The Premier League: Aston Villa vs Newcastle United
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot with a Jose Mourinho-shaped sole stamping on a human face – forever.
Mourinho does make you think, though. He is, he tells us (and the record books demonstrate, albeit more scarcely of late), a “winner.” I mean, it does make you think about what being a “winner” really is, and consequently how we gauge “success” within the modern game. For many years, the FA Cup was close to equal – some might say superior – in prestige to the league championship. I can tell you who won the FA Cup every year from about 1920 on, but I cannot get anywhere near close to telling you who won the First Division or Premier League title over the same period.
But all of this has to be stacked against the fact that the league is the definitive measure of Who Is The Best. Play-offs have been added, and the Champions League, which probably marks the pinnacle of global club football, is a hybrid of league and cup. Group rounds which are mini-leagues, and “knockout stages” featuring completely unnecessary second legs. That’s not to say that there isn’t drama, as seen at Anfield, the Amsterdam Arena and the Etihad Stadium last season, but I continue to feel uncomfortable when I get to the end of a match, only to know that it’s really only half-time.
Over the last thirty years, however, the FA Cup has diminished in importance to a point at which it is held in little higher regard than the League Cup. Top four in the Premier League is the be all and end all, with a place in the Europa League increasingly looking like a drain on a club’s resources and having, if anything, a negative effect upon performance. The next biggest prize is Premier League survival, both of which Newcastle United and Aston Villa have failed to achieve over the last decade. Newcastle have been down twice but bounced straight back up both times. Aston Villa only went down the once, but their stay was longer.
Both clubs are of a very similar profile. Both were runners-up in the Premier League during the 1990s and both are clubs with lengthy and storied histories, with periods in the doldrums. Until the mid-1990s, Aston Villa used to pick up the occasional League Cup. They managed the League Championship once and the European Cup the following year. Newcastle haven’t won a major trophy in more than half a century, now, but it’s worth bearing in mind that these are all pretty ancient history by now, in footballing terms.
But what does success mean to Aston Villa and Newcastle United, these days? This evening at Villa Park, Newcastle arrive in fourteenth place in the table, whilst Aston Villa are one place above the relegation places, in seventeenth. Hopefully, it is not the nature of English football that the measure of “success” solely becomes remaining in that top twenty to the detriment of everything else. It’s likely that the clubs themselves feel that way. There are certainly managers who do. Players, too. But I really hope the fans don’t go that way, too. Just how think how wild it would be for a couple of days if Newcastle United won the FA Cup. If we continue to demean the domestic cup tournaments, we’re denying ourselves the possibility, however thin it may feel at times, of happiness because of… financial pragmitism?
But Aston Villa vs Newcastle United is fixture that should tickle the synapses. There’s a combined 257 years of English football right there. Aston Villa vs Everton, another side of a similar historical size and profile, is the most frequently played fixture in English football and will stay there whilst both clubs remain in the same division. And there really aren’t many empty seats on view at Villa Park. It’s easy to forget how impressive this is. We eulogise the past, but thirty-five years ago this match would have been probably would have been played in front of a crowd of a third this size.
Newcastle United are, by apocalyptic pre-season predictions, significantly over-achieving, so far this season. By the most severe of the pre-season predictions, they should have crashed and burned by now. A flaming crater should now inhabit the space where St James Park once sat. After a poor start, most notably in being well beaten by Norwich City in their second game, they’ve done… pretty well. Going into this match, only Liverpool, Leicester City and Chelsea have beaten them in the league since the 17th August. The actual football itself remains a little glutinous and non-descript, in that way that Steve Bruce teams tend to be, but they’ve been doing okay.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, have been stuttering, like a car struggling to get going on a winter morning. There was the feeling that their season’s hair may have been starting to catch fire by the end of September, with just one win from their first seven league matches. Since then, they went three matches unbeaten, with everything clicking with a 5-1 win away to an insipid Norwich City – and have lost their last three matches, although two of those came against Manchester City and Liverpool. They’ve had a hint of the Jekyll & Hyde about them so far, this season, and it’s difficult to say which will turn up tonight.
There’s nothing to suggest, by the way, that Aston Villa won’t take the domestic cups seriously. They’re still in the League Cup at the quarter-finals stage having beaten Wolverhampton Wanderers in the previous round. What sort of Liverpool team they’ll play in the quarter-finals, coming as it does 24 hours before their World Club Cup semi-final in Dubai. If Jurgen Klopp decides to sacrifice the League Cup for the World Club Cup, Aston Villa might just fancy their chances of sneaking through to the semi-finals of that competition. Just two legs from Wembley. Newcastle were knocked out on penalty kicks by Leicester City at the first hurdle, by the way.
And Newcastle don’t really turn up for the first half. Two goals in four first half minutes are enough to see Villa clear by half-time, a geometric free-kick routine between Jack Grealish and Conor Hourihane which results in Hourihane dipping a free-kick in, and a tap-in for Anwar El Ghazi from Hourihane’s cross. Newcastle fire back sporadically, but they feel glitchy, more QR code than bar code. But Villa’s dynamo is Jack Grealish, as ever clearly wearing his shin pads under protest. He’s an impish marionette in midfield, nimble on his feet yet always likely to have them yanked from under him, but tonight he runs Villa’s attacking midfield movement. It’s not difficcult to see why Aston Villa supporters love him.
The second half proceeds at an agreeably knockabout pace to start with, with chances and half-chances at either end. Newcastle enliven proceedings just after the hour by introducing Andy Carroll, a player who’s only one stop short of becoming a meme (if that far.) Carroll is starting to occupy something approaching a cult hero place in my mind. I would say that I don’t think that I can even express what it is about him that I love so much, but I totally can. It’s his hair. That luxurious mane. You can’t be self-aware with a head of hair like that. Not in 2019, you can’t.
The problem with being an avid Andy Carroll watch is, however, that he tends to disappear as soon as he’s brought on as a substitute, and his arrival doesn’t change very much for Newcastle United. They huff and they puff, but Villa continue to create the better of the chances, where they fall as the game starts to slowly deflate. Aston Villa seem quite content with this. They’re too close to the relegation places at the start of play not to be. They’re happy enough to run down the clock. Newcastle haven’t so much been bad as dreary and a bit dull. They manage a couple of half-chances in the second half, but the rapid fire nature of the goals shouldn’t detract from the fact that their defeat was a fair reflection on the balance of play.
There’s a sense that, in this new reality, Aston Villa supporters have something to get up for of a morning. They were promoted from the Championship last season, and their team has players such as Conor Hourihane, Jack Grealish and John McGinn, who you may or may not love yourself, but who you know you would if you supported Aston Villa. They have a League Cup quarter-final to look forward to next month, and despite the paucity of some of their performances this season, when they are firing on all cylinders, they look far too strong to go down. Newcastle United are out of the League Cup. They won’t be so hilariously bad that they go down in flames. They’ll be the one thing that is worse, offering occasional glimmers of hope, a team doing 5% better than the very low base set for it, and a manager neither as bad as feared by some, but otherwise very much as expected, just kind of lifeless, even for the presence of the lustrously head and shouldered Andy Carroll.
It’s certainly not what winning looks like.