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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