Category Archives: 09/10 Season

2009-10 Player Review

Momentous Season

And so another season draws to a close this weekend, and similar to the rest of the 21st century, Aston Villa’s final league game is largely an irrelevant affair. In May 2004, The Villains took on Manchester United in their 38th fixture in a bid to win the last remaining Uefa Cup spot in a match which would end the campaign in heartbreaking failure. We fell at the last hurdle, we came up short, and we faltered. And as surely as David O’Leary’s first year in charge concluded in a disappointing anticlimax, the 2009-10 season follows the same unsuccessful pattern as the boys “ran out of steam”, “looked jaded” and “over-performed”.

But in 2010, an “unsuccessful season” involves clinching that previously coveted Uefa Cup (now Europa League) position weeks ahead of the league’s finishing fixture, and not to mention a novel assault, a serious challenge, on the domestic cup competitions.

However, to be patronisingly pigeonholed as overachievers suggests that we fluked our league position, that it was a one off. Whereas, on the contrary, we are about to secure 6th place for the 3rd year in a row with a higher points tally each year in this ever increasing standard of the Premier League. We have sustained a realistic Champions League fight for 37 games. And we have in no way over-performed: Our position consistently reflects the talent of our team (a team which unfortunately is still slightly shy of deserving top 4 entry).

Some would question whether or not a trophyless season can be deemed a success. But as I’ve said before: from 16th place to genuine Champions League hopefuls; for 10 years we’ve waited to dream of cup glory but we’re finally beginning to wake up; and in actually bringing home the Peace Cup, we have every reason to label this magical season, a success story.

Sometimes, the beauty is in the attempt… but unfortunately, in the past 10 years, we have been unable to even celebrate an attempt.

So it is with restored pride that I want to recap on every player who contributed to our big push this year, and hopefully establish the actual cause of our relative success and failings.

I analyzed the players in relative proportions to each individual’s contribution, not over the scale of a full season where most players didn’t feature. Whatever players were allowed to give to the team this year, that’s what I judged them on.

 

1. Brad Friedel

League: 37 appearances

FA Cup: 3 appearances

LC: 1 appearance

What words can be deemed worthy of Brad Friedel’s input to our success? After being sold down the river by a perilous defence at Stamford Bridge, the resulting 7 conceded goals saw our Premier League’s best defensive record vaporise into hot air. But a closer look at what is still a magnificent ‘goals against’ tally and Brad’s 15 clean sheets (one off the leading 16) is testament that our number 1 has a direct and massive influence on our results.

Season Rating: 9/10

2. Luke Young

League: 14 (1) appearances

FA Cup: 3 appearances

LC: 1 appearance

I must say, I was shocked at his lack of involvement this year. A steadfast of the team last year, Young adopted a left sided role and still proved his merits. I expected big things from him this season but after a few average performances and a poorly timed short term injury, I think he was harshly frozen out of the side. I stubbornly believe that he could have offered so much more for us down the right wing this year, and I’d also like to keep him about next season (if not for a chance in the first XI, as a highly competent replacement).

Season Rating: 5/10

4. Steve Sidwell

League: 12 (13) appearances

FA Cup: 1 (3) appearances

LC: 0 (3)

A tough one… Done well at the start of the year (but how effective is “well” in centre midfield). ‘Steve Sidwell’ looks like a good name to have in the squad alright, but we rarely use him. Looking at his dynamic play, it’s such a pity that he can’t finish like Frank Lampard because he constantly gets himself in good positions and times his runs to perfection. But then again, wouldn’t it be nice if Heskey was more like Rooney… Sidwell suffers from a lack of awareness but would fit perfectly into a 5 man midfield. Probably our most natural box-to-box player, I think it’s definitely worth keeping the 27 year old around.

Season Rating: 6/10

 

5. Richard Dunne

League: 34 appearances, 3 goals

FA Cup: 4 appearances

LC: 5 appearances

Arise, King Richard. Bought for almost £20m cheaper than Joleon Lesscott, you have to wonder who some of these people are that are managing Premier League clubs today. Watching him pick up man of the match each week for the Republic of Ireland, I was slightly less enthused about Richard Dunne as a club footballer – until I seen him in the claret and blue. A serious, serious defender, Dickey Dunne is surprisingly light on his feet and an actual good ball player. HOWEVER, despite his obvious impact on the team and indeed his probably merited inclusion in the Premier League Team of the Year, Richard Dunne is suspect. At least on one occasion every game; the Irish man produces a heart-in-the-mouth moment, a wobbler. Indecision is the last thing you want to see in a centre back and when a player in such a tender position is liable to make mistakes, it is dangerous. Sometimes, we get away with it and Dunne prevails with yet another 10 out of 10 performance and a clean sheet to boast. On another day, clangers get chastised (like in the League Cup Final for instance – probably our biggest game of the year). Fortunate he may have been, less of Dunne’s blunders went unpunished at Villa than at City, and trying not to downplay the influence of Richard’s talent and experience I will refer to O’Neill’s comparison of our current number 5 with previous greats such as Martin Laursen and Paul McGrath.

Season Rating: 8/10

6. Stewart Downing

League: 22 (2) appearances, 2 goals

FA Cup: 6 appearances

LC: 4 appearances, 1 goal

For me, the surprise package of the year. Maybe most fans weren’t taken aback by the left footed World Cup hopeful, but I wasn’t aware that Downing was the player he is. A technical marvel at times, Stewart’s command of every pass he makes leaves little to be desired. Admittedly, I thought of Downing as a full back’s dream: Predictable, one sided, one footed – “just let me kick the ball into the box please”… I was wrong. In his assured, inventive attack, fleet-footed shots and quick-moving feet, Downing is a threat all over the pitch. Having missed out on pre-season and a chunk of the campaign, he had to be nursed back to full fitness and I believe that a fully-fit, sharp, 27 year old Downing in the season ahead will be a sight to behold (and I think he is capable of sharing the goal burden with some of our best). Obviously a fantastic set piece taker in the bargain, our imaginative number 6 has adapted to the discipline of the system and works back tirelessly for the cause.

Season Rating: 8/10

7. Ashley Young

League: 36 appearances, 5 goals

FA Cup: 6 appearances, 2 goals

LC: 5 appearances, 2 goals

What a signing! Ashley Young is without doubt, a dangerous, dangerous player. O’Neill has only used the number 7 on the bench 3 times in his 4 seasons here (2 of those after he completed his January signing in 2006 – and just one the following season in a League Cup match we were struggling in). If Young is fit (he always is), he plays. He is too valuable not to. The first name on every team sheet, Ashley has missed just 3 matches in as many seasons. He is unique in that he doesn’t take on the full back an awful lot, but at the same time, he can destroy them. Being so quick over 5 yards, you don’t know what he is going to do next and with his exquisite ability to cross the ball from deep, Young is becoming more of an accomplished winger each year. Criticized by some for not living up to his incredibly high standards of previous years, Young has been in the form of his life since February and has still directly contributed to 21% of Villa’s league goals this year (that’s over a fifth of our goals for someone who has been “out of form”). One of only two squad players to have scored in every competition, I put this down as another fine season in the development of our most treasured asset.

Season Rating: 8/10

8. James MilnerLeague: 35 appearances, 7 goals

FA Cup: 4 (1) appearances

LC: 6 appearances, 4 goals

Where did that season come from eh? Even before he was moved to the centre, Milner had shown plenty of signs of his maturity and that he was improving the ever-increasing quality of player he is. But then… we move him inside and the rest is history. No longer waiting to be brought into games, Jamesy has become the heartbeat of Aston Villa and his will to get forward (insured by his ability to cover back) drives the team forward with energy and exuberance. Directly liable for 37% of The Villains’ league goals this season, how can anyone begrudge Milner of a shot in the England first XI? Reminiscent of Gareth Barry in that he is the one player who can best cope in the heat of battle against the top clubs, James Milner is surely the success story of this season’s success story.

Season Rating: 10/10

* Just a thought: Why on earth does our number 9 jersey reside with Marlon Harewood?? An iconic number on any team, the goalscorer’s rig was recently graced by worthy warriors such as Savo Milosevic and Dean Saunders – but now is occupied by the “hit-man” who dawned the starting XI just once in his 3 seasons at Villa Park…

10. John Carew      

            League: 21 (11) appearances, 10 goals

            FA Cup: 3 (2) appearances, 6 goals

            LC: 1 (2) appearance

John Carew… Just the mention of his name puts a smile on my face. At 30 though, he unfortunately looks like he has lost half a yard of pace – but did this stop the lap-dancing guru from taking his chance after losing out to Emile Heskey? No way. Having performed consistently at the start of the year, he wasn’t setting the world alight but he was still big, bad John. Then after calls from yours truly at the beginning of March to have our superstar reinstated at the expense of the flailing Heskey, Carew showed us what we were missing with a hat-trick at Reading, and the Norweigian never looked back. JC (just noticing that these are the same initials as Jesus Christ… coincidence?) was absolutely deadly in our run in and demonstrated why he is our most experienced player. Maybe suspect to inconsistency, his talent is something which should overlap any doubts about our number 10. Should have been played more.

Season Rating: 8/10

      11. Gabriel Agbonlahor

            League: 34 (1) appearances, 13 goals

            FA Cup: 2 appearances, 1 goal

            LC: 6 appearances, 2 goals

I love Gabby… I really do! And it’s a genuine privilege to watch the future England star grow each season. Another trustworthy name to see on the team sheet every week (every season), Villa suffered a rapid dip in form in conjunction with Agbonlahor’s brief injury spell. As soon as he was missing – Villa were missing. We had no “outman”, we lacked pace and we missed his genuine goal scoring threat. He has turned himself into a real key man for his local club and although still reliable to fluff the odd one-on-one, has improved his goal record every year. As a difficult aerial threat and as strong as any other forward, the number 11 is quickly becoming an accomplished striker. And if he could hit all the penalties he won for us this year (in some real big games), he might’ve got some of the outside praise he deserved (but it would be ridiculous to expect a forward to be able to hit a penalty!). But almost 40% of our goals this year came from either an Agbonlahor assist, an Agbonlahor penalty won, or from an Agbonlahor finish. He’s an important player.

Season Rating: 9/10

      12. Marc Albrighton

            League: 0 (3) appearances

            FA Cup: 1 appearance

            LC: 0 (1) appearance

I know he’s still only 20, but I expected more from him this year: he didn’t do anything wrong, but he didn’t do much that got me excited either. I had heard so much about him and was promised so many great things and they may very well come to fruition, but I was inpatient and expected them this year. He does look like he’s got a bit of a first touch and that he wants to make something happen, and although he featured in just 3 league games, O’Neill introduced him at times when we needed a change (It wasn’t as if we were strolling to victory when he was subbed on) – a huge leap of faith from his manager and thus, he has my upmost confidence.

Season Rating: 4/10

      14. Nathan Delfouneso 

            League: 0 (8) appearances, 1 goals

            FA Cup: 2 (1) appearances, 2 goals

            LC: 0 (1) appearances

Coming along nicely. Just turned 19 but has that strut of self-assurance about him. Not to be confused with overconfidence, the England under 21 just has belief in his own talent that he can do a job for our first team – and it’s refreshing to see in at least one our strikers! He’s direct, with a bit of pace to add and has already been finding the goal. And I know MON isn’t keeping him on the books for no reason. Watch this space.

Season Rating: 6/10

      15. Cutis Davies

            League: 2 appearances, 1 goal

            FA Cup: 0 (1) appearances

The forgotten man. I was bitterly disappointed that Davies picked up such a damaging injury so early in the season – not only for Aston Villa’s sake, but because he would definitely have been a better World Cup candidate than Matthew Upson or Joleon Lesscot. Davies is our best defender and after a terrific 34 league games last year, I was really looking forward to watching the 25 year old mature into an international player (something which he can do this coming year). Looked integral in our early season fixtures and Europa League clashes, but suffered awful misfortune. But hey, a goal every 2 games for a centre back is certainly something to shout about.

Season Rating: 6/10

      16. Fabian Delph

            League: 4 (4) appearances

            FA Cup: 4 appearances, 1 goal

            LC: 1 (1) appearance

Excited about this signing. Got off on the wrong foot with a poor performance in our first league game (one of many poor performers that day), but has steadily picked up with some solid displays combined with some stirring marauds forward. I wasn’t too impressed by his petulance at being substituted one game but hopefully we’re just breeding an inexperienced winner.

Season Rating: 6/10

      18. Emile Heskey

            League: 16 (14) appearances, 3 goals

            FA Cup: 3 (1) appearances

            LC: 5 appearances, 2 goals

Heskey, Heskey, Heskey… (sighs). It would be too easy for me to sit here and slate him; to scrutinize his awful performance; to point out his one goal in 10 game ratio. It would be too simple to allow my hatred for his appalling input to our season to take over. I actually like Emile! I do. And I really wanted him to perform. But he has failed in epic proportions, in every department. Demonstrating a good touch at times, and the odd good pass has been little consolation to his non-existent contribution to our success. He needs a drastic improvement quickly, but at 31; the first bus out of Aston might be the best option.

Season Rating: 3/10

      19. Stylian Petrov

            League: 36 appearances

            FA Cup: 3 appearances, 1 goal

            LC: 6 appearances

I think he was the right choice for captain. He’s been in the team the longest out of the current squad and has built a relationship with the manager and his methods. Outstanding last year, but unfortunately failed to reproduce that and was somewhat living in the shadow of midfield partner, James Milner. However, as Aston Villa (few as they may have been) enjoyed spells of possession and spells of control over opposition, Petrov along with Milly stood toe-to-toe with any team in the country; and of course we’ll not forget his goal which dragged us from the trenches and into a replay with Chrystal Palace. Nevertheless, that was his only goal of the season and never really looked threatening throughout. Still a tireless worker, I just feel that the soon-to-be 31 year old may have his best years behind him.

Season Rating: 6/10

      20. Nigel Reo Coker

            League: 6 (4) appearances

            FA Cup: 1 appearance

            LC: 1 appearance

Almost 26, the former West Ham captain is used less and less as he approaches the pinnacle of his physical abilities. I also thought, in the absence of Gareth Barry, that the Croydon-born chap would be used much more this year, and I firmly believed when we first signed him that he would be more effective than he has been. Like Sidwell, fits much better in a 5 man midfield (he actually shines in there), but playing second string to Delph, you can’t help but fear for Reo Coker’s Villa career. Probably lost out more than he should have after alleged confrontation with the gaffer, but I’m sure he and generations of Villa fans will never forget the Peace Cup winning skipper. For that, he is a Villa legend.

Season Rating: 4/10

     22. Brad Guzan

            FA Cup: 3 appearances

            League Cup: 5 appearances

Like Delfouneso, Guzan is coming along nicely. Massively unfortunate having to play back up to one of the greatest Premier League goalkeepers ever and indeed, the most injury-free stopper, but Brad Jr has shone well for us in domestic knockouts, and is getting more games because of our extended runs. Solely accredited with our penalty shootout victory over Sunderland in the League Cup, at just 25, Guzan is fast being moulded in the likeness of his compatriot. Victim of a few nerves in our League Cup semi (the club’s biggest game in 10 years), the USA number 2 will for sure one day replace Friedel.

Season Rating: 7/10

      23. Habib Beye

            League: 5 (1) appearances

            FA Cup: 2 appearances

            LC: 1 appearance

Strange, strange signing. Apparently he was a good player in France football… but so too was Eric Djemba-Djemba. I don’t know what Beye was offering us or what he could provide to squad with (maybe it was for the sole sake of having more defenders) and he’s such an uninspiring player that I’ll not bother discussing it any further.

Season Rating: 3/10

      24. Carlos Cuellar

            League: 35 appearances, 2 goals

            FA Cup: 4 appearances, 1 goal

            LC: 6 appearances

Still his solid self, great defender. Right back? Nope. Played a few good games for us in the centre this year but got drawn the short straw to accommodate James Collins. Admittedly, performed steadily in some games on the wing and always gave his all and tried to get forward. But for me, he’s just too much of a natural centre back to be trying to attack the flank and marking a lightning quick winger. On the other hand, provided thankful safety defending set pieces and proved dangerous in the opposition box.

Season Rating: 6/10

      25. Stephen Warnock

            League: 29 appearances

            FA Cup: 6 appearances

            LC: 5 appearances, 1 goal

Great addition to the team. With Bouma’s injury and Shorey’s ineffectiveness, the Merseysider provided genuine class at left back. Assured at the back and a handful going forward, he has gave Capello a lot to think about ahead of his squad selection. Warnock’s actually faster than I presumed and is without doubt merited as a top 6 full back.

Season Rating: 8/10

      29. James Collins

League: 25 (1) appearances, 1 goal

FA Cup: 5 appearances, 1 goal

LC: 5 appearances

Another one of MON’s shrewd acquisitions, Collins admirably formed a formidable partnership with Dunner at the heart of our defence and it is no coincidence that we secured such a limited goals conceded margin with the Welsh man on board. A real lion heart warrior, it’s comforting to see such a committed player wearing the Villa badge with pride. Every game is a mission that wont be surrendered, and what he lacks in pace and rashness, he makes up in passion and determination.

Season Rating 8/10

      47. Ciaran Clark

            League: 1 appearance

Was called upon in the midst of a defensive crisis and slotted in competently against Fulham, producing a steady, solid performance at centre back and ensuring he finished his season with a 100% clean sheet record.

Season Rating: 6/10

Big game player

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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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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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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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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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