It’s a strange time to be a Villa fan. Five draws from the opening six games have left us undefeated, but have hardly caused any sense of optimism for the season ahead, and in the infant league table we find ourselves simultaneously four points away from both the top four and the bottom three. Whilst an unbeaten start is always welcome, Villa haven’t begun with the trickiest set of fixtures, and after a creditable opening day draw at Craven Cottage, performances have deteriorated. Out-fought at Everton, outplayed at home to Newcastle and then totally annihilated for 45 minutes at Loftus Road, not to mention the complete aberration in the Carling Cup.
I’ve read a lot in the national media about the Villa fans warming to McLeish, which is about as true as the reports that claimed we didn’t want him because of where he came. Our problem with the manager has always been his reputation for dire, stifling football, something that he’s done little to change in his eight competitive matches so far. It’s true the dissenting voices have been a minority to date, but that’s largely because as a group we appreciate how far we’ve fallen since Martin O’Neill threw all his toys from the pram and took a great deal of the club with him on the eve of last season.
The debate on O’Neill’s tenure will rage amongst Villa fans for the remainder of time without a definitive answer, but the facts are that he invested heavily, sometimes exceptionally poorly (Steve Sidwell, Curtis Davies, Habib Beye all take a bow) and we didn’t make it to the Promised Land. He left the club with the petulance of a child on the eve of last season with a vastly improved squad, but running at a substantial loss that he was unwilling or unable to turn around. By then the Sheikh was in place at City, the ‘Sky Four’ were being broken up and Villa spent a season flirting with relegation during ‘The Houllier debacle’, which continued well into a disastrous summer.
Our talisman is gone, receiving the platitudes at Old Trafford from over-fawning pundits that he deserved at Villa Park
And now we’re here, slumped somewhere in the middle of a congested, average pack that makes up the bulk of the Premier League. Our talisman is gone, receiving the platitudes at Old Trafford from over-fawning pundits that he deserved at Villa Park, and we’re left with Big ‘Eck, the safe choice for a job that it seemed no-one but the mercenary Mark Hughes wanted, an unbalanced, threadbare squad, and an empty pot of dollars. So where do Villa go from here?
Well, it’s not all doom and gloom. Despite poor performances, we have that unbeaten record. Despite attendances that are on the wane we have a huge, loyal fan base, and despite our current malaise we have our history, something a lot of clubs in this league would trade with us in an instant. And a couple of bizarre games two weekends back pointed the way to return the feel-good factor to Villa Park. In a decidedly average Premier League, Blackburn’s victory over Arsenal and Spurs annihilation of Liverpool proved what I’ve long suspected. In this league attack is the best form of defence.
Under McLeish, Villa have spent far too much of games on the back foot, concentrating on improving our shambolic defending from last season rather than on seizing the initiative and trying to win games, and his favoured 4-5-1 (no matter how much he tries to dress it up as a ‘dynamic 4-3-3’) doesn’t entice the best from our most effective players. We’ve spent long swathes of games, particularly the last hour against Newcastle and the first half at QPR, without the ball and we’re not built like the Blues. We don’t have the players to change games from set-pieces or on the break anymore. But what we do have is reams of industry and energy in a young midfield, and the best goalscorer outside of the top 6.
And here’s where that O’Neill debate rages it’s ugly head again. Our relative success under his stewardship was simple; we played to the strengths of the players we had, yet Houllier and McLeish in turn have both tried to create teams in their images without the tools to do so. If Villa get the ball on the floor, get men in the box and put teams under pressure, in Bent, Agbonlahor, Ireland and N’Zogbia, we’ve got players who can hurt the teams around us, and in Albrighton, Bannan, Delph and the much-hyped Gary Gardner, we’ve got kids who’ll contribute if they can enjoy their football too. The style of football at the moment makes both players and supporters edgy and after 14 months of disappointment and tension, what everyone at Villa Park needs is a bit of fun.
Interestingly tomorrow’s opponents are managed by the guy who’s rejection of the Villa job in the summer presented us with Big ‘Eck in the first place. If we go out and play with a bit of the flair Roberto Martinez’s Wigan have won plaudits for it could be a new start for everyone at the club. Another bore draw and we’ll be looking longingly at the opposition dugout. The watchwords surrounding the club have been ‘stability’ and ‘realism’ this season, something I wholeheartedly endorse. If that translates into ‘boring’ though, the club won’t have even touched on the start of its decline.
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