Aston Villa & The Pursuit Of Mediocrity

5 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   January 6, 2014  |     51

Upon the tootling of the full time whistle at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon, a somewhat familiar chorus of booing rang around one of the few remaining historical homes of English football. A home defeat at the hands of a Sheffield United team that is currently struggling to keep its head above water two divisions below them isn’t a result that it’s possible to put a positive spin upon especially when the manager of your club has chucked his eggs into the basket of stating boldly that the FA Cup doesn’t matter any more, especially in comparison with the relentlessly perpetual battle to hang onto that financially important – but frequently boring – mid-table place in the Premier League.

Paul Lambert’s comments regarding Saturday’s match were stupid, but not necessarily for the reasons that you might expect us to say. Quite frankly, we’re quite a long way beyond the point of caring about this tedious annual debate. We know. We see it in the attendance figures. We see see it in the annual caterwauling of supporters with a sense of the sort of sense of entitlement that is a inevitable by-product of the sort of gentrification that the game has been subjected to over the last couple of decades. We know. We’ve had this conversation before. And every year, we say that other sports are available to those for whom English football – of which the FA Cup has been a part since before players were even paid to perform – isn’t good enough, but still they walk amongst us. And for the likes of Lambert, the ultimate truth of the matter is that he will be judged on his performance in the Premier League, and not the FA Cup.

To make such statements when things aren’t going brilliantly in the Premier League, however, sounds like an example of yet another football professional opening the mouth before properly engaging the brain. Paul Lambert set himself up for the derision that he has received I’m no small part because he is not in a comfortable enough position to be able to be as free with his words as he seems to think that he is. All his talk of projects, as if there is some sort of corehent masterplan that will eventually bear fruit for the overall good of Aston Villa Football Club, sounds particularly hollow when it’s followed by a home defeat at the hands of a team that your reserves should be able to beat. So it is that ympathy for him is in particularly short supply to the point that it may even be possible to believe that the manager who placed the FA Cup somewhere between what to buy Christian Benteke in the club’s Secret Santa and which suit to wear to the Christmas party could yet find the competition that he decided was beneath him playing a significant role in his departure from the club.

But Paul Lambert isn’t really our concern here. After all, why should anyone who cares about football care about a football manager who doesn’t want to win trophies? Paul Lambert’s management of Aston Villa over the last few days hasn’t been that of the manager of the football club. It’s been that of a middle manager in a call centre. Playing the percentages. The chair of the West Midlands Self-Preservation Society. He’s David Brent in a puffa jacket. No, our concern this evening is for the supporters of Aston Villa Football Club. Because, if Lambert is to be believed from his comments at the end of last week, there is no great reason to continue to watch his club play football unless you are a fan of mid-table Premier League football. The FA Cup is, to Lambert, a ‘distraction’. Something that his club can presumably do without. The very reasons why supporters get involved with football in the first place – those dizzying highs, those moments of giddiness that follow a moment that you, as a supporter, simply know will live with you for the rest of your life – have become an irrelevance in comparison with everything else.

So, here’s the question: if you follow the thoughts of Paul Lambert, what is the point of supporting Aston Villa? Consider what the best case scenario might be under his managership. Progress is slow, but steady. Under his managership and with the aid of continuing to consider cup competitions an irrelevance, the club gets into the top half of the Premier League. Maybe after a couple of years, it reaches the vertiginous heights of qualification for the Europa League. Except, of course, there’s a problem with this. The Europa League, with its inconveniently long group stages, offers further distraction. If Paul Lambert isn’t interested in the FA Cup, which requires five matches to get to the final, what will he think of a clutch of group matches against the likes of the fourth best team in Portugal and the winners of the Norwegian Cup? And that’s the glass ceiling for this club for the foreseeable future. Aston Villa are some considerable way short of having the quality or consistency required to challenge for a place in the Champions League, and having won the European Cup in 1982 isn’t going to change that.

The supporters of Aston Villa Football Club know better than this. Theirs is a heavily storied club, a founder member of the Football League in 1888, former champions of Europe and one of the grand old institutions of English football. And in the schism in viewpoints between the fan base and the club manager, we see yet another manifestation of one of the true fault lines of professional football – the gap in priorities between those who make their living for the game and those who pay for it and make it the spectacle that it is. And perhaps it is, albeit in a backhanded manner, beneficial that the likes of Paul Lambert make the sort of crass comments that he made because they help to prompt a debate over who, exactly, we involve ourselves with this game for in the twenty-first century. Aston Villa supporters, the same as the supporters of all football clubs, have no automatic right to success. But they should have an inalienable right for their clubs to strive for success, rather than mere mid-table mediocrity and the prospect of more of the same for as long as the manager who has publicly eschewed the winning of silverware remains in charge, however long that may be.

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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

  • January 6, 2014 at 1:45 pm


    very good read I am a season ticket holder at the villa the football or rather hoofball we are playing is gross if we played like Swansea instead of the new stoke villa park would be full every week I along with my family and friends will not be renewing my season ticket next season we will not be the only ones this manager is driving fans away with his brand of hoofball.

  • January 9, 2014 at 1:18 pm


    Couldn’t agree more. More than ever now there is a very small number of clubs who have the finances available to challenge for the league title. Other than that, the vast majority are just making up the numbers. The FA Cup is a competition that a clubs like Villa should be looking to win. If only to give their supporters something to cheer (they’re not going to be challenging for the league any time soon). And as you say, getting to the final is how many games? 5? 6? Hardly a marathon. And I also notice that Villa have nine days to recover from the Cup game before they meet Arsenal in a league match. Surely managers and clubs see what is happening? Of course the league is the priority (for every club). But they must know that all the are playing for us survival or mid table mediocrity? And that supporters want more than this. And the FA Cup can provide that. Something to look forward to. Something you can think about actually winning. If I were a Villa fan I’d want Lambert out of the club tomorrow.

  • January 10, 2014 at 3:39 am


    Sir Ian. Villa supporter from the US and, while I appreciate your take, I would like to compare the situation at Villa with that of my favorite American baseball team: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

    This year, the Pirates ended the longest losing streak in modern professional sports. 20 years without a winning season.

    Like Villa, the Pirates are one of the truly historical and storied teams in Major League Baseball, dating back into the 1800s and the dawn of the game. But since the early 1990s the Pirates have done exactly bupkus.

    Once you endeavor on such a generational losing streak, you become fixated. You can’t just quit. You’ve got to see it through. And this season the Pirates finally had a winning record and went to the playoffs.

    It was not by miracle. Nor by pricey player acquisitions. And it certainly did not happen overnight. The success had its genesis some 5 years ago or more when the ownership took stock of the situation and developed a plan to overcome the team’s dire fiscal situation, lack of talent throughout its recruiting and development system, fix the way they acquired and developed talent, etc. so they could compete in a system where teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers have unlimited spending power while teams like the Pirates have no room for error on the kind of limited budget they have. Sound familiar?

    Villa is currently in a cycle, I believe, where they are trying to compete in the big market by using small market wiles. When the Pirates did this, they drafted talent and grew that talent through their system. They traded away proven stars in return for young up and coming players (some of whom worked out and some which did not).

    All the while, the press and fans cried that the ownership was cheap and wouldn’t spend and didn’t care about the product on the field. The front office in Pittsburgh took a lot of heat and put their heads down and stuck with the plan they had drawn up.

    AND it seems to be working. Now, the Pirates have, fresh off a galvanizing run to the playoffs last fall and driven by promising young stars who should be with the team for years to come, a sustainable future with rising stars all throughout their development system.

    But it took 5-6 years of doing. Loads of investment in not only personnel, but in scouting, facilities, and in the personnel trusted to develop the players… the coaches. And the Pirates and its management was mercilessly derided as a joke.

    The Pirates were never even close to mediocre. You should be glad Villa clings to mediocre because Villa fans have no idea what kind of road could be theirs to travel.

    I would hope that Lerner and Lambert are trying to implement such a system-wide plan. They do seem to be going for young up and coming players and hoping that they pan out. The Villa academy is not in bad shape with a nest full of bright prospects. The fan base, though slackening right now perhaps, is still one of the biggest and most loyal fan bases in football.

    I think that Villa might be wise to employ the “Director of Football Operations” that some teams have gone to, dividing player acquisition and contract matters from the Coach’s job of managing and training the first team squad. It is common in the states, this kind of setup.

    AND I THINK that Villa may be in that same period the Pirates were just before everything started to fall into place. Before the 2013 season, nobody predicted the Pirates would have a winning season, let alone a wildly successful one. The fans were jumping off bridges, some of ’em. But some of us could see improvement.

    Likewise with Villa. I see an improvement over the kind of stuff that we saw since the departure of Martin O’Neil. We’re not in a relegation scrap and we ARE mediocre. But we’re not awful. There currently is nothing wrong with Villa that a center back pairing of Okore and Vlaar (and a playmaking #10 midfielder) wouldn’t fix. The depth appears to be improving with some young players figuring it out on the big stage who should, as they mature, become more productive.

    IT MIGHT BE that Villa has a plan and they’re executing it. I see positive signs despite the recent disappointments.

    Have faith.
    Have courage.
    Be Prepared.


  • January 11, 2014 at 11:21 pm


    First. I’d like to congratulate Wabbit on an excellent post. Pragmatic but positive, and knowing other people think like that helps us keep the faith.

    Second, I’m going to stick my head above the parapet and suggest that right now, for Aston Villa, no cup competition matters. It would be different if mid table mediocrity was our expectation, but as things stand, its an aspiration. We have had 3 very close run seasons, and while our current rate of return of points would be enough, performances over the last few weeks have not given much cause for expecting us to continue that rate of return. Could Villa be in another relegation fight this season? Absolutely. An injury or two (eg Vlaar) could mean the difference between winning and losing that fight and I would rather not risk that in a cup competition if we do not stand a good chance of winning it (and we don’t).

    The plan is to rebuild a squad that can compete in the Premiership whilst remaining financially sustainable. We don’t even know if that is possible if everybody else isn’t doing the same thing. I suspect we cannot even compete with a lot of Championship clubs for wages, and yet the task is to build a squad to compete in the Premiership. We are in the midst of those ‘growing’ pains and our squad really does look threadbare at the moment.

    Whatever happens, I will still be renewing my season ticket next year

    I’m afraid I found the original post a trite exposition from someone on the outside looking in. I remember reading something equally disappointing from Phil McNulty for BBC telling us how we never gave Alex McLeish a chance.

  • January 12, 2014 at 12:03 am


    Well I suppose the question has to be what should villa do? Villa tried to buy their way into the cl under o’neill, and spent a lot of lerners money. They wound up getting poor value for their money. And this set them up for large losses long after they turned off the tap.

    They’re trying to make the move from loss making sugar daddy club to a club that generates it’s own money for transfers. A big part of that is staying in the premiership while cutting their wages To turnover ratio from over 85% to about 60%. Their plan involves moving out all the big earners and replacing them with players from the championship or smaller European leagues.

    If they can stay up with these players, and players from the academy, and get rid of bent Ireland, given, nzogbia and Hutton, then they’ll be able to afford to spend a lot of money on a better class of player to help them climb the table. The higher they climb the more money they have to spend, the better the squad you can afford.

    Villa have a big fanbase, they Are the biggest club in the midlands, which is one of the most populous and economically active regions of Europe. They have a good academy. If they were to climb the table to seventh or eighth, and consistently do well, they could expand their stadium, increase their corporate facilities which would close the gap in income to the teams above them, establish themselves as a regional powerhouse and Hoover up commercial sponsorship from the midlands.

    The thing is that villa have generally been making a pigs Mickey of running their club for years. It’s going to take quite a while for them to sort things out. The quicker they can get things right with this finances, and start to get it right on the pitch, then the quicker they will get there.

    I appreciate that I’ve focus see a bit heAvily on the financial Aspect of things. But villa’s plan is to get to the point where they can afford to sign and pay better players and get themselves into a stronger position, and then they can have a go at winning various cups.

    Switching from being a sugar daddy club to one that lives within its means is t pretty. Ask any fan of Milan, inter or juventus.

    Sorry about bizarre bits but writing on a phone and it’s tricky to go back to edi properly

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