This evening’s game between Newcastle United and Aston Villa probably should have been a six pointer of a different kind. The Geordies had massively punched above their weight in the previous season to finish fifth, whereas the Brummies had managed to survive being turned into a footballing vacuum under Alex McLeish and been steered to 16th. Course correction would occur and these two teams should have gravitated to where they belong, challenging for the lowest dangling UEFA cup spots.
Instead, both teams have found themselves in disastrous free-fall and the “six pointer” occurs at the foot of the table, with both teams in with a realistic chance of being relegated on current form, both losing to lower division opposition in the cups to compound the issue. The press have been whipped up into a doom frenzy and where once both teams could laugh it off, history keeps on repeating itself to such a degree that whoever loses on this wet Tuesday evening will start to believe every rotten word written about them.
Both sides are similarly afflicted. First, the injury list for both teams are among the longest in the league. For Newcastle, losing defenders like Ryan Taylor, Dan Gosling and Steven Taylor long term has clearly taken its toll, as has been the prolonged injury to Yohan Cabaye. Throw in recurring injuries for Ben Arfa, Jonas Gutierrez and Danny Simpson and suddenly players like Gabriel Obertan and James Perch are on the pitch…and we all know how that ends.
It’d be hard for anyone not to sympathise with Aston Villa’s situation. Alex McLeish took the dour football that had got city rivals Birmingham relegated twice, put all his eggs in the N’Zogbia basket, which Newcastle fans know only too well is a fools errand, and went on to become statistically the worst manager in their history. Having spent the money on a couple of marquis signings, seemingly to try and lose the image that his sides didn’t play football, he didn’t strengthen the side as was needed.
Then came the injuries to key personnel. The Talismanic Richard “Disaster” Dunne was out with a groin injury, some say unlikely to return. Club captain Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with Leukaemia. Marc Albrighton is out until April, Ron Vlaar – the man stepping up to fill in for Dunne – has only just returned and brainless pace-machine Agbonlahor also had spells on the sidelines.
Both teams have also lost their top scorers. Newcastle lost the one-knee’d goalfest that was Demba Ba when finally the press got their wish and saw the buyout clause in his contract activated after they effectively did the job of touting him to every club across Europe by never shutting up about it. Darren Bent alone should be enough to keep Aston Villa out of trouble but for reasons that are beyond most footballing fans, Lambert has used him sparingly, refusing to start him and trying to style out that decision as being about “football reasons”.
Most suspect the real reason is not wanting to activate a £3m payment clause after he makes fifty appearances for the club. Sat at forty-eight and twenty goals, those numbers add more than a hint of suspicion that the rumours might be true. Probably worth informing Randy Lerner that you lose a lot more than £3m when you get relegated – he can just go and ask Mike Ashley.
Both club’s commitment to the signing of younger players, with a view to building a core that can grow together, is admirable. Aston Villa fielded the team with the youngest average age in Premier League history this season, beating Arsenal’s record. There are success stories on both sides – Ben Arfa, Benteke – and dismal failures – Amalfitano, Bennett – but in a time when great sides are seemingly only assembled by wealthy clubs, the approach is refreshing.
The main problem is that the approach only works when you’ve got experience to slot the youngsters alongside and both clubs have found that experience dropping by the wayside at key moments at the season. Directionless and lacking leadership the clubs lurch from one disaster to another, a good performance leading to no result at all, a spiritless collapse leading to a mauling at the hands of clinical opposition – 7-3 against Arsenal, 8-0 against Chelsea.
There’s one difference and it’s one that will invariably swing it in the favour of Newcastle and, depressingly, it has been down to a whirlwind of transfer activity before the window slams shut. Newcastle, having pocketed money from sales and still not managed to spend the vastly inflated £35m we commanded for a West Ham reserve player, we had the luxury of doing something Aston Villa couldn’t – spend.
And Newcastle spent it on quality. Missing out on Loic Remy might have temporarily felt like a kick in the balls, delivered as it was by the only manager left in modern football who treats running a club like a game of Football Manager, Harry Redknapp. However, picking up Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Massadio Haïdara, Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko more than made up for it. Especially when you consider that for four players that had all represented France at the under-21 level we’ve spent less than £15m.
Sissoko is especially a coup and he was tracked by clubs faring much better than us. If you wonder what prompted Arsene Wenger’s bizarre outburst about how the transfer window, a system that inherently limits how many signings you can make, should have a limit to the number of signings you can make…well, just know they’d had their eye on the player that draws comparisons to Vieira for some time and missed out once again because Wenger is more interested in financial fair play than successful flair play these days.
The relief at these signings can’t be underestimated. I’d written off this season and had no plans to sit through tonight’s match. However, watching Lambert’s boys get beat up by Bradford then mugged by Millwall, there’s no doubt that with these new signings Newcastle are favourites for the game. It’s perverse in a way; people who have been watching the last run of fifteen matches through their fingers will now be craning their necks to see the new additions to our French contingent. Equally, Aston Villa fans will start to wonder if this season is some sort of manufactured experiment to what happens to young footballers if placed in an environment where nothing goes right.
There may be some hope for Villa. Dunne faces a late fitness test and he will be welcome whatever state the old warhorse is in. He certainly doesn’t guarantee a clean sheet but at least you know the only goal you’ll concede will be his doing. Without him it’s hard to see how Aston Villa will deal with a team populated by people all wanting to make a statement. Certainly they’re not going to face a more beleaguered opponent all season and when the victory comes there will be little joy in it. Neither club should really be where it is but circumstances have conspired in such a way that we’re both now going to have to propel ourselves out of trouble using the other as a springboard. For all the similarities neither club wants to share the fate that will befall the loser. Sadly for Aston Villa it’s Newcastle that did more in January to make sure that happens. Come the end of the season we’ll see just how big, or small, a difference it really was.