Tag Archives: Conan Doherty

Gerard Can Bridge the Gap

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.

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Filed under 10/11 Season, Gerard Houllier, Uncategorized

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

As much as it pains me to say, it’s time to move on. Martin O’Neill steered the Villa ship with a pair of undeniably steady hands for 4 years, but he will now embark on pastures new and probably go on to prove his worth elsewhere. It doesn’t matter. Because like him or loathe him, rate him or dismiss him, miss him or rejoice, Martin O’Neill is gone for good – but Aston Villa still remains.

It is now the age of a new leader – a new commander who has been set the task of ending our soon-to-be 15 year drought; a new chief who will guide his warriors with the scent of blood; a new provider who will be asked to deliver the meat in order to end our prolonged starvation of success.

And as a fan, it is my duty to give our next permanent manager my full backing. As players, it is their responsible to give our incoming supremo their full co-operation. And as the club’s board of directors, they are obliged to place their complete trust in Aston Villa’s next boss.

We are not here to prejudge the next man in charge. We are not here hoping for a reason to grumble. I made no secret of my disappointment at the Board’s recent deceit. Widespread Villains made no secret of their split in loyalties over the MON-saga. But what’s done is done. I took a side, and I was unhappy – but my blood is claret and I will continue to support the club. However, I fear that, come Saturday, there may be a lot of red faces around Villa Park as 2 separate protests expose the disharmony at Aston Villa. I hope this isn’t the case. Yes, I hope that there are a lot like me who are sad to see the back of O’Neill – but more importantly, I hope that everyone is like me and are AVFC fans first and foremost, and that they willing to leave the events of Monday and simply get behind their team. We are all here with the ambition that we can restore the spirit of ’82. And with a united front, we could begin to do that. Step by step.

So firstly, it’s time to give the new man in charge a fair chance and let him shape his vision for Aston Villa. And after time (and a lot of scrutiny!), we will begin to understand his methods and patterns and I’m sure that I will be the first in line with a few questions!

Therefore, without further ado, I present to you Aston Villa’s next possible managers:

Sven Goran Eriksson 8/11

 

Strangely, I think Sven’s personal life precedes him. Instantly, when people hear his name, they laugh or sigh and construe him as some sort of performing jester – in the wrong profession.

But as a football manager, I have to admit that the Swede has led an unblemished career and I would find it difficult to hold any objections to his appointment as next Villa manager.

Sven was fast-tracked into national acclaim after a superb one-season-wonder job with Degerfors as a young manager; and unbelievably, right up until his engagement with the English national team, Eriksson only failed to deliver silverware with just one club in those 23 years. His success as a club manager is indisputable. Even very recently, with Man Shitty, the 62 year old sex god mentored the Sky Blues’ best season for decades – dragging an underperforming club, devoid of a trophy in 30 years, into the Premier League top 10, winning two Manchester derbies (first time since 69-70) in the process before being bizarrely axed despite the infamous ‘Save Our Sven’ campaign.

I never understood why he wasn’t appreciated throughout his England tenure either. Imagine the shame of 3 consecutive tournament Quarter Finals (only Brazil matched this), or the embarrassment of being dumped out by Brazil (eventual champions), Portugal (the host country after a penalty shootout after that Urs Meier incident), and another penalty shootout defeat by Portugal in 2006 (with 10 men). In fact, England achieved their highest FIFA ranking of 4th in the world under the guidance of their lambasted manager – and after topping each of his qualifying groups, Eriksson was then succeeded by Steve McClaren who failed to even reach a major tournament.

Surprisingly, the only actual failure of Sven’s career came throughout his time at Mexico. Not bad for 33 years in football management eh? Yes, he had the benefit of a fantastically generous financial backing at Lazio, but after providing a return of 7 trophies in just 4 seasons, Eriksson proved to be sure-fire value for money.

Even his other apparent flops in the transfer market have proved a lot of people wrong. I’m probably Corluka’s biggest critic, but he is the one now starting for a Champions League outfit every week at Spurs. And I’ll put my hands up and admit that I hadn’t heard of Geovanni or Martin Petrov – but both turned out to be real gems. And of course, Elano “The Piledriver” won a place in a Brazilian first XI after being let loose by Eriksson. As a Premier League manager in the transfer market, I believe that Rolando Bianchi was Sven’s only dud (and an expensive mistake at that).

As firm favourite for the vacant position at Villa Park, I had to analyse the former England manager a bit more rigorously, and do you know what? Like Ulrika Jonson, I like what I see.

 Bob Bradley 11/4

Maybe should be the bookies favourite considering his nationality, but I’m not sure if that would be a deciding factor as Randy looks to keep pushing the club forward.

Untested in European football, the American has had unarguable success with his national side – following up a remarkable Confederations campaign (beating Spain and bringing the most successful country ever to its knees in the final) with a very respectable World Cup performance.

I wouldn’t write off Lerner’s compatriot so ignorantly: he converted himself as a renowned MLS manager and I, for one, would love to see the arrival of his son Michael into the Villa squad. But for me, this is a much riskier move than the aforementioned manager would be, and I think the name of Sven Goran Eriksson would be much more attractive for the club than that of Bob Bradley.

I’d be very interested to see him get his deserved chance in Europe or the Premier League, but I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be if it were us who took that punt.

Martin Jol 7/1

 

Why not?

Spurs treated him like dirt and after two consecutive top 5 finishes, the North London contingent were the only losers from his sacking after they wound up with Juande Ramos.

The Dutch man is still a relatively untravelled coach but his early years in the Netherlands saw him deliver a KNVB Cup in his first season as a football boss, before later winning 2 different Manager of the Year awards in 2 different seasons.

Spent big bucks on Darren Bent who let him down – and I am a big Bent critic, but boy he has proven that he will get goals and thus, has in some way justified Jol’s evaluation of him. I also wouldn’t just brandish Danny Murphy a write off. For £2m, Martin was investing in valuable experience for his squad and after leading Fulham to a Europa League Final, the Liverpudlian is still doing it.

What excites me most about Jol is not that he has followed on his Tottenham career with quick success at Hamburger and Ajax. No, it’s that he brought the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale to the Premier League for under £17m. How much would those 3 cost today? (Berbatov already made the club over a £20m profit)

After Eriksson, the 54 year old Dutch man would certainly be my choice to fill the void left by O’Neill.

Paul Lambert 8/1

After studying under our former manager for a number of years, the Scot would certainly prove a smooth transition. He’s doing a good job at Norwich, after that brilliant League Cup campaign with Wycombe in 06/07, but again he is still relatively unproven and much too risqué for my liking at this stage of his career.

Jurgen Klinsmann 8/1

Responsible for the regeneration of the German national team, Klinsmann led his country to a World Cup Semi Finals and I believe that his introduction of updated coaching techniques, playing style and attention to physical detail are pivotal to the onslaught success of Germany in the last 2 international tournaments.

Failed in his only club role to date, it would again be brave to appoint Jurgen but I don’t think I’d be unhappy to see him arrive either. However, constantly linked with every football post, I believe that his short odds are unfounded.

Alan Curbishley 10/1

I’m a fan of Alan, however I know some will say that his consideration would be a question of ambition. Unquestionably a safe option, ‘Curbs’ is still to bring success to a Premier League side and I have a feeling that his appointment would be met with unenthused groans by hardcore Villains.

But I look at it differently.

After overseeing 2 promotions and top flight consolidation with Charlton Athletic, Curbishley remarkably (and famously) saved newly promoted West Ham’s season from certain relegation with just 5 months to work with – and later turning them into a top ten outfit the year after.

Although it might not get me jumping from my seat, I would support the acquisition of Curbs, the former Villain, and would remember that everyone deserves their chance once they’ve earned it.

If football was so elitist and managers could not climb available ladders of opportunity, we would not currently be treated by the work of David Moyes, the beauty of Wenger football – and dare I say it, we would have no Alex Ferguson.

 Gareth Southgate 10/1

A Villa legend, surely.

But relegation and Alfonso Alves speak volumes for his current ability as a manager.

Scone’s Shortlist:

1)      Sven Goran Eriksson

2)      Martin Jol

3)      Alan Curbishley

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Filed under 10/11 Season, Transfer Talk, Uncategorized

2010 A.D. The Year They Killed The Messiah

On the 15th of October 1973, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor tendered their resignation to the Derby County Board of Directors – who, in an unprecedented move, accepted their departure rather than bow to the demands of 2 of the most astute managers in world football. Today, Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa Football Club after seemingly reaching the end of his tether with the increasing chains of the powers-that-be. Today, the sleeping giant that is Aston Villa has now surely slipped into a deep, deep coma – and will never be woken.

As I was writing a new blog post on my season predictions, I explained,

“When I look at the personnel and depth of the 7 other teams in the Premier League top 8, and when I consider some of their spending power and growth, I see no reason why Aston Villa shouldn’t finish 8th this coming season. However, when I see images of Bodymoor Heath training, when I look at the excitement of some of our top-class players, when I hear O’Neill speak and when I consider his vision, I have every confidence that we will once again be in the shake-up come May…”

Unfortunately, as I was writing a new blog post on my season predictions, I read,

“It’s obviously a wrench to be leaving such a magnificent club…”

And at once, I had to stop writing. At once, the overly-optimistic Villain in me had been crushed, my rose tinted glasses shattered, and all at once, I could see only rubble before me on the plains of the 2010/11 season.

Romanticists are urging us to look at the positives, but some things in life just aren’t that simple, are they? Yes, I’ve criticised some of our players, I’ve overanalyzed some of our policies, and I beg for a sense of realism, but readers of this blog will know that, deep down, I am nothing more than a hopelessly hopeful Villa-addict. I will, when others won’t; I cheer when others frown; I believe when others doubt – but on the 9th of August 2010, this supporter fell from grace, cracked his head, and begrudgingly remembered that he is an Aston Villa fan; and with that, comes great misery.

Is it really that bad?

You bet. Because as I was riding high on the MON Express (I didn’t realise how high until now), I had forgotten the sickening feeling of having to turn off Match of the Day on a Saturday evening. I had blanked out all those cruel years of midtable apathy and I had elapsed the memory of when we were looking to Darius Vassell for goals, to Joey Gudjonsson for inspiration, to Alpay Ozalan for heart.

And now, regrettably, I see no way forward. I fear that Aston Villa will never be blessed with a manager of the calibre of Martin O’Neill again. The club has lost its entire pull-factor. James Milner is a goner; will we be so surprised to see Ashley Young follow him out the doorstep? Is a MONless AVFC appealing enough to attract the likes of Stephen Ireland (a player who we were on the brink of welcoming) or Robbie Keane? His achievements aside, the name alone of Martin O’Neill was working wonders for our club – and I can’t see any possible candidates having big enough metaphorical feet to fill his giant shoes.

In a way, the Ulster man has left us high and dry. 5 days before the new season begins, 22 days before the transfer window closes, we are managerless and still to make our first signing. But in another way, I don’t blame him. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if a board is going to hire a manager to oversee team affairs, they should put complete faith in that manager and his policies and allow him to shape his vision how he wants, with zero interference. If they feel that they cannot trust the man they have appointed and the directors feel that they know best, he shouldn’t be there in the first place – otherwise, let it be and give him a fair crack at the whip. And up until the past few months, I thought this mutual respect and communication was what we had at Aston Villa – and so did O’Neill. But how could MON take this club forward if we are constantly selling our best players? How could he take us anywhere if he isn’t being allowed to spend even the money that he raises himself? What would be the point in remaining with a project devoid of ambition, expecting failure?

The FA rejected MON’s application for the national job because he wanted to make sure that he had complete control of all team and academy matters (like it should be). (Similar unnecessary power-trips was why England missed out on having Brian Clough in charge all those years ago) Instead, the country was treated to the appointment of Steve McClaren who did his utmost to bring shame and disrepute to the 3 Lions crest. I say, “Back the manager; or sack the manager”… worryingly, our chairman chose the wrong option.

Irreplaceable?

Yes, I am a massive O’Neill supporter (although I can’t see any reason why everyone isn’t), but I do not want to become like that infamous blog which spouts out nothing but uninterested, uninspiring, pessimistic garbage each week about all-things-Villa. I’m an AVFC supporter first and foremost who simply recognised that MON was one of the best things in a long, long time that ever happened to this club – and I will back his successor (granted it’s not David O’Leary). I’m just having difficulty seeing how these clouds can be moved from Villa Park. I’m having difficulty considering life after O’Neill.

Martin gave us 4 spectacular years (I’ve discussed this in-depth in previous posts), and I, for one, am extremely thankful. Some say he was just there for the money (although he admirably walked out on his contract for footballing reasons); others say he had taken us as far as he could (even if he had, which he hadn’t, he had already taken us quite a distance). But O’Neill had us believing again – he had us hoping. And in the face of our 6 year despair, we couldn’t ask for any more.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, I don’t believe in fate. I maintain that we are placed in situations, faced with opportunities and we need to make the most of them, we have to try and make the right decision.

The term “Messiah” refers to the redeemer figure, the leader, the saviour – the one who will show His people the way. I can’t help but think that after dragging us from the dark ages, after prophesising greatness for this club, after restoring pride in our people, that Martin O’Neill was The Chosen One. And I dread to accept that we turned our back on his teachings, that we rejected his way, and that we, Aston Villa, banished The Messiah.

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Thanks For The Memories, James – But Good Riddance

Time to move on

Last season’s best player wants to leave and our transfer dealings are restricted within the confines of a sell-to-buy policy. Grim? Maybe, but this is the situation and we have to get on with it.

Yes, James Milner was superb at times over the last 12 months; he scored 7 league goals from midfield and contributed to our cause with 12 assists. He showed glimpses of brilliance on the world stage in June and ultimately made the loss of our 12 year stalwart (who will remain nameless) a smooth, if not improved, transition. “Irreplaceable” you might say. However, I wouldn’t.

Of course, when I first heard Martin O’Neill’s admission that our number 8’s head was turned, I was gutted. It couldn’t be that, for a second year, my favourite footballer would sell his soul for the devil’s riches. Thankfully, however, I had already grieved this hurt and I soon realised that the loss of Milly wouldn’t compare to the aftermath of Man City’s first summer signing last year. And then it hit me: James Milner was just a rebound. All along, I had been using him to sooth the scar left by our former number 6 – he had his uses, don’t get me wrong; but now that he’s going, Villa will have no problem moving on, and do you know what? We’ll be okay.

Although it will be extremely difficult to find an established, and effective, central midfielder within our miniscule £12m transfer cap, the perceived “disastrous” sale of James Milner is now actually very “necessary”. Because, as our overly generous American owner has, for once, decided to tighten his purse strings, Villa would have been in big trouble this coming year – but for the gluttonous naivety of Manchester City. The uncontrollable spending which is destroying football as we know it over at Eastlands is, without doubt, making progression harder; but by exploiting the Citizens’ reckless attitude, the claret side of Birmingham is offered a lifeline which could continue to kickstart our climb to the top – at a time when Aston Villa should be stalled on a hill without the assurance of a handbrake.

For me, City can become that ally you have when playing Monopoly whose fortunes will never be surpassed, and who has no problem paying over the odds for your hot property. They will never be caught, but they can help carry you to the top with them.

As the club prepares to enter the transfer market with an empty bank account, it is an ironic saving grace that Man Shitty have declared an interest in our most valuable player. I’ve argued that we have to keep the likes of Milner at Trinity Road if we are to remain an attractive habitat; but should the Villains desperately hang on to the want-away England star for another season, the potential kitty from the sale of our fringe players will not be sufficient to even change, never mind improve, on last year. And let’s be honest: as much as we stepped on last year (in the cup runs and increased points tally), we were caught out.

Opposition sides were all too prepared for the approach of a Martin O’Neill team in its fourth season, and a lot of the times we were thwarted. Teams were willing to treat our deep-lying outfit with caution and often refused to over-commit – and thus, suffocating the potential of our counterattacking prowess in which Downing, Young, Gabby, Carew and, of course, Milner were pivotal. Failing to win 11 of our 19 games at Villa Park last year was testament to our inability to break teams down; and indeed to our vulnerability at coping with sides who were as equally prepared to hit teams on the break. On top of this, a meek total of 52 league goals banged in last term (the 8th most in the league), shows just how far we really are from Champions League football. Defensively we were water tight; but our inability to put weaker opponents to the sword ultimately created the failure to acquire that elusive 6 more points.

In conclusion, we have become much too predictable as an attacking force and the variation of talent which could be welcomed aboard for the same valuation as an overpriced James Milner is essential.

Stephen Ireland

Graceful

So, he didn’t have the best of seasons. But the 23 year old suffered the most from Manchester City’s ridiculous spending. Making room for more “household names”, the Sky Blues unfairly asked Stephen Ireland to ply his trade from wide areas (and I’m talking out-and-out winger positions), and of course from a deeper midfield role under the new defence-minded Italian regime.

But if we rewind to the 08/09 season, the Irish man was Mark Hughes’ main threat, cutting teams open with his creative instincts and death touch when allowed to roam through the centre and off the front man. It’s a cliché, I know, but his 9 goals and 9 assists that year were so efficiently devastating that it was, at times, reminiscent of a hot knife cutting through melting butter – at the tender age of 22.

And as a supporter of his native country: yes, I’ll admit, he has caused his fair share of trouble; but when Stephen lines out in a green shirt, the Republic then have at least one dimension to their boring, unimaginative play – I mean, boy is he crucial. Scoring 4, largely individual, goals in just 6 appearances playing in an already below-par team furthered hindered by the misguidance of Steve Staunton, Ireland banished any perception that he couldn’t play in a 4-4-2 formation. Starring in the centre for his country, Stephen didn’t shirk his defensive or tactical duties, and his 4 goals from this position were all four match-winners as an uninspired outfit took 12 Qualifying points, each through the minimum winning margin.

No other club on the planet would deem such a gem surplus to requirements – particularly if he was nurtured through their underage system. Fortunately for Villa, however, “Citeh” are a brainless club. Having already pawned off Daniel Sturridge, Mancini is doing his best to have Onouha and Richards frozen out; and valuing a raw James Milner almost £20m more than the effortless Stephen Ireland, any work completed within the Man City academy (as good as it has been) is deemed a pointless waste of time in the shambolic rigmarole that is the MCFC boardroom.

Not only would I actually prefer a Stephen Ireland to a James Milner, but to have that swap with an extra £20m thrown into the bargain would be daylight robbery – and exactly the sort of steal we need in today’s sell-to-buy climate. City are surely buying their way to the title; but last summer, we acquired PFA Team of the Year member Richard Dunne for £18m less than the clumsy Joleon Lescott; and this summer we could be obtaining the improved services of Stephen Ireland for £20m less than workhorse James Milner – therefore, as a Villa fan I say, “Long live the Sheikh”.

Opportunity

If the part exchange deal did take place involving either Ireland or Bellamy, we would be left with a more talented alternative – perfect for the necessary change the AVFC attack needs for the coming season. Moreover, the extra cash obtained will be used effectively to add extra dimensions to a thin squad.

I’m not saying that they are targets or that they are even interested, but the rumoured links with Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane are heart-warming. Whilst I don’t think that McGeady is better than Young or Downing, I’ve witnessed his 2nd half introductions for the Republic of Ireland on numerous occasions and I’m convinced that his ability to lift the crowd and spark a game into life can be just the tonic our poor home win ratio needs.

Robbie Keane (or a similar player), in my opinion, will be a steal at £10m. Yes, he’s ageing, but he is good. Overflowing with flair, the Irish captain is the perfect man to get in between the customary positional lines of football and bring other players into the game. Feeding off target men for his entire international career, Keane is also one of the best forwards in the world at anticipating flick-ons and getting in behind the opposition defence.

The possibility of Aston Villa acquiring Ireland’s 3 most exciting players at the expense of the ever-willing, but limited talent of, James Milner is too good a chance to miss. Jimmy was great for two years, but was there ever a sense of emotional attachment with the wanderlust professional? He did his job, he did it well, but Milner was never Aston Villa.

Now, by replacing him, we can bring in critical firepower which will deal with the onset predictability of the club – without spending a single penny. And after overseeing 71 league goals (the 3rd most) in just his second year in charge, with a less able outfit, Martin O’Neill has the capability to get the Villains firing again – he just needs different ammunition to wear down the bullet proof vests some teams have adapted to wear against us.

Therefore, strangely, I’m hoping to see the back of James Milner sooner rather than later. Clearly, he didn’t appreciate the punt MON took on him as he looked for the exit doors at St. James’ Park. He doesn’t acknowledge the work undergone to turn him into an international standard player (quite similar to another particular Man City footballer). And he is so inpatient at the age of 24 that he couldn’t wait one more season to see if the Villa project comes together.

Not only don’t I want that type of personnel infecting the changing rooms at Bodymoor Heath, but I think that we can do a lot better than James Milner. So I say, “Thanks for the memories, James – but good riddance” because we don’t need you. What we do need is to cash his price tag and get to work bringing in the different types of ability which our team so badly needs. James Milner was crucial to an outfit who were capable of scoring just 52 league goals. Now, Aston Villa needs 3 or 4 variable elements who are crucial to an outfit who can once again score 70+ goals. But this time, we will be supported by a mean defence. And this time, we could go that one step further – without the services of one, James Milner.

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Do Villa Play Their Best Football With Heskey?

No… they don’t (it’s as simple as that).

Should anyone feel that they do not need to read such an unnecessary blog post to decide their answer for the above question, then please be my guest and click the ‘x’ button at the top right corner of your screen. If you choose to continue, below is what sparked a post I never thought I would have to write.

Whenever Villa played their best football it was with Emile Heskey…

I’m not a fan of negative writing. I know I have been guilty of this in the past but I like to think that any criticism I have of Aston Villa is largely constructive and contributes to the greater good of improving the club (or at least ways in which it could be improved). Of course, I am bias, but I don’t think that any of my opinions are unreasonable. I try to support a lot of my writing with facts; although I recognise that subjectivity is the fuel of football debate and the beauty of the one, true international language. Nevertheless, sometimes, we have to be critical.

But I will not, for example, downplay the obvious effect our 23 year old Agbonlahor has on the team because of his inability to win the Golden Boot (like some ignoramus writers). I will not ridicule someone’s view that Milner should play on the right for England, and then later argue that this is his best position and the reason why he is actually not so important for his club (like some hypocritical, and inaccurate bloggers). I like to research the unarguable datum and undergo essential performance analyses of both the players and the staff (some people obliviously dismiss this as unimportant, yet it is the same mode of work in which all Premier League clubs will officially recognise as means of progression). Of course, sometimes I just like writing. I like presenting my ideas and I occasionally like to reflect football in a poetic light. However, how could I ignore a sentence such as that which is quoted above? How could I accept an unsupported argument suggesting that Emile Heskey is pivotal to the best football of Aston Villa?

Well, I couldn’t accept this.

On the 5th March, I wrote a damning crtitique (https://myavfc.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/emile-heskey-conman-extraordinaire-2/) of Heskey’s performances for the club I love so well; but after his through ball to Steven Gerrard against the USA earlier in the summer, the myth that he brings other players into the game was once again vibrant – despite the fact that apart from the goal, he was responsible for just 2 more final balls in the game, and these were two unsuccessful flick ons (he also won one shootable free kick).

At the time of that post, Emile had notched up 3 goals (the same as Richard Dunne) and 1 assist. He then finished the season with 3 goals (the same as Richard Dunne) and 2 assists. And with 2 further League Cup goals, the former England international finished the season with a tally of one goal for every eight games played (5 goals in 40 appearances). Obviously, he didn’t start all of these matches (although he started the majority of them), but what was more interesting was to find that similar to his England career, 4 of The Mule’s 5 goals came in a comfortable winning margin of at least two goals for his club (all of his competitive international goals came when England won by at least three goals).

Furthermore, Heskey did not contribute to the squad with even one forced own goal or by being awarded at least one penalty. Villa banged in 80 goals in all domestic competitions last season – Heskey had a hand in just 10% of these (making him non-existent for 9 out of every 10 AVFC goals).

Despite his clear ineffectiveness for the cause, and his inability to properly bring other players into the game, maybe we do play our best football when Emile Heskey is on the field.

However, going right back to the second game of the season, the fluid 4-5-1 we adopt was once again proved popular as a ‘Heskeyless’ Aston Villa not only grabbed 3 at Anfield, but completely outplayed, and outsmarted, the league runners-up in their own backyard. Heskey was introduced for the last 10 uneventful minutes.

The following game, Villa recorded probably their most comfortable, and pleasing, victory of the season at home to Fulham (who had finished just one place below us) in the absence of the all-important-Heskey. The return fixture was equally as pleasing (although not as attractive) and the big man did feature – marking his performance with the game’s most fouls.

Thankfully, Heskey was missing for the arrival of Bolton Wanderers at Villa Park as the home side enjoyed a rare 60% of possession; not to mention their 19 recorded shots, and of course, 5 goals.

Villa also completed dominating performances away to Hull and Birmingham without the “services” of EH and they turned over eventual league champions, Chelsea, with the Carew-Gabby partnership. However, the memorable Old Trafford success (as unconvincing as it was) included Emile and he was also a member of the team which knocked 5 past Championship outfit Burnley. But it is ridiculously clear that, compared to Gabby and Big John, Heskey’s contribution to Villa’s season was extremely minimal. He was either excluded or had a limited involvement in my favourite league performances this year, and it’s not as if he has a great effect record to fall back on (meanwhile Agbonlahor has had a direct responsibility in 43% of the possible goals he could have this year; whilst Carew made one more appearance than Heskey – yet still managed to knock in 16 goals, grab 5 assists, and win 4 penalties). Heskey also played either a bitpart role or a second string duty in the FA Cup run which saw his centre forward competitor (JC) grab the competition’s golden boot.

Prolific

Both Villa’s success, and at times, their best football this year has not taken place “with” Emile Heskey by any means. In actual fact, it took place in spite of Emile Heskey, who if anything, did his best to hinder our performances. I could continue to decipher his appaling form; his apparent need to fall over at the sight of any ball; his inability to hold the ball up and the lack of success from his flick ons; I could simply point to the fact that John Carew was responsible for 20 more goals (in the same amount of games) as his clubmate; or even conduct a survey of who has been the most frustrating Villa player of the past 10 years. But I don’t need to. It would be an insult to our players, and to our fans, if I did. In actuality, it is already an insult that even one “fan” declared that Heskey is associated with our best football – particularly with zilch signs of backing up such a ludicrous statement with any kind of reasoning.

As I say, I don’t like to be negative – but sometimes, black has to be separated from white in the reckless free-for-all that an unjustified grey area grants. A grey area derived from such conjecture as the quote which started this piece. I don’t like to pick on players (which I am doing with Emile) and consistently single them out for crticism, but I am adamant that I am a fair man who is simply looking to start the season in a positive manner – and who has his own specific idea of how to achieve this. Firstly, I just hope that Neil Lennon falls for the charm of the World Cup hero and ships him north of the border so I can finally put Heskey-gate behind me for good.

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Winning Ugly? Hey, It’s Still Winning

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing

In 1959, Vince Lombardi embarked on his first chief position, as Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, with these uber-competitive words as his rallying cry in the first day of training camp. 9 years, 5 national championships, and the sport’s first two Super Bowls later, the Brooklyn man needed just one year to create a record breaking winning attitude at Washington before dying a Football martyr, a sporting pioneer, a winner.

People will disagree with this post (a LOT of people). Total Football enthusiasts will puke over my beliefs. Romanticists will wince at my writing. But I must admit, I take my hat off to the Dutch.

Bert van Marwijk took the reigns of his country after the Russians prematurely ended their Euro 2008 dreams with a 3 – 1 Quarter Final defeat. Not popular with the fans, the former Feyenoord manager had my respect from the off, admitting, “Total Football is a thing of the past.

Thou shall not pass

And he couldn’t be more right. Yes, we are still treated with the mouth-watering exhibitions of a devastating Barcelona outfit, the guile of the current European and World Cup champions, and even the potential of a fantastically fluid United attack; but in 21st century football, opposition sides are conditioned, organized and more astute, and to flood men forward with careless abandon, particularly with weaker individuals, would of course uphold the integrity of pure football, but undermine the necessity of common sense.

Despite the fact that the renowned Total Football of the 70’s took place over 30 years ago, the Dutch also never actually won anything but respect for their scintillating style. On top of that, the ’74 and ’78 World Cup finalists were blessed with generation talents such as the two Johans (Cruyff and Neeskens); Wim Jansen; Rob Rensenbrink; and Johnny Rep. Today, the Netherlands nation expected the same interchangeable elegancy from Liverpool workhorse Dirk Kuyt; Real Madrid reject Wesley Sneijder; and the injured Robin van Persie. Arjen Robben is no doubt a good player; but is he really of the same calibre as the ammunition Rinus Michels had at his disposal in 1974? Even if he is, is he really so good that he can single-handedly recreate the magic of 36 and 32 years ago?

A ridiculous argument would be to suggest that if your team is not good enough, you have to simply accept this and take your beatings. However, the beauty of sport is that every player, every team and every nation begins on a literal level playing field. Some individuals, some teams, are not as good as their opponents, they are not equipped with the same artillery sometimes, but they do not roll over. Instead, they can analyse ways to wear down their counterparts, and at times, they find their Achilles heel.

Violent

So what is wrong with Holland’s dirty tricks? Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way condoning the life threatening thuggery which caused Nigel de Jong’s studs to flail into the chest of Xabi Alonso. But the rules are there to be abided by and I’m certain the Dutch manager did not excuse this sure-fire sending off offence so early in a World Cup Final. The Man City player should have seen red, but this would have been for an act outside the plans of van Marwijk, outside the laws of the game. The Netherlands are certainly guilty of gamesmanship – but all this entails is the bending of the existing rules of Football, not the breaking of such laws. They set out to rough up their opponents, cynically (yet tactically) foul and disrupt attacks, and they are happy to accept their penalties of warnings and yellow cards – but boy, can they hit teams on the break.

Maybe it’s just me. Yes, it isn’t the spectacle everyone yearns for. But just like Jose Mourinho’s inferior Inter Milan outfit spoiling the life out of attacking flair, Holland would not have cared what any headline said if they were going home in the company of that iconic gold trophy. And truthfully, they probably warranted it. Spain played by far the better football, but apart from Fabregas’ breakthrough, they struggled to overcome the tenacity of the Dutch terriers in normal time. (Of course, with 10 men, cracks later became apparent in the Orange wall of defence). And as I’ve always argued; in sport; you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you take. And with the best chances of the 90 minutes (I counted 4 first-class opportunities), Holland should have stolen the game from the grasp of the best passers on the planet – and I would have been one man delighted to see it (not merely because my 12/1 pre tournament bet would have came up!).

I could say that they came up short, but they probably over-performed throughout the whole competition. And after winning 14 competitive World Cup fixtures on the trot (and drawing with Spain after full time), how can anyone begrudge the Dutch of the credit their effective system deserves? Had they taken on the Spanish or Brazilians man-for-man, had they done the same against weaker opponents (like previous years) for that matter, they would have been wiped out – simply because their players are not good enough. But like the enigma of ancient warfare tactics, sport provides the flexibility of the manager’s nous to become an advantage; it allows perceivably weaker outfits to damage their rivals in unexpected, sometimes unorthodox, fashion; and it allows the underdog to prevail, reminding us all that anything is possible.

Instead of bashing the Dutch for their admittedly disgusting spoiling tactics at times; why aren’t we celebrating the fact that they brought the greatest footballing nation to its knees for 116 minutes? Johan Cruyff criticised his country’s performance as “ugly, vulgar and anti-football…” and it probably was. But it was this anti-football approach which gave his compatriots a fighting chance. And I’ll tell you what, if Aston Villa decide to adopt a gung-ho attacking and respectful approach to the 2010-11 season, we can kiss any aspiration we have of breaking the top 4 mould goodbye – because on paper, we are simply not amongst the 4 best teams.

Sport defies logic

Fortunately though, the game is never won on paper and anything can happen on any given day. And I will not criticize The Netherlands for refusing to accept second best, but instead, making the most of what they had, ignoring the boundaries of logic and reason. And just like David beat Goliath (in all his size, all his armour, and all his artillery) with an impotent yet cunningly effective sling shot, I respect Bert van Marwijk’s modern day Holland for their spirit, their resilience, their unlikely success and more importantly, for their triumph in restoring faith in the giant-killing fairytale.

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Martin O’Neill: A Panic Buyer?

Personally, it has been a stressful week. Having been out of touch with Aston Villa news for the past 10 days, I took a quick check online this evening and was planning on heading straight to bed. Unfortunately, however, some of the AVFC posts and tweets that caught my eye within my short surf have ensured that tonight will be a sleepless venture unless I add my tuppence worth.

Firstly, I have seen a laughable suggestion,

whenever Villa played their best football it was with Emile Heskey”…

But I hold much too strong an opinion on this viewpoint to even begin to discuss tonight. So watch this space…

More prominently, I’m growing increasingly frustrated at the irritation building up at the lack of transfer activity at Villa Park so far this summer. Every time I click on a new page, there are complaints from fans aimed at O’Neill for not acquiring any new faces as of yet – or at least for not telling us his targets.

At the time of writing, it is the 1st of July! The first day of the summer transfer market. There are still 10 days of World Cup action remaining and 6 and a half weeks before the new season kicks off. Yet, how dare Martin O’Neill go on holiday last month. Imagine his audacity for not spouting his mouth off in Harry Redknapp style and blabbering to every media corner about who he’d like to sign and why – and in doing so, losing a touch of class and risking upsetting the rest of the squad.

To date, 11 Premier League clubs have made a move; 9 haven’t. Amongst these: Man City, Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea – our biggest competitors (I’m being generous saying we’re competing with Chelski, but we’re trying to catch the champions). Only 17 new faces have arrived to a different club so far this summer – 3 of these have dawned the doorstep of St. Andrews and I think that is what all the fuss is about. Villains have been alarmed by the premature transfer activity in the blue half of Birmingham, but we must not let our inferior city rivals scare us into making a rash move. We must not even contemplate Alex McLeish’s actions because when the dust settles; Jo Hart has been replaced by a less competent goalkeeper, Enric Valles is an unproven 20 year old signed for nothing, and Nikola Zigic will prove he is not worthy of a place amongst Villa’s 4 strikers – and once again, The Clowns will be living in our shadow with preseason hype rapidly disintegrating into mulch.

But why haven’t Villa signed anyone yet?

Apparently, there is no stopping O’Neill leaving transfer signings until it’s too late to make a good deal, and subsequently we have to settle for second best.

Like Birmingham City FC, this belief doesn’t deserve consideration and should be swept off the doorstep with the rest of the miniature refuse. Because, for one, MON rarely “settles”. Even the likes of Marlon Harewood and Emile Heskey have proven to be adequate aerial backup for our system as we journeyed from 16th to 6th place. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Habib Beye has been the only wasted signing. Nigel Reo Coker was signed for all of £8.5m and has fallen out of first team favour – however, he has still provided 3 seasons of service with many, including myself, agreeing that he has more to offer the squad.

Bargains

Indeed, all of O’Neill’s £6m+ signings have been excellent additions. With Downing and Milner sharing the record club transfer signing at £12m, and the reluctant surrender of MON to dish out £9.65m for the “world class” Ashley Young, Martin’s perceived hesitation in the transfer market is simply calculated estimations – ones which always pay off; and ones which, as a fan, make me feel extremely relaxed about the club’s finances. But beyond the security of Villa’s money matters, the players acquired for more than £6m is testament to the manager’s ability to find the right footballers, who more often than not, turn out to be bargains: Richard Dunne (signed for almost £20m cheaper than Lescott), Stiliyan Petrov (club captain), Carlos Cuellar, Stephen Warnock and the potential of rising star Fabian Delph have proven to be money well spent – and players who certainly weren’t second choice transfer targets.

With regards to these supposed last day panic buys; in each of the transfer markets since August 2006, O’Neill has made 7 signings in the last day or penultimate date of the windows. Okay, one of these was Mustapha Salifou – a strange signing, but hardly worth talking about at £50K. One was the erratic Shaun Maloney: a tried and trusted player of the O’Neill regime who showed real glimpses of flair but simply struggled to settle (and sold for a £1.5m profit). Another was the bemusing Wayne Routledge: who provides probably the only argument of a last minute panic buy – but even so, was a huge letdown because a lot of people expected him to come good and fit into our pacy British attack (sold on for profit). The other 4: James Milner (PFA Young Player of the Year), Richard Dunne (Club Player of the Year & PFA Team of the Year), James Collins and Stiliyan Petrov. Do I really need to put forth an argument as to why these players are so much more than “panic buys”? Would it not be worth waiting until the 31st August again if we knew we would be joined with similarly effective signings? Not that we have had to wait for the rest of O’Neill’s 21 signings anyway.

The myth that Martin is sleeping throughout the transfer window is horrendously flawed. With 10 of our regular starting team all recruitments of the Northern Ireland man, MON has had more work to do than any other manager within the summer and January periods – and he has performed shrewdly each year.

Because he hasn’t spoken of his wish-list, why should we all of a sudden doubt his ability to uncover another Ashley Young; to find a John Carew at the expense of a Milan Baros; to persuade a Brad Friedel, a Richard Dunne or a James Milner that Aston Villa is the club for them? About to embark on his 5th season in charge, why should we let our impatience and fickleness mask the trust we have in a manager who has demonstrated admirable progression both on the field and off it, in the transfer market? Why are we helping spread the vicious and unfounded misconceptions that O’Neill can’t keep up with today’s transfer demands; the sheer lies that he is a last minute panic buyer; when, in fact, the supporters are the only faction which is panicking?

Once again this summer, the England World Cup campaign was marred with embarrassing intrusions. Media reports and over-expecting fans allowed their premature, untimely fears interfere with the task at hand and before we knew it, players were speaking out, the rumour mill was powering and reciprocal faith between the manager and players descended into chaos – and England were headed home. A lesson is there to be learned.

It’s time to stop these fictional “stats” getting in the way of the club’s progress. It’s time to stop these frustrated outbursts undermining an omnipotent manager – when every other club are laughing at us for not realising what we have. It’s time to stop and just embrace another summer of fresh additions fuelling the fires of our dreams of the season ahead.

West Ham on the 14th August. Numerous signings or not, we will be prepared. No matter how long it takes, come the first day of September, we will have acquired enough ammunition to carry out an assault on a 50 game season – O’Neill wouldn’t be here, Lerner wouldn’t want 4th, if we weren’t going to push on.

On the brink of success, we are between a rock and a hard place. Ready to jump from our current platform, we need the firepower to reach the next step – otherwise we will fall from grace. We need to strike whilst the iron is still hot.

The signings will come.

In MON We Trust.

Transfers

(table compiled by Dan at www.astonvillacentral.com)

Player transfers since Martin O’Neill joined Aston Villa on 4th August 2006.

Date Player                        Xfr Fee Out
                          Xfr Fee In   To/From Club
22/08/06 Kevin Phillips   700,000   West Brom
25/08/06 Ulises De la Cruz   Free   Reading
30/08/06 Stilian Petrov 6,500,000     Celtic
12/09/06 Didier Agathe ?     Celtic
03/10/06 Chris Sutton Free     Birmingham
11/01/07 Didier Agathe   Released   N/A
11/01/07 Peter Wittingham   350,000   Cardiff
22/01/07 Milan Baros   Swap   Lyon
22/01/07 John Carew Swap     Lyon
23/01/07 Ashley Young 9,650,000     Watford
25/01/07 Paul Green   Free   Lincoln
31/01/07 Shaun Maloney 1,000,000     Celtic
17/04/07 Juan Pablo Angel   Free   New York Red Bulls
25/05/07 Jlloyd Samuel   Free   Bolton
30/05/07 Stephen Henderson   Free   Bristol City
31/05/07 Mark Delaney   Released   N/A
31/05/07 Chris Sutton   Released   N/A
08/06/07 Gavin McCann   1,000,000   Bolton
27/06/07 Aaron Hughes   1,000,000   Fulham
01/07/07 Robert Olejnik   Free   Falkirk
05/07/07 Nigel Reo-Coker 8,500,000     West Ham
05/07/07 Steven Davis   4,000,000   Fulham
17/07/07 Marlon Harewood 4,000,000     West Ham
19/07/07 Lee Hendrie   Free   Sheffield Utd
01/08/07 Eric Djemba-Djemba   Released   N/A
01/08/07 Sam Williams   Released   N/A
29/08/07 Zat Knight 3,500,000     Fulham
30/08/07 Liam Ridgewell   2,000,000   Birmingham
31/08/07 Moustapha Salifou 50,000     FC Wil
30/01/08 Gary Cahill   5,000,000   Bolton
30/01/08 Wayne Routledge 1,250,000     Tottenham
28/05/08 Luke Moore   3,000,000   West Brom
01/06/08 Patrik Berger   Released   N/A
01/06/08 Thomas Sorensen   Released   N/A
03/07/08 Curtis Davies 8,000,000     West Brom
04/07/08 Damian Bellon   Free   FC Vaduz
04/07/08 Eric Lund   Free   IFK Gothenborg
10/07/08 Steve Sidwell 5,000,000     Chelsea
26/07/08 Brad Friedel 2,000,000     Blackburn
01/08/08 Brad Guzan 600,000     Chivas USA
01/07/08 Olof Mellberg   Free   Juventus
07/08/08 Nicky Shorey 4,000,000     Reading
08/08/08 Luke Young 5,000,000     Middlesbrough
12/08/08 Carlos Cuellar 7,800,000     Rangers
22/08/08 Shaun Maloney   2,500,000   Celtic
30/08/08 James Milner 12,000,000     Newcastle
03/01/09 Wayne Routledge   600,000   QPR
23/01/09 Emile Heskey 3,500,000     Wigan
01/06/09 Martin Laursen   Retired   N/A
02/06/09 Gareth Barry   12,000,000   Man City
23/06/09 Stuart Taylor   Free   Man City
16/07/09 Stuart Downing 12,000,000     Middlesbrough
21/07/09 Sam Williams   Free   Yeovil Town
25/07/09 Zat Knight   4,000,000   Bolton
04/08/09 Fabian Delph 8,000,000     Leeds Utd
07/08/09 Habib Beye 2,500,000     Newcastle
12/08/09 Andy Marshall Free     N/A
27/08/09 Stephen Warnock 8,000,000     Blackburn
01/09/09 Richard Dunne 6,000,000     Man City
01/09/09 James Collins 5,000,000     West Ham
26/01/10 Craig Gardner   3,500,000   Birmingham
06/06/10 Andy Marshall   Released   N/A
TBC Stephen O’Halloran   Free   Coventry City
Totals   123,850,000 39,650,000   84,200,000

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