There is something rather appropriate about the fact that the first post-season managerial casualty in the Premier League should have turned out to be Aston Villa’s Alex McLeish. It was, after all, McLeish’s arrival at Villa Park last summer that was one of the most perplexing seen anywhere in recent times, and has been one of the most bitterly opposed by supporters of the club at which the appointment was made. But what was decried by many – including some in the media – as mindless tribalism turned out to be a case of the supporters of a football club understanding perfectly well how badly thus appointment might play out. Those supporters may well be raising a glass this evening, but they may also have pause to reflect upon what might yet come to be known as “Aston Villa’s lost year.”
The decision to hire him in the first place was perplexing, to say the least. Under Gerard Houllier the previous season Villa had begun to give off a distinct whiff of decay, and with Houllier’s departure at the end of the season came a golden opportunity for rebirth, to engage players and supporters and to arrest the decline that the club had found itself drifting into since Martin O’Neill resigned a few days before the start of the 2010/11 season. Bringing in Alex McLeish, however, seemed to give nobody even remotely connected to the club any sort of bounce in confidence ahead of the start of the new season. The gloom that had started to form over Villa Park during the previous season stubbornly refused to lift, and the result was fairly predictable. Aston Villa ended their season at Carrow Road yesterday with a performance against Norwich City so supine that McLeish might as well have merely instructed his team to line up on the edge of their own penalty area to have their bellies tickled.
It was a performance which aptly summed up the previous nine months – a fitting end to an anaemic season which saw the team finish just two points above the relegation places, and with the few highlights on offer being easily eclipsed by an overwhelming sense of inertia on the part of the players. The team started the season by going unbeaten for its first seven league matches, but only two of these were actually won. It was a fig leaf of respectability. They achieved something tangible in beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Eve, but won just two of the eighteen matches that they played in the league after this, whilst, in the cups, wins against lower division sides were followed by spineless defeats at the hands of Premier League opposition. Villa supporters had started checking their watches by the time that winter arrived, and perhaps the only consolation that can be taken from the last nine months is the fact that they didn’t get relegated from the Premier League once all thirty-eight matches had been played. This, though, was something of a hollow victory. The thirty-eight points acquired from these matches might not even have enough to keep the club up in other, less forgiving seasons.
From before a ball was kicked at the start of the season, however, Alex McLeish was on borrowed time at Villa Park. The temptingly obvious explanation to seek when we look at the hostility that McLeish faced in this job is to reach for one of this season’s most vigorously employed buzzwords, “tribalism.” Of course, there would alway be a few swivel-eyed loons who wouldn’t have accepted McLeish at Villa Park because he had come to the club from Birmingham City even if he’d won them the Premier League and the Champions League, but the opposition to his appointment clearly felt too widespread to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. There may have been an element of truth in the supposition that McLeish’s St Andrews connections left the manager with little room for error at the start of the season, but this has to be counter-balanced by pointing out that most Villa supporters stated themselves that their reservations were based largely upon the fact that not only had he contrived to get Birmingham City relegated, but had done so using a style of football that would have looked more at home on a sewage farm than on the lush, green turf of Villa Park. These supporters, as things turned out, were right. Those that derided them were wrong.
And therein, perhaps, lays the rub. No football supporter has the automatic right to success, or even to be entertained, week in week out. That isn’t the lot of the football supporter, and football supporters know this implicitly. What we are entitled to, however, is the belief that those whose wages we pay are at least doing the most that they can within whatever constraints their club finds itself. Aston Villa supporters suffered a season of subsistence living this season, nine months of grey, shapeless, reductionist football. It was seldom so catastrophically terrible as to cross the line into being a series of acts of masochism to turn up at Villa Park, and neither did the team crash and burn in such a way that their failure become a spectacle in itself. If Aston Villa’s season were a fictional character, it would have been J Alfred Prufrock. If were food, it would have been gruel. And Alex McLeish served this up with wearying monotony from August through to yesterday afternoon.
This was, perhaps, recognised in the terseness of the club’s official statement today on the subject. McLeish’s contract was not ended “by mutual consent”. It was “terminated” – perhaps in the same way that a sickly animal might be put out of its misery by a vet. If this decision brings a little colour back to the washed out cheeks of the supporters of the club, then no-one in their right mind could call it a bad decision. Perhaps Aston Villa have had their close call and things will not be this bad again. Perhaps the replacement manager, whoever it turns out to be, will find that the cost of turning around the fortunes of the club are prohibitively high for now. It seems unlikely that the supporters of Aston Villa will be overly concerned about this for today, at least. They’ve been released from their own state of purgatory today, and that, they may well consider, is a start.
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