Young. It isn’t Cuellar’s fault but he doesn’t offer anything on the right – anything at all. Yet again, with the best defensive record this season, maybe his inclusion is merited. Secondly, I thought if justice had been served, then I would not be picking holes in players’ performances. Of course Vidic should have gone and on top of this, Evra’s second late challenge on Ashley Young went unpunished. I’m not arguing that Villa were not outplayed by United, in fact they were dominated for the last 60 minutes. But the fact is, that 2 of our players (Gabby and Ashley) were good enough to make 2 Manchester United players commit to challenges which should have seen them both sent off. Instead, we were not rewarded.

No Card?

Sour grapes aside, the biggest disappointment of the Carling Cup was that we couldn’t step up a gear when we needed to. Looking around for inspiration, I had an empty feeling inside in that I couldn’t see where the game changing pass would come from. Milner and Petrov competed excellently throughout, but when the going got tough, United got passing and we were chasing shadows instead of chasing the game. Having experienced the build up, the hype, the hope; and having gone one up in 5 minutes, could I not be forgiven for dreaming? Did it not just seem like the glory days were coming back to their rightful place?

But after watching the Reds once again do what they needed to do in ruthless fashion, and seeing them celebrate as enthusiastically as they have done with Ferguson’s 25 other cups, my probably premature expectations came crashing down to earth with an almighty thump – and I had this sickening reminder that I am an Aston Villa fan. 

I hadn’t learned from the last 12 years of let downs, but my fingers are most certainly burnt once more. With my Villa scarf on, I am now fearing for the rest of the season and praying that it isn’t all one big waste of effort.

But as I look into O’Neill’s hungry eyes, nothing is pointless. When I hear him speak I’m even more convinced than ever that we have merely hit a steep speed bump on the long winding road to glory. This is why I’m happy to let the Ulster man lead me once more down the garden path into the dangerous depths of hope. And I hope that soon I can allow myself to vulnerably expect from the Villains again. I hope that when that day comes back around, I can forget about the hurt of the past … even for a brief moment. Aren’t MON’s unspoken promises much better than our past managers’ white flags? Maybe we are just the great pretenders, and sometimes I envy United fans. Wouldn’t life be easier to follow the mighty Reds?

But when I find myself distrusting the promises of hope, I remember,

“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

And when the first piece of silverware comes back to Bodymoor Heath, the first piece of O’Neill’s dynasty; I’d like to think that it will all be worth it. Until that day, I will hope. And until that day, I’ll absorb the magic on the peaks of our Villa rollercoaster and embrace the wakened dream that has dragged us back from the plunges of the league. And until that day, I’ll keep believing that sometimes, the beauty is in the attempt.

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