They are amongst the pillars of the English game. They were amongst the first bastions of professionalism in the game, were founder members of the Football League in 1888, and their name immediately conjures up something almost unfathomably romantic about the history of football in this country. That said, though, Aston Villa can occasionally give the impression of being a club that is plain damn contrary. For example, their sole First Division championship since 1910 of 1981 was followed by becoming the champions of Europe, yet five years after the greatest triumph in their history they were relegated, in bottom place in the First Division. This turned out to be but a minor blip, but Villa remains an enigmatic club, unburdened by the weightier aspirations of some of their peers, but still with a sense of place and history which carries with it a level of a minimum level of expectations which the team on the field only sporadically manages to meet, and this summer has again seen the club rather stuck between two stools.
Last season saw Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers all back in the top division for the first time since 1984, and for all four clubs it was a season of mixed emotions. Birmingham City won a major trophy and a place in Europe, but were relegated at the end of the season. Wolves struggled all season but hauled themselves clear when it really mattered. West Bromwich Albion unexpectedly replaced their manager midway through the season with a canny appointment who saw them comfortably clear of the relegation zone. As for Aston Villa… well, they lost their manager five days before the start of the season and for a brief while it looked as if they might even get sucked towards a relegation battle. They rallyed, though, and ended the season as the highest-placed of the aforementioned four clubs and, arguably more significantly, in the top half of the Premier League. Panic over.
This feeling of flux that hung over Villa Park for much of the winter has, however, resurfaced over the last few weeks. A combination of Gerard Houllier’s health and his mixed record last season meant that there was more than an element of inevitability about his departure from the position at the very start of the summer, but his replacement, Alex McLeish, caused more than a few raised eyebrows. The reasons for these were obvious, of course. Not only had McLeish followed up his previous club’s first major trophy in five decades with relegation from the Premier League, but he had contrived to manage this almost unique double-whammy at their biggest local rivals, Birmingham City. The appointment led, perhaps predictably, led to protests and, with the new season looming large on the horizon, the usual pre-season optimism that engulfs many clubs at this time of year has been replaced with the feeling of an uneasy truce around Villa Park between the supporters and the club. Alex McLeish, one suspects, may have one of the shortest honeymoon periods in the history of football management if he isn’t immediately successful. Indeed, for some, if not many, Aston Villa supporters, his honeymoon may have finished as the ink dried on his contract.
This feeling of unease has not been assisted by the club’s activities in the summer transfer market. Ashley Young, tipped as a likely regular fixture in the England team in years to come, had long seemed likely to leave the club and that the temptation of a move to Old Trafford proved too much for him to resist was no great surprise. For many Villa supporters, though, the departure of Stewart Downing to Liverpool was a nasty jolt to the system. Downing is a talented player – not as brilliant as some claim, but certainly not the sack of potatoes in a football shirt that others make him out to be – but, for many Villa supporters, the issue at hand is that the symbolism of such a move is what counts. If Aston Villa are to make progress next season (and it is worth remembering that they ended last season with just one defeat in their last eight matches, culminating in successive wins against Arsenal and Liverpool and that under other circumstances they may have looked forward to starting the forthcoming season with something of a spring in their step), they may rationalise that Downing is the sort of player that they should be enticing to stay at the club if they are to improve upon last season.
The list of incoming players fits the current Villa profile of being a club in no mans land. There can be little doubting Shay Given’s quality as a goalkeeper and he is an ample replacement for the Tottenham-bound Brad Friedel, but Given is now thirty-five years old and, while increased fitness levels mean that there is no particular reason why a goalkeeper shouldn’t last until he is forty, the decision to award him a five year contract at that age seems unusual. The other object of Alex McLeish’s desires, Charles n’Zogbia, has been a fits and starts player for the last few seasons but, at twenty-five years of age, the best years of his career could – perhaps should – be ahead of him. These are reasonable signings, but they seem unlikely to set the hairs on the arms of Villa supporters stand on end and, as such, they match the current profile of the club reasonably closely.
The reality of Aston Villa’s position is that they will probably be a mid-table Premier League club again next season. If this sounds depressing, though, it’s probably worth pointing out the fates of several of the clubs that they will, at various points over the last three decades or so have considered to be their contemporaries. Villa supporters unhappy at not being in one of the European positions may wish to consider the likes of Ipswich Town, Nottingham Forest, Southampton, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and a cast of others with whom they have crossed pathsi at various stages in the past. It’s possible to argue that Aston Villa, founder members of the Football League and a reasonably solvent and ever-present member of the Premier League since its inception in 1992, have been luckier than many others in the choppy financial waters of the last few years.
This relative stability has come at the expense of a small slide in the club’s Premier League status. A lot of money was spent under the managership of Martin O’Neill, and far from all of it was spent wisely. There is a proportion of the Aston Villa support that will be unhappy at this, and it may even be reasonable to say that Randy Lerner’s honeymoon period as the club’s owner ended with last season and the appointment of McLeish as manager earlier this summer. The truth of the matter is, however, that if the club was to be insulated against the fall from grace that the likes of Ipswich Town, Nottingham Forest, Southampton, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday have had to endure in recent years, it was more prudent to tackle this issue now than to wait. It would be a stretch to say that Villa have, in this respect, been “lucky” – it isn’t “lucky” for football supporters to avoid financial mismanagement and subsequent near collapse of their clubs, it should be a basic right – but they have at least maintained the status that they have held for the last couple of decades or so, and that is more than can be said for dozens of others.
In spite of a choice of new manager that may cause friction next season, the loss of two key players with no replacements of the same talent and with the cycle of perpetual sixth-place-and-possibly-slightly-higher having receded somewhat for the time being, then, the future isn’t as dark as a superficial look at the club might indicate. In the hysterical culture that follows the Premier League around these days, headlines warning of impending doom and gloom make for high reader numbers than less dramatic stories, but if Villa have successfully managed to level themselves, financially speaking, then that is progress of sorts which puts them in a better position to get back towards the top end of the table in the future than they would be otherwise. There is little question that they are capable of getting back to where they were several years ago, but this year may be a little too soon. Better that, though, than to adopt the boom and bust methodology that has conspicuously failed at so many other clubs, and there are plenty of supporters from clubs that used to be their contemporaries who can attest to that.
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