Monthly Archives: April 2010

“Rafael Benitez Has Performed Well in the Transfer Market”

 
 
 

Fan Favourite, Benitez

This post derived from a discussion I had with a friend of mine who, for his sins, is a rampant Liverpool supporter. It is the first of a weekly feature where I will be analyzing matters outside of Aston Villa (hopefully in a way which will reflect well on us!). As we debated long and hard into the night about all-things-Scouse, one thing he said, I will never forget, stuck on my mind: I couldn’t let it go and I certainly could not NOT scrutinize it, “Rafael Benitez has performed well in the transfer market”. This is my response…

If by “well” you actually mean “disgracefully”.

I remember one of your fellow Reds saying something just as embarrassing in 1995, “you’ll never win anything with kids”. To say Rafael Benitez has performed well in the transfer market is surely as controversially flawed and it should never be lived down.

And because Benitez loves his facts, let’s then have a look at the facts:

  • Rafael Benitez’ net expenditure at Liverpool after the summer transfer market in 2009 was a whopping £95.8 million … FACT
  • Each year, the Spanish jester has had £19.16m available to spend on wasted transfers – the same price Martin O’Neill acquired both Ashley Young and James Milner for … FACT
  • Of Benitez’ first 21 signings, only three have survived to this very day … FACT
  • After the Steven Gerrard-inspired Istanbul comeback, Benitez proclaimed, “We’re putting Gerrard on a special weights programme for his shoulders because we are planning on him lifting loads of trophies” – Five seasons and one FA Cup later, the Madrid born manager is therefore a self-proclaimed failure … FACT

Before I continue deciphering the appalling performance of Benitez in both the transfer market and in his general feats, I think it’s important that I make it clear that I am an Aston Villa fan and have no bias whatsoever against the Liverpool club or any of their staff. What I do have partiality with, is when someone takes over a giant club performing consistently at a high standard, and serves only to bring mediocrity and disrepute to its proud reputation. Not only this, but the underperforming gaffer seems immune to any form of criticism about any angle of his policies and results by all Scouse fans.

When Benitez (I refuse to call him “Rafa” – he doesn’t deserve to be recognised with a single first name) first took over the helm at Anfield in the 2004-05 season, I forgave his somewhat questionable first signings. An influx of Spanish strangers spelled danger ahead for the mighty reds, but I defended the manager – understanding that these were the players he trusted and was familiar with. Despite the fact that his first crack at the transfer market demonstrated nothing but the ability to find unexciting foreigners with little potential and zero use, the Champions League victory allowed very glamorous wallpaper to be applied over the all too apparent cracks.

On top of this, having inherited a competent first XI, passed on by the mercurial Gerard Houliér (who didn’t get the chance to play his big money signing, Cisse), Benitez won trophies before he was allowed to fully put his stamp on the team. In FACT, out of the 14 players used in Istanbul, just two of them were recruited by Benitez himself. Can I deny how well he set them up to get as far they did? Definitely not. But does this make a case that his transfer dealings are sub standard? Most certainly.

The obvious pitch based results over the past 6 seasons have also suggested a consistent failure to understand the English Premier League (a competition which the Merseyside faithful so desperately want to conquer, and one which they so richly deserve). With the exception of last season, Liverpool have remained an uninspired, unenthusiastic threat who promised zilch signs of an assault on the coveted domestic prize. Moreover, even their 2nd place finish was marred with apathetic results which suggested that they never really were title contenders in the first place. Rafa Benitez’s uber defensive style proved, in the end, a two-edged sword. With an eventual improvement in their dreadful away form of previous seasons, Liverpool failed to capitalise with their negative approach destroying any chance of turning teams over in front of a hair-raising Kop. 7 tied games on Anfield Road showed the ineffectiveness of the system when they came up against teams who were equally as prepared to protect their goal. Indeed it was only towards the tail end of the season when Liverpool opened up did they make use of having the 2 best players in the world and dismantled opponents with ruthless massacres. However, it proved too little too late and for this, I hold the manager responsible.

In 2010, the 5 time European Champions sit seventh in the Barclays Premier League, eliminated in the Champions League group stages, not even a League Cup challenge to boast and tripped up in the FA Cup 3rd Round. For this too, I hold the manager responsible. In your sixth season, you have had more than enough time to imprint your stamp on your team. In your sixth season, you have had adequate time to develop an understanding of the competitions in which you are performing. After 96 million, you have had more than enough pounds to improve an inherited gold mine. After 96 million, you have had more than enough pounds to cope with injuries in the squad you have voluntarily built.

This is why I grind my teeth together when I hear complaints aimed at the American owners. It is because of their inadequacies that Benitez is devoid of censure. The “facts” are simply that the Spaniard took over a vibrant club with a solid base of capable players and has had almost £100 million to spend how he wished. Instead of complaining about “Rafa not having enough funds”, maybe Reds fans should be complaining about the waste of £7m hastily dished out to obtain the limited services of Andrea Dossenna (was Babel around £9m?). Maybe Scousers should bemoan the money spent to turn Dirk Kuyt into a glorified right back. Maybe Liverpool supporters should instead bemuse the fact that Benitez has had to sell on the majority of his signings, not because of the board, but because of his failure to find the right players in the first place. The fans explain that the teams of the past were blessed with dead wood such as Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Vladimir Smicer: Six years later, are they really much better off with the likes of Insua, Lucas or El Zhar?

Ryan "Rio" Babel could be better focusing on his rapping career

Or am I being too harsh? After all, it was Benitez who brought Fernando Torres to the Premier League: and for this, I am eternally thankful. It was Benitez who resurrected the West Ham reject, Mascherano’s career in monstrous proportions. He found Daniel Agger and no doubt a top class Goalkeeper. Although, despite his obvious effect, I think he paid over the odds for Glen Johnson – but such is today’s market and the inflation of English players. And Liverpool are still involved in a Europa League challenge (a competition which even little old Aston Villa undermined in two successive years by fielding weakened sides).

But it is because of this super-strong spine that I feel I have to question the manager’s further judgement. Liverpool consistently spend the 5th most amount of money on transfers (behind City, Spurs, Utd and Chelsea). Arsenal are probably nowhere near that list. I dare to think what Martin O’Neill and David Moyes could do with £100m to spend on a team that already boasted the likes of Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamaan and Steven Gerrard – a squad which Benitez, to his credit, proved could be champions of Europe. Yes, he has had to reluctantly sell on players in certain cases to increase the transfer kitty, but the disappearance into oblivion of the extremely vast majority of his signings is testament to the unforgiveable contemplation that they were good enough for Liverpool in the first place. And speaking to obstinate Reds fans on Merseyside, the rest of the players he has had to bring in are apparently “good players”. Liverpool fans will relentlessly defend the likes of current squad members Kyrgiakos, Skrtel, Insua, Lucas, Kuyt, Babel, N’Gog et al. And that’s okay, that’s their opinion (they are wrong but whatever…). But it’s not a question of whether these players are good or not: for argument’s sake, I’ll side with the Pool fans and say that they are good. Therefore, with apparently 15 “quality” squad players, what is the problem!? How can Liverpool underperform if they are blessed with such talent? The answer is simple:, either these players are not all they are made out to be, or Benitez is doing a poor job away from the transfer market. (And I don’t believe the latter. How can I? He got such a poor squad to second in the league last year!)

So I beg to be answered: What has happened to the great “Rafalution”? Somewhere in their stubbornness, Liverpool fans have forgotten all that they stood for and even all that they were promised. Not because of members in the board room, but because their manager has spent the guts of a century of cash on players who would never in the wildest of dreams have taken the club forward. Is Liverpool Football Club really better off with Rafa Benitez? When I look at their squad right now, I can think of 96 million reasons why they are not.

However, speaking as a non-Liverpool fan: long live the king. I hope that the embarrassing portrait on the flag entitled “In Rafa We Trust” keeps flying high at Anfield. Because as long as Benitez is in charge, Aston Villa are catching up.

Rafa’s Duds

Carson

Josemi     Kyrgiakos     Skrtel     Dossena

Lucas     Sissoko

Antonio Nunez      Voronin       Ryan Babel

Morientes

Subs: Itandje, Degan, Plessis, Gonzalez, Pennant, El Zhar, Fowler

Note: For the purposes of the above team, I had to limit my options of Benitez’ bad signings to just 18 players!

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COLE Lot of Gossip

I’m worried…

Matured? Not enough

Once again it is only Chinese whispers, but I must admit that the increasing transfer speculation of a potential ‘Carlton Cole to Villa’ transaction is now certainly getting the better of me. Is Cole a decent player? I suppose he is. Has he improved since his uninspiring loan spell at the Villains 5 years ago? Of course he has. Is he top 5 material? Absolutely not. 

Because when Cole left Villa in the Summer of 2005, he went about trying to improve on his one goal in nine games form that he treated the club with – and no doubt, he has turned himself into an effective front man since then – unfortunately for him though, in the time it has taken him to be considered a serious Premier League footballer, Aston Villa Football Club have improved twice as quickly. Maybe if we were still languishing in the apathetic mid-table region of the Cole era (or at 16th place the year to follow), the England hopeful would be welcomed back. But after restoring Midlands pride, after resurrecting Villa hope, after consistent top 6 finishes and after creating Champions League and Cup visionaries out of us, it would be an insult to the hard work, the diligent progress and to the dreams of tomorrow if we were to acquire the limited services of an overpriced Carlton Cole.

Not good enough

And I’ll tell you why…

Yes, Carlton Cole is a decent striker who is probably every bit as competent as Emile Heskey. Having flirted with the England set up, the 6’ 3” West Ham man demonstrated that his strong target man abilities, his powerful dynamic running and a good first touch can be made useful. And after a rich vein of early season form, Cole took all the plaudits and was lauded as the Hammers’ main man.

But is 9 goals this league campaign really anything to get excited about? Or is Cole’s 3 assists this whole season something to boast? For a self-professed selfless player, I don’t think his “team contribution” is all that hot. Although, the Croydon born player suggested, “[setting up goals] was what I was known for. That was my thing…” However, if you ask me, West Ham’s ‘asset’ isn’t as constructive as he’d like to think.

He explains how he is a “team player”, but out of West Ham’s 44 goals this year, Carlton Cole has only contributed to 27% of them. 27% isn’t that bad a statistic but this reality should surely undermine the notion that Cole is being held back by West Ham’s lack of success. He hasn’t been carrying the East London outfit by any means. Because if he was in fact a big fish in a small pond, surely his return would be much greater than this.

Admittedly, Carlton was injured and missed 9 of West Ham’s league games and some have suggested (himself included) that he is still trying to get back to fitness. But since his return, Cole has played 13 games and pitched in with just 2 goals. I’m sorry, I know I’m not a Sport Scientist (yet), but I believe that 13 games is more than enough time to regain any temporary loss in sharpness and 13 games in a would-be-World Cup forward’s career should produce better results than 2 goals and 1 assist. And even before his injury, West Ham’s first 14 games showed an “in-form” Carlton Cole take responsibility for just 8 goals. That’s almost a goal involvement tally of just one in every 160 minutes. And this at the height of his playing career to date. Even the pitiable David N’gog can put this stat to shame.

So Villa are already blessed with equally as average centre forwards like Emile Heskey and I have been calling for the signing of Kevin Doyle in his place. These names aren’t exactly capable of overshadowing Carlton Cole, but Doyle has been directly involved in 31% (4 more than Cole) of his team’s league goals this season and on top of that, the Irish man has lead the line superbly well for the newly promoted outfit all on his own every week, without fail. And maybe I should mention the fact that having been signed in the region of £6m just nine months ago, Doyle represents much, much better value for money than West Ham’s over-inflated valuation of £12m for their England darling (who is also the same age as Doyler).

Better Option

If we were going to credit someone with the same price-tag as Young Player of the Year, James Milner, it should unquestionably be someone worthwhile – and certainly not a forward whose highest ever scoring performance for a season stands humbly at 10 goals. When I look at Carlton Cole playing, I sometimes think he can do certain things well (but not to the standard that some media reports would suggest). And of course when I analyze his asking price in comparison with his stats, I’m overcome with nothing but sheer bemusement.

Conversely, if you roll your eyes up just one position in the Premier League table, you will find another small pond, Wigan Athletic. And in it, you will find a much bigger, much more worthwhile fish in the shape of one, Hugo Rodallega. At 24, the Columbian is not only subjectively a fantastic footballer and easily looks like an actual “main man” at the DW, his statistical performances show up any concept of buying Carlton Cole as ludicrous and baffling.

With the same amount of goals as the English forward (9), Rodallega has also contributed a highly impressive 8 direct assists in a team with a considerably lower ‘goals for’ tally. And with a key role to play in a staggering 48.5% of their goals this season, Wigan are almost solely indebted to the contribution of Rodallega for their survival.

Moreover, feeding off consistent assists from Mark Noble, Diamanti, Julian Faubert and Jack Collison, you would think Carlton Cole was better equipped to notch up greater scores on the stats board than his fellow relegation battlers. But the fact is that Rodallega, armed with no player as highly ranked as the mentioned Hammers, has dwarfed Cole’s performance (and done it on his own), and hopefully has dwarfed any notion that Cole would be a good signing for Villa this year.

Rodallega: 9 Goals, 8 Assists

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Birmingham City FC: No Class; No Grace; No Hope

Okay, so they had their chances…

16 goal attempts, 14 on target, for an away team is an impressive feat and would generally suggest that the home side dropped all 3 points. But guess what… it means nothing. Because as surely as we “deserved” to beat Sunderland 6 games ago, Brummie may have “deserved” to receive at least a point from the weekend’s heated Second City Derby – but in sport: you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you take.

And as Villa ruthlessly put their rivals to the sword, in the same fashion as the “bigger” teams punish those who don’t capitalise every week, I make no apologies for the Claret side of Birmingham having enough backbone, enough resilience and enough fight to withstand the considerable Blues pressure and having enough sack to ante-up again to keep our Champions League scrap alive.

On the 29th March, in the aftermath of that Stamford Bridge result, I called on the players to “Never Die Easy”. If an opponent was to overcome you, then they should earn your death. And as we refused to be rolled over this time round, as we refused to go down without a fight, Birmingham refused to go to that extra mile, they refused to go to the edge with us. Consequently, they did not earn, they did not “deserve” our blood.

Shameless Inaccuracies

This is why I haven’t stopped cringing at the embarrassing outbursts of Alex McLeish and Roger Johnson in the aftermath of their defeat. Having failed to turn chances into goals, the Brummies wanted 3 points handed on a plate for them and after being punished for a clumsy, clumsy challenge on Agbonlahor in the box, Birmingham left without a point and without dignity as Alex McLeish winced, “It’s not fair…”

Clumsy

The decision regarding the penalty was a disgrace…” cried RJ, the guilty defendant. It may seem hypocritical of a Villa fan to slam other penalty pleas so soon after our Cup bemusements; but then, we had 100% assurance of both our claims and now, we’re still in the right. Because as the Brummie back targeted the experienced Atkinson and said that “the game was too big for him”, he unashamedly covered up his own frailties by incorrectly and unfairly slamming the game changing decision ‘a disgrace’. Despite the centre back getting a nick on the ball with the side of his foot (a very, very lucky nick because he had clearly mistimed his tackle), Agbonlahor was still en route to goal before being swiped to the ground by the clueless Johnson. The ball takes a faint deflection after the defender’s fortunate contact, but even so, Gabby is still in for a goalscoring opportunity but for the ridiculously late challenge to follow. So instead of arguing over was it or was it not a penalty, why aren’t we disputing the fact that Johnson stayed on the field of play after denying Agbonlahor a fourth goal in as many Birmingham derbies?

What was also disappointing was some of the crunching challenges from our former Villains (Gardner and Ridgewell), but I suppose they have firmly switched allegiances so why expect any loyalties? Another baffling occurence was how Gregory Vignal managed to stay on the pitch for 75 minutes before being subbed off instead of sent off for any of his 4 yellow card-worthy fouls. And lest we forget about my country man’s (Stephen Carr) thuggish, provocative taunts to the victorious home fans; demonstrating a complete disregard to not only the laws of the game, but to any self respect he had left in him. But the most pleasing aspect of this was, instead of worrying about the referee’s performance, instead of lowering ourselves to the guttering levels of the Brum-scum, we went about creating our own luck and shaping our own destiny to secure all 3 points.

Goalkeeping Importance

When your backs are against the wall, when you’re on the ropes, it’s always a divine saving grace when you have a trustworthy number 1 as your last line of defence. Paul Tomkins, a Liverpool blogger, researched how the goalkeeper may have the key position on a football pitch (http://tomkinstimes.com/2010/04/the-key-position/). And analyzing Sunday’s match, who could argue? Because not only did Friedel prevent us losing to our fiercest enemies, but he kept us in the game and created the platform from which we climbed to victory and to possible 4th place stardom. His clean sheet was only his 15th of the league campaign – one behind Reina’s impressive 16 – and with an uninspiring ‘goals for’ tally, Villa’s fantastic league form may well and truly be indebted to the immovable experience of Brad Friedel.

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man

Brum Worry

What is most alarming about Birmingham’s undignified and unfounded yelps of desperation is that their ambition is clearly limited. With wealthy owners and a fantastic league record as a newly-promoted outfit, their only aim still seems to be a desire to get one over their local rivals. I can confidently maintain that a successful season for The Clowns would be to take 4 points from their Second City matches, whereas we are thankfully concerned with bigger and more important matters.

Because as we realize that there are more than 2 fixtures in a season, the inferiority complex across the city is unfortunately hindering their development and their short-sided, unimaginative objectives mean that Birmingham Football Club will always be living in the shadow of Aston Villa. As every season passes, Aston Villa look more and more likely to break the mould of the elitest Premier League – but judging from Alex McLeish and Roger Johnson’s extensive and controversial take on Sunday’s game, Birmingham have no hope (and no expectation) of breaking into the exceptionally strong Premier League top 8 (which consists of the current top 8). What is more is that in 23 meetings, McLeish has only got the better of O’Neill 3 times compared to the Northern Ireland man’s 15 victories and after recording a record 5th successive Birmingham derby win, the Blue-noses look doomed to failure in even their smallest dreams.

They could have walked proudly out of Villa Park with their heads held high. After outplaying their rivals, they could have put it down to a bit of bad luck, but instead they decided to kick and scream like a petulant child who won’t leave the toy shop until he gets what he wants. Instead, they showed us their hand, they showed us their only desire all along was to knock Villa off their perch and having failed to do so, what was once labelled a highly impressive season is now immaterial and all the 2 whingers have served to do is remind Villains that we have once again put them in their place.

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My Favourite Second City Derby

I’ve recently become Twitter buddies … with a Brummie girl. Turns out she’s alright for a Birmingham supporter (it’s like a 21st century Romeo and Juliet – for the digital age). I’ve been following her blog and despite her gender and allegiances, she’s a surprisingly decent writer! Anyway, she asked me to write as a guest for her site on my favourite recent derby match; and with another 3 points in the bag last night, I turned my attention to the small matter of Aston Villa v Birmingham on Sunday, and some of the heated clashes through the years – below is my entry which will posted on her Brummie blog today.

When asked to write a guest blog on my favourite recent derby match, I automatically began scanning the archives of my brain for all the classic Villa-West Brom encounters. It is well documented that The Albion pose the biggest threat to Villa’s Black Country dominance so when I realised I had to discuss a Villa-Birmingham clash, I had to scratch my head and think long and hard to recall such an irrelevant fixture in the Aston Villa calendar.

16/04/2006 

Aston Villa 3 – 1 Birmingham City

David O’Leary’s 3rd year in charge of Aston Villa was somewhat of an apathetic affair. Having had a gallant fight for Europe come up agonisingly short in his first season in charge, the Irish man ultimately contributed to the eventual downfall of the biggest club in the Midlands (that’s Villa by the way!). After scraping a miserly two more points than the Blues the previous season, a humiliating 4-0 drubbing at Upton Park in just the 5th game of the new campaign set the tone for DOL’s final spell – as the Villains stumbled out of the blocks with just 9 points from their opening 12 games.

Fast forward to the 5th last match and the two Birmingham clubs were still rubbing shoulders; but this time, found themselves in the heat of a very real relegation battle. 

Derby-day Sunday somehow never fails to produce a high, glorious sunshine; but with the Brummies lingering above relegation, desperately hanging on to our flailing coattails, an away victory at Villa Park would promise nothing more than eternal darkness over the plains of Bodymoor Heath (at least for a year anyway).

With an abysmal attendance record all year at Villa Park, over 40’000 people (for just the second time) made their way to Trinity Road to witness the home side secure all 6 possible points in the second city derby. But I was less optimistic.

With the team sheets in front of me (and a disastrous season behind), I had this sinking feeling of defeat prior to kick off (similar to what Blue-noses must feel every Saturday).  I looked at the partnership of Nicky Butt and our transfer target David Dunn and dabbled on the idea of having them instead of McCann and Davis. I then feared for the ridiculously inexperienced centre back pairing of Liam Ridgewell and previous week debutant, Gary Cahill coming up against the international standard Heskey and Sutton and I concluded that we were in trouble; big trouble.

Birmingham had put together an admirable revival and had lifted themselves out of the bottom three. I was frightened of this game. But then again, O’Leary had majestically guided Villa on a fantastic FA Cup journey, only to be dumped out in the 5th round. And lest we forget that we had won 4 of our 15 home games prior to that derby… and I was worrying there for a second!

The lunchtime kick off started frantically (and I don’t recall it ever slowing up). It was honest, end to end action, with the atmosphere spurring the players to take a giant step up from rest of the season’s performances. I remember analyzing the game and thinking that Villa were having endless joy down the right wing, with loanee Milner and Aaron Hughes in devastating form. And in the 10th minute, that right side attacking paid early dividends with a squared ball slotted to the net by the erratic Milan Baros. It was more a rush of relief than delight as we looked to be steering clear of the red.

But then, once we went a goal to the good, we were already looking for the final whistle. And although the pace of the game didn’t drop, our defensive line certainly did and we were pinned in our half, stalled in the headlights of one way, oncoming traffic.

And despite conceding an early equaliser at the hands of soon-to-be Villa forward, Chris Sutton, we struggled to get ourselves back in contention and I was certainly one fan who was happy to see half time.

Fortunately, Villa came back out punching in the second half in what promised to be yet another electrifying 45 minutes. Young Cahill had already proved he could do a solid job for the team at the back but what he was about to do 10 minutes into the new half will forever be remembered in Aston Villa folklore. An inswinging corner was poorly cleared and the new-boy turned his back to goal before lifting his hole body parallel with the ground, 6ft in the air, to spectacularly bring the ball back towards goal with an acrobatic scissor kick that he couldn’t execute if he tried 99 more times. Villa Park was bouncing.

Magic

For the next 20 minutes, we retreated once more. I don’t think the crowd cared because of the scenes that had preceded; but within this quarter of the game, Birmingham were banging down the Villa defensive wall. However, rather fittingly, now at the foundation of this barricade was 20 year old Gary Cahill who looked like he had been playing Premier League football for 10 years (not 2 appearances). The Brum attack huffed and puffed but Cahill was there time and time again to ensure the Villa back line showed nothing but relentless contempt to their rivals’ attempts to take points in front of the Doug Ellis Stand. And with 13 minutes remaining, a Milner-Baros breakaway ensured the Villains would stride home to victory in a cracking derby clash. More importantly though, the 3 points gained would take us clear of the drop zone, secure a 100% record over our rivals and condemn the Brum-scum to eventual relegation.

They say that you can’t write this stuff. Archrivals, local enemies competing in a fight to stay up, a fight to survive. A 20 year old central defender making his second ever start, standing tall and suffocating his adversary’s assaults; scoring not just his first ever goal, but the goal which crucially broke the deadlock, the goal of his career, the best finish I’ve ever seen at Villa Park; and scoring the goal which ultimately secured Aston Villa Premier League status, and the goal which condemned the blue half of Birmingham to deplorable demotion. They say that you can’t write this stuff, but I disagree. This stuff is too easy to write, it is the stuff of fairytale. The difference is, when I read a fairytale, I don’t believe it.

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Why Milner Should Stay

I didn’t want it to come to this. I hoped it wouldn’t be an issue. I hoped it was just customary end of season suggestions (maybe it is). But the murmurs of Milner’s departure, whilst not exactly spreading like wildfire, are all too apparent in the customary transfer talk and gossip columns and unfortunately, I couldn’t ignore the growing situation and felt as if I should put forth a defence as to why Aston Villa is the right club for Jamesy.

Seeing Red?

Of course, there would be SOME positives of the potential sale of Milner to United – but even more obviously, these positives would be minimal.

If sold, we know O’Neill won’t back down and our England international would only be offloaded at the right price. Moreover, MON’s inflexible handling of the ‘Barry to Liverpool’ situation should work in his favour and bigger teams have now been warned that Villa is not a selling club. Therefore a healthy transfer sum (which should vastly exceed the £18m forked out by Man U for the capture of Carrick and Anderson) for the sale of Milly could be used by our astute manager to further uncover hidden gems elsewhere and to add essential depth to a lightweight squad. Additionally, a move to the champions is just rewards for the future England captain’s (that’s Milner by the way!) tireless endeavour and not to mention, top-class talent.

But surely an ever-improving Aston Villa side has enough lure to help blossom its developing crop, without the tempting green grass on the other side of the M6.

Critically though, if Milner was to secure a switch to the red half of Manchester, it would undermine everything O’Neill has been working towards and prove that the task of taking Villa to the top is an impossible undertaking. It would suggest that every time we put a team together, our best players can be pinched at the drop of a hat and therefore the elitist divide of “big clubs” and “small clubs” will always exist and can never be penetrated.

However, if the number 8 stayed put, it would set an example to the rest of our stars and help with the push to elite status. So why should he stay?

Martin O’Neill:

One of the best managers in the world. MON has not just helped Milner, but a number of other Villains, propel themselves to international level and after putting together a squad of World Cup hopefuls, Fabio Capello confirmed that “Villa are key to my England”. Therefore James’ national aspirations are surely not hindered by playing for Villa. O’Neill is also responsible for the flourishing form Milner has produced this last two years (form which has been a cut above the rest of his career) and is indebted for giving the former Leeds man his break in the centre. To jump a ship so steadily steered by Martin O’Neill, at this stage in a player’s development, would surely be absurd – especially when considering the desired destination of O’Neill’s journey.

The Youth Club:

Aston Villa are an exciting, young outfit with several potential world beaters.

Stewart Downing, the oldest of O’Neill’s offspring at 26, is improving each game he plays since his long layout and is gradually reaching the level which once made him England’s number one left sided prospect. Awaiting his peak, it is thrilling to know that his best days will be in an Aston Villa shirt.

Curtis Davies – 25. Missed out this year with an unfortunate shoulder injury, the former West Brom player demonstrated he is our best defender with classy early season performances and with England’s obvious interest in his younger days, we may just have the next Rio Ferdinand at the club.

Ashley Young – 24. I think the name speaks for itself. Suffered slightly from his sky high standards at the start of the season, the current PFA Young Player of the Year is already a deadly attacker and would be a valuable addition to any squad in the world. Voted the best left winger in the Premier League in the past 2 years, it is frightening to think what a 27 year old Young could produce.

Partners in Crime

Gabriel Agbonlahor – 23. Each year, we see the local lad get better and better. Strong and bullish (with a bit of pace too), Gabby has also added a more clinical side to his attacking. Of course his finishing could improve, but as his goal tallies get better each year and as the team’s reliance on him gets greater, Villa’s ‘out-man’ is sure to be an England star of the future.

And with Milner himself just a 24 year old, bunched in with a steady influx of the younger promises in Delph, Albrighton and Delfouneso, the prospects of the top 6 club we have created look nothing but optimistic. If we can keep these ever improving players, and attract higher quality, primed footballers then we can do what the modern day Arsenal can’t; and if given a chance by these named individuals, Aston Villa could once again become a football dynasty.

Randy Lerner:

Like any successful club, transfers are crucial. And the chairman’s generosity in the past 2 seasons has been vital in securing the right names at the right time for Villa. Recent signings like Dunne, Warnock and Collins (even Heskey in a way), whilst not world beaters, have instilled both aptitude and experience to a promising outfit and ensured we continued to step forward from previous form. With one of the best owners in the business; these names, along with other buys of the past, will soon need to be replaced with both younger (peaking) and better additions worthy of a Champions League place – and I think in O’Neill and Lerner, we have the capacity to do so.

Improvement:

No one can deny how far we’ve come and I’m not even going to waste time going over it. But critically, we look like we will once again secure a top 6 finish, despite the intrusion of big spenders City and Spurs to the forefront of the league. As the competition gets stronger, MON’s Villa gets more competitive and after last year’s attempt at 4th, we have not only sustained but improved on our efforts which is definitely heartening.

Man Utd:

Is the move to the Red Devils the right one for James at this stage in his career? Maybe (just maybe) we can understand Barry’s desire to leave because of his increasing age (still not forgiven though!), but with Man City’s billions he will soon be pushed to the fringes of the squad for extravagant, more luxurious names on the team sheet. Conversely, Milner has plenty of time to give O’Neill’s mission a shot and working so well at the heart of our trustworthy system, would it be wise to jump aboard the limiting seating on the Old Trafford bandwagon? Indeed, with Fletcher and Hargreaves, United already have 2 superior central midfielders with players like Scholes, Giggs, Carrick, Gibson and Anderson left fighting for the scraps of first team football. Everyone does get their chance at United, no doubt, but in such a competitive, must-win environment, a 24 year old England hopeful would surely be best plying his trade as a big fish in the smaller (yet ambitious) pond of the top 6 contingent.

Analyzing fairly the obvious attractions of the 3 times European Champions, I also think that along with their pull, there is overlapping appeal that should keep Milner a Villa player for at least another year or two. With so much promise at Villa, and so much ‘what ifs’ at Man U, it would be very difficult to draw yourself away from the club that gave you a proper crack at the whip and made you the player you were after just two years of service. Yes, Milner is an ambitious lad and is probably destined for the top, but would he want to risk dragging himself from the comfortable surroundings at Villa Park, from the perfected system, from the familiar staff and players and from the Champions League mission in which he is the focal point. I’d like to believe that there is at least enough there to ponder that would stall his decision over the Summer.

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Summer Transfer Targets

Another day, another draw.

Yes, the two points dropped against Everton leaves our fight for fourth hanging by a worn thread. However, if we were to magically win our remaining five games we would still accumulate the targeted 16 points which I believe would be enough. But daydreams aside, I think it’s important to get back down to business and think about how we could improve on another season of overachievement.

Speaking to fans of other clubs, the general consensus is that Villa have had a “very good season.” Some would deem this patronising and others would think we deserve more than a very good season but in relative proportions, we have had an excellent year.

When you’re engrossed in team affairs and buy into the promises and hype of hope, I suppose it’s easy to accuse the team of underachieving when some results don’t go your way. Fortunately for our previous two managers (Taylor and O’Leary), they failed to offer any form of optimism and thus expectancy was non-existent throughout their reigns. If we were to ignore the less competitive league of the past when 10 less points got O’Leary to where O’Neill finished 2 years ago, one could argue that DOL’s 6th place finish got us believing. However, a steady decline throughout his time in charge of both on and off field performances suggested all along that he would not take us forward. Indeed, before MON took charge, we had witnessed 4 FA Cup 3rd Round eliminations and a thrilling run to the 5th round. So when I consider how in just 2 seasons O’Neill had turned us into an assured top 6 side, before chasing both fourth place and cup honours, I remember our all-too-recent relegation scraps and realise that Aston Villa have of course had a “very good season”.

A very good season for an Aston Villa fan, however, means putting up with yet another trophyless year. And if we were to stop the rot at 15 years this coming season, it is going to take a prolonged exceptional performance. The boys proved their capable competency this year with 2 extended cup runs and an elongated top 4 challenge (which is still going with just 5 games left).But, as good a journey it has been, we have fallen short. And as quality a player we may possess, we can’t expect to win silverware with just 13 trustworthy names (Luke Young and Heskey are the only other two squad players who contribute).

So what do we require to go one step further? Which players are needed in our squad to help push us into the top 4 and into cup glory? How do we prolong success?

Kevin Doyle:

Okay, okay, not groundbreaking by any means and the Villa faithful might not jump up from their seats at the prospect of the Irish man’s arrival. But in ‘Doyler’, we could have a younger, hungrier, more prolific and just plain better version of Emile Heskey. Watching the Wolves player on a regular basis playing for Ireland, I was surprised at his superb ability to hold the ball up. Not only is he much stronger than I first presumed, but his aptitude to bring the ball under control and find a supporting player is something to be admired – and something which he can do as effectively (if not better) than our number 18. On top of this, he does so in much more difficult environments playing with poorer opposition and used as the “out man” for his country, Doyle has propelled himself to be one of the nation’s most crucial players. Furthermore, his pace, technique and goalscoring record (which surprisingly is better than Heskey’s one in every eight games) make him a much better candidate than the 32 year old Emile to help our club progress. I’m not saying he would make our starting line-up (although he seems to grasp his chance anywhere he plays), but if we sold Heskey and replaced him with Kevin Doyle, we would already have taken strides to improve our chances next year.

Next up, it looks as if our munificent chairman will have to dip into his pockets once more. Of course, there are players there to be sold as well. I think he’s a decent player, but if we have little use for Steve Sidwell then we may as well cash in. Analysing the team, I think it has become abundantly clear that the right back area is a major problem. Defensively, Cuellar is not designed to cover so much space behind him and guard against lightning wingers. And offensively, the Spaniard is certainly not devised to cross into the opposition’s half. I’ve said it before, it’s not his fault but he should not be playing at right back. He is a quality centre back – one of four at the club – and if needs be, could also probably be sold to raise expenses (as disappointed as I would be to see him leaving). Curtis Davies is, talent-wise, our best centre back. Dunne has performed exceptionally well, as has Collins. Therefore, if money was an issue, Carlos would need to get the chop.

Branislav Ivanovic:

Audacious? Maybe. But with the Serbian defender we could, once again, improve our starting line up immensely. At 6ft 2, he would have no problem replacing the aerial prowess of the older Spaniard and certainly at right back, we could acquire an actual footballing threat. As a centre half, Ivanovic would also have much more to offer than Cuellar but after his £9.7m sale to Chelsea, might not come so cheap. I actually believe that Luke Young has much more to offer than he has been allowed this year, but if we are aspiring to play Champions League football, it would be advised to splash out the 5 – 7million required for the purchase of Branislav Ivanovic.

Rafael Da Silva:

At just 19, Rafael is a proven threat attacking from right back. In the intensity of Old Trafford, the Brazilian has sometimes been found wanting in defence and has demonstrated a few signs of inexperience which will surely be rectified with age. But with 3 long term right back servants ahead of him (O’Shea, Neville, Brown), a loan move would be perfect for the development of the young lad. Perhaps he wouldn’t fit as well into Villa’s system and could prove a liability in our set piece defending, but certainly if the chips are down or we’re controlling a game (trying to break teams down), he would be a valuable dimension to deploy.

Michael Carrick:

I can’t believe I just wrote this player’s name. Constantly a source of negative criticism (heavy criticism) from yours truly, I’m extremely disappointed in myself that I have turned my back on such strong beliefs. Too often, Carrick is happy to play safe and return the ball to centre back or pass the buck to his central midfield partner. He’s a player who doesn’t seem to want to make something happen, someone who doesn’t seem to want responsibility, and thus someone who hides from the ball. Yet, when he is on form, he is undoubtedly a terrific passer (if he has the balls to look forward). Starring for Spurs, he made the big money move to United because of his ability to find a game winning pass. And at times for the champions, the fans adored him. Last year, they were electric and Rooney and Berba loved feeding off the English man’s inch perfect passes. But when the going gets tough, Carrick gets running (scared). What I do think however is that Manchester United is probably a club too big for the make up of the central midfielder. Tim Howard was suspect to blunders at Old Trafford, but since his move to the blue half of Liverpool, he has proven he is one of the best keepers in the league. Likewise, Phil Neville’s selection at United was lambasted every week before he went on to captain the best club outside the top 4 and proved he was in fact a quality player. I firmly believe that with Carrick’s underlying talent, he can replace an ageing Petrov, but do so with more panache and more ability to change games for us. And with Man U about to put a miserable season behind them, a serious shake up is on the cards on Sir Matt Busby Way and the former Spurs player could well become available for around the same price we captured Downing and Milner for.

Robbie Keane:

Maybe the wrong time in his career, but Ireland’s all time leading goal-scorer has something which we have been missing for years: flair. Villa stick to a rigid system and it works great, but again when we’re facing difficulties breaking teams down, we don’t possess a player who can unlock defences with a touch of flamboyancy from nowhere. All the great teams have this creative nerve to their back bones and although maybe not a world-class number one choice, Keane could arrive at a cheap price and provide a wonderful stopgap elegance to our side.

Kris Boyd:

Rumours of his arrival were rife last season and as much as I would prefer to see a bigger name on the scene, I’m trying to maintain an air of realism – realistic, yet valuable, additions. How often do we say that Villa need a finisher? Well in Kris Boyd, we could have an indisputable great goal scorer (regardless of which league he plays in). Scoring a goal in almost every 1.3 matches, I think Boyd would make an excellent addition to our effective forward line of Gabby and Carew, but provide that deadly instinct which unfortunately is missing too much. Probably available for under £3 million, it would be silly to miss out on the 26 year old – unless we had a mouthwatering name lined up.

Shaun Wright-Phillips:

Out of favour at an ever-growing Man City, SWP could be the perfect addition to our thin squad. When Downing and Young are tired or underperforming (not to mention the possibility of injury), we have to move our best centre midfielder to the wing and rarely have I seen this pay dividends (Not because Milner can’t operate on the flank, but because we leave a gaping hole in the middle). Again, I am not his biggest fan but even with his inconsistencies, Wright-Phillips is direct and dangerous. I feel Downing and Young for sure have more to offer our first team, but when he’s on-song, little Shaun would fit like a glove into our quick moving attack and again, provide an extra dimension to the superb crossing ability of our current wingers in his willingness to take on the full back.

Having considered 7 new additions which could be acquired this coming summer, I have not only discussed fully possible targets, but I have also put forth 7 names which I think could make a world of difference to Aston Villa’s season performances. On top of this, my wish list could easily be obtained within the realms of a sensible budget and to ensure balance, I have proposed the sale of 3 high profile, replaceable players (Cuellar, Sidwell, Heskey). However, if we could keep such players and find better use for them, as well as bringing in new faces, then the squad will have improved two fold. My suggested signings provide not only a remedy for our first team weaknesses, but flesh to a bone-thin squad and invention to an unimaginative (sometimes) attack. On top of this, each potential signing are at peak age for performance and we wouldn’t have to wait for them to produce the goods. They are proven performers and would not have to adapt to the environment of the Premier League. If you consider the development of Fabian Delph, Marc Albrighton and the long awaited recovery of Wilfred Bouma, with these summer acquisitions, Aston Villa could find themselves going one step further next year. And a one step improvement on this season would result in League Cup success, FA Cup Final shot and Champions League Qualification.

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Six of the Best

So here we are …

32 games down, 2 proud cup runs complete and still every chance at that illusive fourth place. We’ve had tears at Wembley, jeers at Villa Park; rumours of MON’s resignation and silent suggestions of Milner to United. And haven’t we had plenty to cheer about? Early season triumphs over Pool, Chelski and Man U tied in with the 10 goal Blackburn thriller and further second city success has ensured smiling Villa faces at long last. And what sets this season apart, is consistency. Just 6 defeats and still the 3rd lowest goals conceded tally (despite the Chelsea drubbing) along with our cup constancy represents a firm goodbye to the erratic unpredictability of the past. Of course, we have slipped up in certain fixtures – but this is expected, this is why we are Aston Villa and not Manchester United. However, winning games where normally we wouldn’t, and doing so in such an assured manner is the most pleasing aspect of this season. Prevailing from tough grounds at Sunderland, Wigan, Fulham and Bolton and coming through home ties against Arsenal and the champions is solid testimony to our progression as a club and a firm explanation to how we have maintained our fight for Europe.

And with 6 games remaining, Champions League Football has never been so close. Spurs’ predicted demise has taken place even sooner than expected and the wheels have firmly fallen off Liverpool’s “fight back”. Yet, strangely, Villa are still available at 14/1 to finish 4th … Maybe the bookmakers haven’t noticed the dropped points elsewhere, maybe no one has analyzed any of the run ins each team faces, but I know at 14/1, I am certainly not going to turn a blind eye, like everyone else seems to have, to Villa’s season.

Yes, we sit seventh in the league, and yes, we’re 4 behind Spurs, 8 behind City. Daunting? Not on your nelly. Because as Spurs’ hopeful season spiralled downwards and out of control these past 2 weeks, their remaining league games against the league’s current top 4 certainly won’t help their eventual landing. But they can however do us a favour by nicking a result at City! Speaking of which, all is merry in the blue side of Manchester. Hitting form at the right time with 5 games remaining, 4th place is theirs to lose as it stands. But as I say, if Spurs prove to be a stumbling block for the Tevez inspired outfit, and United and Arsenal can make their better talent count, then City might not just fancy Aston Villa’s visit on the 1st May. The final  Champions League spot is most definitely in their hands, but their final fixtures has laid hazardous speed bumps on their home stretch.

As far as Liverpool are concerned, I think if we have any aspirations of overtaking Man City then we should no longer worry about the threat the Merseysiders pose. With arguably the best team equipped for the challenge, they have thankfully ran out of opportunities to secure enough points and with 4 games left, it would take something of miraculous proportions to catapult them back where they belong. However if City do falter and Villa don’t capitalise, who’s to say that Liverpool’s kind fixtures (excluding Chelsea) wont see them home – but it is unlikely, even for Liverpool! I think they will finish 6th, ahead of the Londoners.

As for Villa: our one game in hand over our fiercest competitors takes place on Wednesday night against fine opposition, Everton. But judging from how we outplayed Chelsea (soon to be double champions) for 45 minutes at the weekend, I think the Villa Park roar can see us crawl back to within 5 points of Man City – who we get the chance to condemn at the City of Manchester. Our other 4 games (Portsmouth, Birmingham, Hull City, Blackburn) are on paper, extremely winnable. Therefore, there’s no real audacity in suggesting that 4th place is in fact, in Aston Villa’s hands.

Hypothetically, if we were to win all of our remaining games, City would only have to drop 2 extra points for us to catch them.

Realistically, we will be very pleased with a draw in Manchester when we play them. Therefore, if City dropped 6 points (not including the game against ourselves) in their run in, we would surpass them. (And we need them to drop 6 extra points because of their superior goal difference).

Is this asking a lot? With City’s inconsistencies, no. With City’s run in, no. (Is it impossible to see them drop 6 points against United, Arsenal and Spurs? No.) It would be asking a lot, however, to expect Villa to beat them and the rest of their opponents in the final stretch. But do we have the ability to do so? Yes. And if we were to do so, we would need City to drop just 3 points of their crucial 3 games (and this doesn’t even consider their other fixtures).

Am I a romantic? Yes.

Aston Villa have seen their cup campaigns disappear in disappointment. And after slipping up at home to Wolves and Sunderland recently, they have been written off. Why? I haven’t one clue.

From memory, I can recall Spurs being defeated against Hull and Wolves at the Lane. I can remember Man City’s abysmal 6 straight draws (including Burnley at home). It happens. But I can also differentiate this Villa season to others, with consistency. And it is this consistency that I think can push us through these remaining 6 games. It is this sudden expectancy to win that I think will help us win. And of course, it is our fortunate fixture list that I think looks on us favourably.

Once again, it is infinite hope on my part. But my hope is a spawn of chance and always carries a certain realism. I recognise that Man City are in complete control of the situation; however I am also confident that should we perform to our highest potential, it will take a big push from City to push themselves over the line. And if they can see out the remainder of the season, then they will deserve it and we will have been beaten by a great team. But if we are to win five and draw one (very possible) and accumulate 16 more points, I will honestly be very surprised if we don’t make it to the Promised Land.

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