One of the defining characteristics of this season in the Premie League has been the desperate battle to avoid relegation. With seven matches of the season left to play, there are still ten clubs that could still be relegated and it seems likely that the scramble will last until the very end of the season. Considering that half of the Premier League is still involved in this particular dog-fight, it is unsurprising that there are some big names amongst them, and arguably the name that causes one’s eyebrows to rise the highest is a club that we might have been expecting to spend this season pushing for a place in Europe for next season: Aston Villa.
There is no doubting that Aston Villa are a big club. One of the twelve founding members of the Football League, their very name is one of the surviving links that we have with English football’s founding years. It is a name and a club that drips with history. Yet their tumble down the table this season has been almost sedate. Unlike the noisy chaos that surrounded another club of similar proportions, Newcastle United, two years ago, Aston Villa have slid into trouble as quietly as a mouse but, with just seven matches of the season left to play, they are just two points and two positions above the relegation places.
Supporters of the club are, of course, furious at this state of affairs and the target of their ire is the manager, Gerard Houllier. Houllier has had a patchy managerial career, from his abject spell in charge of the French national team to his tepid later years in charge of Liverpool. He is capable of better (his two successive Ligue 1 titles with Olympique Lyonnais offer some evidence for this), but to suggest that this season has been anything other than an abject failure be somewhat laughable. This season’s Aston Villa vintage has been lethargic, defensively weak and impotent in attack, while the cracks behind the scenes have been all too visible, with talk of what is known in tabloid circles as “training ground bust-ups” which have passed seamlessly from being rumour to established fact. It is a familiar litany of woe.
Such is the tightness in the bottom half of the Premier League this season, though, that Aston Villa’s season could yet end with them finishing in a mid-table position in the table, so there is still time and there are one or two lessons from Newcastle’s collapse two years ago that the club can draw from. Most important of all is the position of the manager. Randy Lerner has so far kept faith with Houllier, and it is likely that he is now past the point of no return for this season with the appointment of Houllier. Aston Villa supporters that are yelling for his head may wish to remind themselves of the appointment of Alan Shearer at St James Park two years ago. If Aston Villa supporters think that they are in trouble now… well, it could be worse and it might yet, should they fall into the relegation places.
Three of Villa’s remaining seven matches stand out as being must-win fixtures: home matches against West Ham United and Wigan Athletic, as well as a trip to The Hawthorns to play West Bromwich Albion are all matches against teams as much in the mire. Win these three fixtures and they would be on forty-three points regardless of what happens in their other matches, which will probably be enough to see them most of the way towards safety. Fail in these matches, however, and the sting in the tail of their season – their last two fixtures are away to Arsenal and at home against Liverpool – could see them needing results to guarantee their survival. At that point, the perilousness of their predicament would be thrown into sharp focus.
There is something in the history of Aston Villa that betrays an occasional tendency towards this sort of predicament. They had a season in Division Two in the late 1980s and didn’t compete in the top division at all for eight years between 1967 and 1975. History, however, doesn’t count for a great deal in the situation in which the club currently finds itself, and here is where the good news for the club’s position kicks in. Firstly, they may have turned something of a corner with a decent performance at Everton last weekend. They only managed one point from the match, but every point is critical at this stage in the season. Secondly, looking at the bottom of the Premier League table, it simply feels as if there are still at least three clubs more likely to go down than Villa, although if specifying who exactly they are still feels like a challenge, even at this late stage of the season.
At this stage, it feels as if sacking Gerard Houllier now would send out a message of panic and crisis at Villa Park. His position will surely become untenable should the club be relegated at the end of this season and it may already be that he has burnt his bridges with at least a section of the support to such an extent that he will not be able to hang on there even if they do manage to stay up. What we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that this edition of the Aston Villa team is not functioning at a level that the club would realistically consider to be its minimum acceptable level, and that it needs to be gutted and rebuilt during the summer. The question, however, is one of which division they will be rebuilding for and, while it still feels as if the old line of them being, “too good to go down” is probably true, they are a little too close for comfort at present.
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