Before the appointment of our new manager, all seemed lost. The last minute defeat at the Britannia Stadium was, for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Villa had destroyed Stoke for 45 minutes; they scented blood; we wore them down. Come the second half, we were once again praying for the final whistle: the team sank deeper and deeper and another away loss was not a matter of how – it was simply a matter of time. There are very few things in this world which are much worse than the feeling of inevitability – the expectancy of your team to lose. World poverty… “Justified” war… Slavery… sure, they are bad – but losing faith in your football team is right up there.
And for me, in my over-analytical self, it’s dangerous when your club becomes uninspiring. I need something to hope in, something to believe, something to look forward to – but assessing the team just six weeks ago, there was nothing evident but an abundance of apathy. The difference between The Villains and the higher realms of the Premier League were all-too-apparent, and this realisation unfortunately spawned frustration on my part towards some of my beloved players – even Friedel.
I love Brad, he’s one of the best Goalkeepers ever in the Premier League, but in the midst of my criticizing-crusade, he was not spared. The reason? As petty as it is, he was failing to clear the ball effectively from back passes. Instead of taking a touch, he was rushing these kicks and merely serving to slice the ball out of play or find an opposition player and inviting consistent attacks on our defence.
Our defence? Boy, were they getting up my nose. Luke Young, in fairness, was playing some good stuff but his flat feet and lack of pace was being exposed way too much down our right side (he would look good in a better team who could keep possession better, but he was not the man we needed when under so much pressure). And speaking of pressure, James Collins… a lionheart for sure, but his inability to play football and over-willingness to play safe all the time invites unneccessary pressure and contributes to the eventual buckling of our back line. Ironically, if only Richard Dunne could have taken a few leaves out of James’ book – because his constant ignorance to clearing the ball at the right time is not healthy for any supporters’ heart. And Warnock’s rash challenges ensured that he matched the achievements of our other back 4 in securing the record for how many opportunities a football team could hand to their opponents in a 90 minute period.
Of course, the defence was not the only problem. I’m not sure if we were playing anyone at centre midfield in the first 6 weeks of the season. And passes you can see which should be made, were taking 3 or 4 exchanges before the ball got to where it should have in one. We were relying too heavily on a good cross to the box, or a moment of magic from Ashley – the rest of the team would not have been worthy of a place in any of last year’s top four – by some distance (with the exception of Brad in Arsenal’s team of course). No one was making a difference; doing something which left the opposition at a disadvantage – and it all had me thinking what I have just written in the last two paragraphs.
Thankfully, along came Houllier. And whilst a lot of the problems with individual players still exist, they are not as prevalent as they once were – everything’s easier when your tales are up. Moreover, we’re playing some footie. Petrov is getting involved (at times), Reo Coker is a hero, and Heskey is bullying the opponents. We’re going toe-to-toe with Champions League teams like Spurs and Chelsea, and the increasing possession, the increasing confidence, the increasing goalscoring chances has the French man’s increasing stamp written all over it. All this in the space of 6 weeks.
What is most impressive, is that we are doing this with the same sqaud of players. Whatever’s happening behind closed doors is delivering a response in front of the TV cameras. The players know their jobs more precisely; their flaws are less of an issue and we are once again a feared force. I wonder what will be in another 6 weeks time… and another 6 weeks after that (the transfer window). More hearteningly, I wonder what will happen at the Stadium of Light tomorrow afternoon.