The Weekend Match: Aston Villa 0-2 West Bromwich Albion

We invest a lot into trust. Almost every human interaction that we engage in is predicated upon the basic assumption that other people don’t wish to significantly harm or damage us, and when trust is broken it can feel existential, as though it scratches the core of who we are. The psychological damage wreaked by broken trust can be so great that it irrevocably changes us. It’s not in our DNA, but it’s in our DNA. We are, after all, the direct descendents of those who hid under the ground rather than staring at the sky when an asteroid fell from the sky above Chicxulub, sixty-six million years ago.

And we come back for more. Few realised it at the time, but this time last year the one hundred and thirty-one year history of Aston Villa was offered up as collateral against a gamble on promotion into the Premier League. Chuck enough money at the problem and everything will right itself, seemed to be the manta of the club’s senior management. On a warm afternoon at the end of May, however, that particular policy was shown up for what it was. Fulham beat Aston Villa in the Championship play-off final at Wembley. The summer was spent frantically hacking and slashing at the accounts in order to secure the club’s ongoing viability.

That’s the problem, you see. Everybody thinks the Premier League is their rightful place. And when everybody thinks that, “wanting it enough” loses whatever residual value it might once have had, if it even had any in the first place.

Yet we come back for more. Were football supporters merely passive consumers, as we’re frequently told we are, Villa Park would have been a sea of empty seats yesterday afternoon. But we’re not, and they weren’t either. Almost forty thousand people crammed into the ground for a match which, according to logic, was a hope amongst hope. With just two wins from the thirteen games played since the two sides last met, Aston Villa’s bid for promotion this season has gone from “faltering” to “effectively non-existent.”

Football, you see, leaves breadcrumbs. Just enough reasons for optimism to keep us consuming. Aston Villa may have colllapsed for eighty minutes on live television last weekend, but they pulled themselves together to come from three goals down to force a three-nil draw. Their defence may be one of the leakiest in the entire Championship, but Tammy Abraham had scored thirteen goals in eight consecutive scoring matches. Results haven’t been going too well of late, but Jack Grealish will be back from injury soon.

Looking at the league table offers hope amongst hope, if you’re actively looking for it. Nine defeats from thirty-three league matches is only one fewer than second placed Sheffield United. They’ve scored three more goals than third-placed Leeds United. On the other hand, though, only Ipswich Town and Rotherham United have conceded more Championship goals this season, and they both sit in the relegation places. The biggest irony of all these extremes is that they leave the middle of the table as being a fair reflection of the current team’s current strengths and weaknesses.

Even now, the Mascots Grand National nature of the Championship season leaves Villa seven points off a play-off place, a figure that could almost sound surmountable, were it not for the fact that they’ve played two games more than Middlesbrough, Bristol City and Derby County, the three clubs most likely to be competing for the final spot. In addition to this, the team has shown few signs of the consistency that would be required to make up this deficit, in either a holistic sense, or at times even within the space of the ninety minutes of any given match.  It’s always on the to do list, always just around the corner.

Furthermore, even when you take a step back from it all, the weight of history can hang like an albatross around the neck. Massive club. Huge tradition. A grand old team to play for. Except that’s not as unique to our clubs as any of us like to think. Aston Villa may have won the European Cup, but Nottingham Forest have done as well. And Leeds United, Ipswich Town, Middlesbrough and Birmingham City have all reached the final of a European club competition. Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup in 2012. Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League. Everybody has a story to tell.

The cognitive dissonance that comes from the intersection of the stories of the past and the reality of the present can be exhausting, all the more so when the evidence that we see on the pitch is seldom “bad”. There’s no such thing as a bad footballer any more. Certainly not in the top two divisions. When hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake and hundreds of thousands of pounds per club – at least – are being spent on wages, bad footballers will not last very long before being found out.

There are mis-matched combinations of players, there are players whose form has hit rock bottom and are going through difficult times away from the game, there are injuries and bad luck, personality clashes and a stench of dry rot that can spread through a club like a virus. But there are few to no bad footballers any more. So what we see, even when things are going badly, isn’t thrust into our faces. It’s an aroma, an aura. We search deeper and deeper for ways to articulate it, further into the dry darkness of statistics or the cul-de-sac of opinions. We know it when we see it, but it remains tantalisingly out of reach. And this murk, this mist, is what we see after seven days of the black and white of our love for our football clubs.

Yesterday afternoon, even the cold, dry statistics told this story. Two goals in four minutes. A looped header from Hal Robson-Kanu which dipped under the crossbar at an improbable angle, and a deflected long-range shot from Jay Rodriguez which thudded in off the base of the post. All of this in the closing minutes before the end of the first half, too. Dean Smith’s half-time plans for his team had to be ripped up, and then ripped up again with practically no time to come up with a plan C.

Ah yes. Dean Smith. The manager. The shoulders upon which the albatross currently rests, occasionally pecking his ears. A boyhood Villa fan. Successful in his previous job, at Brentford. A popular appointment, at the time it was made.

It’s only been four months, but it already feels as though matters are starting to slide from his control. If they were ever within his control in the first place, that is. After all, Aston Villa’s problems began several years ago, and the position in which the club currently finds itself is not quite as bad as it might have been. Plenty of clubs have fallen through the Premier League’s trapdoor only to find another immediately below them in the past. But suggesting that “things could be worse, you could be Sunderland” is unlikely to wash in the stands at Villa Park at the moment.

It’s not that Aston Villa are unmanageable. After all, the slide down football’s food chain has been arrested, at least, if not quite reversed yet. It’s more that Aston Villa are a pretty powerful case for the argument that a considerable number of football managerial appointments are little more than grasps in the dark, based on little more than educated guesswork and blind, dumb luck. In a crowded marketplace, just about any club can perm one from twenty. They exist on a conveyer belt. Sometimes, the right manager for the right club at the right time will just materialise. But it’s far from guaranteed.

Wet Bromwich Albion, meanwhile, have little of the torpor hanging over Aston Villa at the moment, at least. The appointment of Darren Moore as the club tumbled from the Premier League at the end of last season was of the type of appointment that has gone wrong before. Take the highly popular former player with little experience and put him in the job on a caretaker basis. He succeeds, and is offered the job on a permanent basis. Six months later, he’s out on his ear, reputation and standing battered, likely by circusmtances beyond his control.

Moore, however, has arrested Albion’s slide. His team sits in fourth place in the Championship table today, and the four points which separate them from the two clubs immediately above them do not, in a division not known for the consistency of it constituents, feel like a vast chasm. Such was the paucity of  last year’s West Bromwich Albion performance in the Premier League – they finished bottom of the table with thirty-one points, five clear of safety – last season that we might have expected this season to require a degree of readjustment on their part before they could challege. It is to Darren Moore’s considerable credit that West Bromwich Aibion seem likely to make a play-off position at the end of this season, at least.

Aston Villa are, at the time of writing, nine points off a Championship play-off place. They are, however, nine points from nineteenth place in the league table, as well. It’s not unreasonable that Aston Villa supporters had expectations of challenging nearer somewhere nearer the top of the table than where they currently find themselves. Villa Park remains a ball of nervous energy this season, but Aston Villa remain a club locked in thrall to the Premier League’s money and status, yet frozen like a rabbit caught in the glare of a car’s headlights at the thought of what to do to actually get back there.