The crowd started to drift out of Villa Park with more than thirty minutes left to play, yesterday afternoon. This has been a wretched, dismal Christmas for the supporters of Aston Villa Football Club, who have, in the course of just three matches, seen a quiet sense of unease at the progress – or lack thereof – that their team had been making this season turn to something approaching outright alarm. First up came an eight goal thrashing at the hands of Chelsea in a match as one-sided as anything that we have seen in the Premier League in the last ten years or so. This was followed up by a home defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur which ended in a four-nil defeat, but which could have been considerably worse.
And then came Wigan Athletic at Villa Park. This, the previous two matches had confirmed, was now something of a litmus test for manager Paul Lambert, a simultaneous litmus test and half-term report for a team that has continued to stall since the departure of Alex McLeish during the summer. It was a test that Lambert’s team comprehensively failed. A goal down within three minutes, two further Wigan goals at the start of the second half from Arouna Koné killed this match stone dead as a contest and left Villa sitting a single, solitary point above the Premier League relegation places and with the worst goal difference in the entire division. It looks as if the next few months could well turn into a winter of discontent at Villa Park.
With such an alarming loss of form comes disquiet which has turned very quickly to something approaching panic. Lambert’s team is a very young one, many have suggested. Where are the calm heads of experience that can navigate the choppy waters ahead? With the January transfer window about to open, is there any truth in the suggestion that Lambert might already have decided which reinforcements he is looking to bring in over the next four and a half weeks? Aston Villa supporters have many questions to ask of their new manager at the moment, but he isn’t the only person whose actions have started to come under the microscope over the last few weeks and months. The whole management of the club, from owner Randy Lerner down, is now starting to come under pressure from an increasingly restless support.
What is clear is that Lambert’s young team is malfunctioning like almost no other in the Premier League at present. The upcoming transfer window offers an opportunity for clubs whose squads have been in need of retuning to get a fresh lick of paint, but it should also be borne in mind that wholesale changes to a the personnel of a football team’s squad in the middle of the season might even offer as many difficulties as it does resolutions. It has long been established that Randy Lerner has far from the means of the likes of Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich. This means that if Aston Villa are to spend money on its team over the next month or so, this money needs to be spent carefully. The ramifications of panic buying on players leading to no improvement on the pitch scarcely merits thinking about. There is, however, some good news for Villa supporters – it can only take one or two new signings to give an entire team a new sense of purpose.
This talk, however, doesn’t even begin to touch upon the longer term issues facing the club at the moment. Aston Villa Football Club has given the impression of being somewhere between treading water and sliding slowly towards obsolescence for the last two or three years. It’s not so long ago since the club was playing European football (Villa finished in sixth place in the Premier League for three successive seasons, which is easy to forget amid the club’s current woes), but clubs the size of Villa have stumbled and failed to get back on their feet before – a quick look at the clubs of the Championship confirms that – and, in modern football, in which money rules all other considerations, there are no guarantees of perpetual Premier League for anybody any more, bar a gilded few. Clubs that might, in previous years, have been considered relegation fodder and no more – Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City, for example – have, through astute management, managed to perform beyond many expectations and has created a vacuum towards the bottom of the Premier League table that a stagnating Aston Villa have fallen into.
Last season, the team had just about enough about them to pull free of the relegation places, but seven wins and just thirty-seven goals from thirty-eight Premier League matches told its own story and this season has not seen a significant improvement in results on the pitch. There are few that would welcome the dour, reductionist football of Alex McLeish back to Villa Park at any point in the near future, but modern football requires results, and those have been even less forthcoming under Paul Lambert than they were last season. Relegation is far from an inevitability for Villa, of course, and it would be absurd to assume otherwise. The very nature of transfer windows, however, compartmentalise the opportunities that managers have to restructure their teams and this only adds to the pressure that any struggling manager faces going into the new year. It would probably be a folly to replace Lambert at this stage – the question of who could be drafted in to replace him at short notice is not one that is easy to answer – but the pressure that is building upon him may well have an effect upon a relatively inexperienced squad. It is precisely this sort of ever decreasing circle which has led the club to the position in which it finds itself today.
The new television contract which kicks in this summer will increase revenues from this particular stream by 71% from next season on, and it is this reality which makes Aston Villa’s survival in the Premier League at this season an imperative. The cost of failure would be very real, not only for Paul Lambert, but also for Randy Lerner and for Aston Villa FC in a broader sense. In this year, which marked the thirtieth anniversary of the year during which it became the champion of the whole of Europe, there is a certain grim irony to the fact that this club, one of the twelve founder members of the Football League in 1888, should be spending the end of the festive season wondering which division they might be ending next year in. Lambert and Lerner have just a few weeks to stabilise this listing ship.
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