Thoughts and issues regarding the past and present of a great football club by "The Chronicler".

Sunday, 30 December 2012

It Has To Be Fixed in January

To state what we all know (I suppose) ...

15 goals conceded in three games, and zero scored. Not the most conceded in 3 matches (the record is 17 - twice - in 1935-36), but the fact that 15 have been conceded with hardly a sign that any goals could have been scored creates the view that there are problems at both ends of the pitch. 0-15 equals an unwanted club record deficit for three back-to-back defeats (it equals 2-17 in 1935-36).

The calendar year 2012 produced 3 wins in 20 home matches ­- an unheard of record at Villa Park, a ground where once Villa reigned supreme. And 28 goals scored in the last 29 home league matches; 40 conceded (the last 2 seasons combined).

Villa Park now offers no fears for anyone.

A fair amount of that history is the responsibility of the previous managerial incumbant, but it is very sad there's no improvement in that home record. It does not mean to say that Lambert is to be regarded as having got it all wrong ... the fine away wins at Man City, Norwich and Liverpool bear testimony to that ... but if he does not get it adjusted in January then it's going to be a slippy slope he can't get out of.

The return of Vlaar and Gabby (and I would also say Warnock) is a must to bring some leadership back into the team, for although Clark is a striver he is (rightly) only the third-choice skipper.

The only thing that will cause me to regard Lambert as a loss is if he (as I admit he's intimating) does not bring in a couple of extra solid and experienced players in January - even if they're near retirement age.

It's up to Lambert ... this is his big chance to show what kind of managerial material he is. January is the key month - lose that and we're virtually certain to go down.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Museum? ... What Museum?

It is astonishing, isn't it? Aston Villa (a.k.a. The First Superclub) still talks about having a museum whilst relative newcomers to football history have recently opened their new museum.

What is more, Wolves aren't even currently in the Premiership!

This news comes hard on the heels of the efforts of volunteers at Warwickshire Cricket Club who set up a museum at their ground on a budget of £150.

The museum talk at Villa Park has been on-going since the 1980s, and when Randy came in we thought that was one of the projects that would be close to Randy's heart. In fact, I know the club could make money out of it.

The North Stand re-development (which would have housed the museum - though a pretty puny one from the plans I saw) has been shelved, of course, and that would probably be given as the reason as to why Villa still doesn't possess a museum. But why cannot the club (and/or volunteers) set up a temporary effort until (and if) the final solution arrives?

Villa fans are always talking about the pride they have in the club's history. I assume that those fans mean what they say.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

The December Fixtures

Yes, there are difficulties to be faced in the forthcoming fixtures. But we experienced that in November when Villa did not do too badly in terms of performances. We should quietly forget about the Man City match - that result hinged on those two dastardly penalty decisions that even Mutley wouldn't have given!

No match is to be regarded as 'easy' in the Premier League - and Lambert knows that. Following the November experience, he's welded together a team that has proved to be impenetrable in defence and wily in midfield - but without that touch of creativity to provide enough clear-cut scoring chances. It's a side that has the ability to grind out a point from most matches - after all, without much by way of attacking flair, what else can Lambert go for?

But the positive side of the news is that Vlaar will come back fairly soon (not that his deputy hasn't done a bad job), and also Bennett to more assuredly fill the LB place. There's also the coming availability of N'Zog - a useful player to have on the bench at least. Al Ahmadi is also there.

But perhaps how Villa will do in December may rest on the confidence that a win could generate at Norwich on Tuesday (League Cup QF). After seeing how Norwich confidently played to lead 3-0 at Swansea, I'd say that Villa have a tough nut to crack. Therefore a win would indeed put smiles on the faces of all Villans: next week's visit to Liverpool could then be looked on with more confidence.

Liverpool are going through a lean period and it's not the place to fear that it used to be. Even then, though, Villa can be remembered for having produced some surprisingly good displays and results at Anfield, so it's never been a place that Villa have been afeared of.

Yes, the December fixtures (consecutively Liverpool, Chelsea away, Spurs at home) are tough ... but they will remain tough for the rest of the season.

We just need to sign that midfield magician in January. Nothing much to ask for.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Biggest Club (in 1913 at least!)

“ASTON Villa is the biggest club on the football canvas.”

So it was claimed in 1913. Not in partisan fashion by a Birmingham pundit but by a correspondent of the London Evening News.

These days, the Londoncentric media often barely acknowledges the existence of football beyond Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. Back in 1913 they didn’t have much choice.

Arsenal were so deep in financial crisis they were considering a merger with Charlton Athletic.

The Gunners had just been relegated to Division Two while Chelsea and Spurs scraped to safety above them, finishing immediately above the drop zone.

After eight years in the league, Chelsea were a yo-yo club while Spurs had failed to break into the top half of the top tier in four seasons since entering the League by beating Lincoln City in an election ballot so dodgy even Robert Mugabe would have deemed it unfeasible.

From the north, too, came acknowledgment that Villa were top dogs. Preston North End were big back then and the ‘Invincibles’ had some battle-royals with Villa but their skipper Bob Holmes admitted: “The Villa played football as if they wre playing chess ­ you were not allowed to interfere with their moves.”

“The most outstanding trailblazer in football.” That was Villa. It’s hardly news that, long ago, Villa were one of the most successful clubs in football. But that they were the biggest of all ­ and just how big ­ has just been revealed in an excellent book by John Lerwill.

Few people have a deeper and more detailed knowledge of the club than Lerwill. Birmingham-born into a generations-deep family of Villa supporters, he is a former official historian of Villa as well as a life-long supporter.

He has devoted years of research into ‘Aston Villa ­ The First Superclub’, a remarkable tome which gives a thorough account of the club’s entire history.

All areas are covered from great games and great players to the great stories that happened (the Barwick Street meeting at which Fred Rinder galvanised the supporters and set the agenda for all the success to follow) and those that didn’t happen (“Any manager would want to take on such a job with a club like Aston Villa,” said Brian Clough. “It is a big club and I would probably have taken up the post there if I had been approached ­ but nobody asked me.”)

The book is not, however, simply an exercise in flag-waving. The thin times are also well-documented but most fascinating is the detail of Villa’s once-exalted position at the summit of English football.

In the 20 years leading up to the First World War, Villa won the league six times and were runners-up five times. In that era they accumulated 1,063 points, comfortably more than anyone else. Of their rivals, only Everton (1,008) topped 1,000. They also won four FA Cups and their success was reflected off the field. Club president Joseph Ansell hailed them “a gigantic trading concern.”

Yes, Villa were indeed a ‘superclub’. And as you delve into the detail in this definitive book, one question looms large: Can they ever be a ‘superclub’ again?

They remain a big club, of course. A famous club with big support. But to be a ‘superclub’ you have to have success.

When will Villa know success again? Will they ever again challenge for the league title?

Or are they, like the vast majority in the charmless plutocracy which the top level of English football has become, destined to set sneaking into the top six, with perhaps a cup final here and there, as the pinnacle of their ambition?

If so, the reason is certainly not all of Villa’s making. They were only one of the clubs which, in 1992, voted to form the Premiership, a move which, in one swoop, set the English top flight on course to become its current farce of a tiny elite pursued hopelessly from a great distance by the rest. That momentous decision guaranteed the fat cats would get ever fatter while the rest, well... perhaps Coventry, Oldham, Forest, Ipswich, Sheffield United ­ founder members of the Premiership ­ might now reflect it wasn’t such a great idea.

Villa finished second in that inaugural Premiership season, Ron Atkinson’s side finishing ten points behind Manchester United. They have not got anything like as close since and, as the wealth gap widens, the glass ceiling hardens.

Now the top clubs plunder the planet for players while the only way for a club to join the elite is to be bought, Manchester City-style, by a billionaire.

The Premiership has been won by only Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City in the last 17 years. Will that change in the next 17? You could argue that back in the early 1970s, relegated to the third tier for the first time, Villa were closer to winning the league than they are now.

Nine years, almost to the day, after playing Chesterfield in Division Three, they were champions. What price Villa winning the Premiership in 2021? Randy Lerner’s arrival in 2006 sparked optimism and, under Martin O’Neill, a period of relative success ­ two top-six finishes and a League Cup final. But O’Neill became frustrated by the owner’s refusal to throw huge money into driving the club forward and since the Irishman’s resignation, at a mischievously damaging time on the eve of the 2009/10 season, well...

Two dreadful managerial appointments didn’t help. If the ailing Gerard Houllier had the Holte End jury out, the recruitment of Alex McLeish direct from Blues will forever remain one of the most baffingly stubborn, silly and doomed-from-day-one managerial moves in the history of football. But alongside the on-field travails, one off-field question began to gather credibility: Did Lerner, for all his experience of owning clubs in American sport, under-estimate what a financial black-hole the Premiership is?

“How do you become a millionaire?” Milan Mandaric once quipped. “Start off as a billionaire then buy a football club!”

After investing £160 million in Villa in his first four years, Lerner learned the hard way. So out went Gareth Barry. James Milner, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. And the club’s appetite to challenge the big boys, whetted by the resurgence under O’Neill, evaporated.

Another well-worn saying in football is: “Stand still as a club and you will go backwards.” That appears borne out by the current league table as Villa head into winter in a relegation dogfight,

Where does the club go from here? At least, after two awful appointments, they now have a manager whose arrival encouraged the fans. Paul Lambert has no big-club managerial experience and is learning as he goes but has a track record of success, a ferocious work ethic and high ambition.

Beyond the short-term business of keeeping Villa in the top flight, though, as the top clubs disappear ever further into the financial stratosphere, what can Lambert’s ­ and Villa’s ­ realistic aspirations be? Mid-table? The Europa League?

In “Aston Villa ­ The First Superclub”, John Lerwill reveals that back in 1936, when Villa were in crisis following relegation to Division Two, Rinder returned to the board and vowed: “Villa have been a great club, are still a great club and always will be a great club.”

Perhaps. But, in the warped world of English football where a tiny number of clubs become ever more bloated while many flirt with ruin, will they ever again be a successful club? Few men are better qualified than Lerwill to ponder that question.

“Villa’s future is in the balance,” he said. “Trusting that Paul Lambert is able to steer a safe course this season then the future under his style could be bright. But whether the club will be able to replicate the glory years, even of the early 1980s, is a moot point.

“Without major funding behind Lambert, the main factor determining Villa’s future is the Premier League itself. It needs to become much more of a level playing field.”