The gloves came off at Villa Park last night. Leading by a goal and having dominated the match at half-time against Bolton Wanderers, Alex McLeish’s team threw their lead away and now sit just three points above the relegation places with three matches of the Premier League season left to play. And with this defeat, the sullen cloud of dissatisfaction that has sat over Villa Park this season lifted, but what replaced it was a thunderstorm of noise and abuse. Aston Villa, their supporters will tell you, have been in a desperate state for months and months now, but this is something that had, perhaps, slipped under the radar of the press in many respects until last night. With the precariousness of the club’s position now starkly obvious to anybody that glances at the league table for more than five seconds, the obituaries for their time in the Premier League are already being written.
That Alex McLeish should be the target of the ire of Villa supporters is no great surprise. After all, as a former manager of Villa’s arch-rivals and the man that had taken them through the trap-door out of the Premier League at the end of last season, the well of goodwill afforded to him was always going to sparse, with some never accepting a former Birmingham City manager at the club in this ultra-partisan day and age, whilst others might have signed up for an uneasy truce in which they would keep their protests to a minimum for as long as results were reasonable. It’s a trade-off that football supporters make on a daily basis. As the team has come to grind to a halt on the pitch, the voices of discontent have become greater and greater, and only now – it seems – has the club realised just how much trouble it is in. The result of all of this was a peculiar club statement released earlier this evening which sought to prey upon the supporters’ baser instincts:
We are totally conscious, as is everyone at the club, that this is a very trying time for those who love Aston Villa. We know that the team will continue to fight through every minute of the remaining games and we hope Villa fans will continue to show their great support.
It’s a common enough theme at football clubs that are in trouble. “Do it for the team!”, they cry. It’s a clever ploy, simultaneously making those that have expressed their anger at the condition of a club feel guilty about offering any form of criticism, whilst deflecting this criticism away from those charged with its custodianship and onto those that suffer the most when a football team is doing badly. This is, to be completely fair, one of this phenomenon’s more innocuous uses. Perhaps the Aston Villa team would react positively to ninety minutes of positivity coming from the Villa Park crowd. What harm, we might reasonably ask, could loud and vocal support for the last three games of the season possibly do?
The answer to this question is, of course, “none”, but whether a wall of sound from the crowd itself will be enough to drive the team forward is anybody’s guess. Some might even argue that it had better be, because Aston Villa have shown precious few other reasons for optimism over the last few weeks or so. The team has won just twice in the Premier League since beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Eve – a run of sixteen matches – and it is difficult to see where any sort of immediate turn-around is going to come from. At the weekend, they travel to The Hawthorns to play a West Bromwich Albion team which won at Anfield last week, before finishing off with matches against Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich City. There are no certainties at this stage of the season, but Villa may need three or four points from these matches in order to have a likelihood of avoiding relegation that is much above fifty/fifty. None of the remaining fixtures – not even a home match against the free-falling Tottenham Hotspur – will give supporters much cause for optimism, especially when we consider that many of the other sides at the foot of the table are picking up points here and there.
The torpor of this season can be seen in the hard figures. Crowds are substantially down and financial losses are substantially up. The only thing keeping Alex McLeish at Villa Park right now is the brutal fact that it is now too late in the season to sack him, and it would be miraculous to see him survive the summer at the club, whether it is relegated at the end of this season or not. McLeish’s dour style of football meant that he has had no option but to deliver on results this season, and a quick look at the Premier League table confirms that this has not been the case. It is possible that we can put the appointment of McLeish down as a momentary lapse of reason, but it is a lapse that may yet have profound consequences.
The decline of Aston Villa started with the resignation of Martin O’Neill as last season started and can be traced through Gerard Houllier’s torpid time in charge of the club last season and through this season as well. Whether this ends up with the club playing football in the Championship or not remains to be seen, but that the club should have had two successive failures of this nature could suggest a more infrastructural problem within the club. Perhaps more than any other Premier League club, Aston Villa has felt rudderless over the last couple of years, and the only question which now remains is that of where this two seasons of folly will leave the club. Should Aston Villa survive the cut at the end of this season, the club should take heed of the warning that this season’s close call will have taught it. The alternative – the relegation of Aston Villa from the top division of English football for the first time in twenty-five years – is not something that most Villa supporters dare contemplate too much at this precise moment in time, for their mental well-being, if nothing else.
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