The Decline of Aston Villa: A Personal Perspective
It’s funny how these things creep up on you. I don’t remember completely whether it was a tweet or a Facebook status update that prompted it or whether it just a thought that popped into my head, but throughout the entirety of today, all I’ve been consumed by a single thought – it’s almost Easter, and Aston Villa still only have sixteen Premier League points. This feels to me like the flicking of a switch, and also a “was this only me?” moment. Aston Villa have been in varying degrees of a mess for several seasons now, but such is the hullabaloo that wraps itself around a football club when things aren’t going so well these days that it can be tempting to lose track of time and assume that things will sort themselves out in the end.
This time, though, although it’s still mathematically possible at the time of writing, it doesn’t look as if they’re going to survive the drop. If Aston Villa are to somehow scramble to safety, they will do so thanks to a turnaround that would be unprecedented in the entire history of English football, and this means that they are almost certainly not going to pull through. It’s not that Aston Villa have never been relegated before, of course. The club dropped into Division Two in 1987, just five years after winning the European Cup, and those with longer memories will recall a time when the club spent the eight years between 1967 and 1975 outside of the top flight, a period which included two seasons in the Third Division.
So it isn’t that Aston Villa Football Club hasn’t been here before, and neither is it that there aren’t Villa supporters old enough to remember it having happened before. This time around, however, it feels as though the air of despondency that hangs over Villa Park isn’t going to lift at any time in the near future. Stories have emerged over the last few months or so which have indicated that Randy Lerner purchased the football club after a perfunctory process that largely involved the question of, “Is Aston Villa a Premier League football club?” It’s easy to pop down to the club shop, pick up a claret and blue striped scarf, and put it on of a Saturday morning. There seems, however, to have been little interest on his part in anything relating to this club specifically, even if he did play the role of being “the good owner” for some time before the scales began to fall from most people’s eyes.
If attitudes from the top do have tendency to filter down through any organisation, it’s small wonder that such an air of lethargy has come to fall over this club in recent years. Still, though, scapegoats have to be found for failure on the pitch, and recent reports regarding manager Remi Garde’s position at the club being “under review” have hinted at the identity of the next sacrificial lamb that will be fed through the Villa Park mincer. There seem be two perceptions of Garde’s short and thus far unhappy spell in charge of the club. On the one hand, some supporters have been critical of what has been perceived to be poor decision making with regards to team selection and a lack of tactical flexibility when matches have swung against him.
There is, however, an alternate point of view that some have put forward, that Garde has been effectively been operating with one hand tied behind his back, given the playing resources at his disposal, and in particular the club’s lack of activity during the January transfer window, which could certainly be considered to have been Aston Villa’s only chance to breathe some life into a moribund playing squad. It certainly seems as likely as not that very few managers could have resuscitated this particular squad of players, and there are certainly no guarantees that the man that is already being touted as his replacement, Nigel Pearson, would be able to do a great deal to bring this particular squad of players to life unless the medium plan at Villa Park is to terrify the club back into the Premier League.
And herein hangs a dilemma that all soon-to-be-relegated clubs face. Even if we consider Remi Garde’s spell in charge of Aston Villa to have been a failure, did he suddenly become a bad manager upon walking through the entrance at Villa Park, or were those who considered his record prior to this appointment to be that of a promising manger wrong? Might he succeed if given more time, or can any replacement squeeze blood from this particular stone where he has been unable to? In many respects, there are too many questions and too few answers regarding Aston Villa’s dismal disastrous season, and it’s vanishingly unlikely that the answers to these and a myriad of other questions will or even can be answered in time to save the club this season. Perhaps Nigel Pearson could be the silver bullet that would shoot some life back into Aston Villa. But then again, perhaps he might not be.
With this particular club, a club with which I have no particular affiliation, though, all of this feels strangely intimate. When I was a child my father was a scrap metal dealer, and occasionally during the summer holidays he would drive up to the West Midlands with his son in tow on a trip that was a peculiar combination of business and free child-care. Mindful of the potential for disruption that a bored eleven year old can offer on long car journeys, our trips north would occasionally take in a visit to one of the area’s football grounds, and I remember extremely vividly the vastness of the redbrick facade of the Trinity Road stand at Villa Park, the sense of epic scale that it lent the entire venue. I remember some years later passing through Birmingham on a train towards the north-west of England on a murky midwinter afternoon and seeing the Villa Park floodlights peering out through the gloom over the city of Birmingham, the bulbs atop the pylons spelling out an “A” and a “V.”
Long before I learned of William McGregor or of Aston Villa’s place at the heart of the very foundation of professional football in England I was aware, as if by instinct, of the club’s central position, not only at the centre of the heart of England, but also at the heart of our national game. Aston Villa might not necessarily be the “biggest” club, even if there is a calculation by which we can define such an amorphous concept. But this a club that has come to represent something approximating the soul of English football in a way that is difficult to define, but which – it feels, at least – many supporters implicitly understand. To see Aston Villa in this condition feels personal, and to believe that there are likely no easy resolutions to the club’s current woes feels oddly like knowing that a distant relative or long-time acquaintance is ill. We don’t know at present who will be able to pull Aston Villa from its current slump. We only know that somebody must, at some point.
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