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

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Now Let's Not Be Shot-shy this Christmas!

There is good news to report! ... It's the time of goodwill and it's also present-giving time. And it is just as well we have that as there is precious little to be enthused about as far as Villa are concerned.

After going five games without defeat and what I told myself was just a blip against Fulham, I had hoped that Villa would show up well against Man U and at least obtain a point, but it turned out to be same-old. And with yesterday's result, we have now completed another period of sadness, with three rather poor defeats on the trot. Yes, we have suffered various absences for one reason or another, but if these are players chosen for their ability to play in the top-flight they should be showing some of that ability.

On Boxing Day, the erstwhile claret and blue team - Crystal Palace - appear at Villa Park. On paper, this fixture against the bottom side would appear to be the opportunity for Villa to cast aside the shackles and bring back some cheer to Villa Park, but we all know that matches against bottom sides are never that easy. They usually tend to offer some resistance, and with wee Bannan in their ranks, they should not be regarded as push-overs.

I think at this stage all we ask for is something to cheer about, and with only three of Villa's eight home games producing a Villa goal or two this term, this is the time of year to bolster the fans for the remainder of the season.

So you Villans, get out your sights and aim for goal - you might just score if you try!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Seeing Red!

This week-end, Manchester United arrive at Villa Park. They’re not looking quite the side they have been under Ferguson, so surely it’s now a bit – even if only a little bit – more like a level playing field. Can Villa strike while the iron is hot? If not, why not?

We’ve been a Jekyll and Hyde team this season, beating Arsenal, Manchester City and Southampton (scoring 3 each time) but losing (at home) against Liverpool, Spurs and Everton without scoring. And, very worryingly, against the more under-performing teams in the league, we don’t seem able to score. Villa have just had a further lapse at Fulham but then United are also having difficulty.

I believe we have come to a cross-roads, of sorts. We need, in this one, to take the right fork and at least show the best intentions of winning – nothing less. We have a sequence of scoring in only one game at home in the last four (the one that we won). Another home defeat and/or an innocuous performance will not, I’m sure, be well accepted.

For me, this upcoming match is a great opportunity for Villa to indicate whether they are really progressing.

Any fixture against United – for me – is one to measure Villa’s status by. A win (by any score!) against them this time will cause me to think that perhaps we are moving down the right road.

C’mon the Villa!

Monday, 2 December 2013

To win you need to score - right?

Anyone seen any goals lately?!

Since the start of October (7 games), none of last season's three leading strikers have scored. And the team has scored in only 2 games of those 7.  And this is supposed to be an easier part of the fixture list!

I could of course go scrambling to the record books to find out when this sort of thing last happened, but there have been so many negative records created in the past two years I don't want to depress myself - or you, the reader! - any further.

But I will refer to a period I remember in the 1961-62 season, when Mercer's Minors where not doing too well. And in February (1962) they scored their first goal after 8 (eight) and a half hours' play! Yes, just like now, fans were getting fed up and one particular fan wrote in the 'Argus': "Drab... uninteresting ... First division defence ... second division attack ... they will crack."

The joke was that the very same day Villa went to Arsenal and came away with a 5-4 win after twice being 2 goals down! And that fan's article had appeared in the Argus after  the match had finished!

Derek 'the Doog' Dougan had come alive after a slow warm-up since signing the previous summer.

Villa then beat Bolton, at home, 3-0 (when it might have been 7!) then had an undeserved small blip at Man City (0-1). But over the Easter period, we received eggs-a-plenty!  Leicester City - with the famed Gordon Banks in goal - came down and were thrashed 8-3 on the Saturday, and on Easter Monday Villa followed up with a 5-1 demolition of Notts Forest. Not bad for a team that couldn't score 2 months before!

So ... perhaps there's a moral in that story! Perhaps we should just believe that it will all turn out OK; that the present sequence will end up with a walloping of somebody. Could it be against Man U when it all starts to go right?! Well ... I can hope ... I'm a Villa fan, after all!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

What a L-o-n-g Wait!

Having recently gone through a spate of not scoring (seven-plus hours' worth) we now seem to have to wait till late on before we see the Villa scoring at all. Shaun Long seemed to make the wait even longer! We at least found some great relief in this one as Albion could have been streets ahead before Villa made the subs and then found the net. We're still very much a work-in-progress but at least a bit more resilience is now on offer. 

I am bemused by Lambert. We've seen how Bacuna shows up more when he's further forward, yet he's slotted back at r-b in this match and virtually gifted their second goal. But it's the midfield that mainly needs attention i.m.o., and I'm thinking that this formation might be more successful:

Lowton Vlaar Baker Clark
Bacuna Sylla Westwood Delph 
Benteke Gabby

We need to acquire more points before Man U arrive in mid-December, but the matches against Sunderland, Swansea and Southampton are by no means walk-overs. If we gain five points out of those matches we'll be doing very well.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Zzzz ... what?! ... who scored?!

Seven hours of non-scoring from the Villa is enough to send any Villan to sleep, but what a way to be woken up when Bacuna's finely judged free kick hit the net with their keeper rooted to the spot! And it was then good to see a player other than Benteke score from open play to provide a decent scoreline. Not that I don't want Benteke to score, but hype has led to the expectation of goals coming purely from CB, a situation that would not be ideal.

But the recent lack of goals has led to questions. Is it that Gabby and Andy have been off-form is perhaps the first obvious question. And I would say that there is an element of truth there as both players have missed chances that at the end of last season would have been put away. But the major issue for me has been the lack of quality (other than Delph) in midfield.

Against Cardiff yesterday, at a crucial point in the game, Lowton was brought on and Bacuna was given chance to move forward. That simple change seemed to make a big difference; Villa hit two goals in the ensuing 10 minutes - and might have added more. When Delph returns, perhaps his partnership with Bacuna might be more productive, at the expense of one of the other two.

We have been thinking that the fixture list has become a bit easier now, but we have difficult upcoming away games between now and December at Albion and Southampton, with potential banana-skin matches against Sunderland and Fulham. How well Villa do in these four matches before the visit of Man U will, in my opinion, be a good indicator as to what level we have really reached.

We can - as always - continue to hope!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Wanted - a Captain Marvel!

Oh, were it possible to bring back Johnny Dixon (or Martin Laursen)!

Watching the Villa play as they are now (and over the last 3 years) is a little bit painful for me. My thoughts go back to the Fifties and Sixties when the play and results could sometimes be equally dispiriting, but the feeling then was that there was enough passion and pride on the field that would carry the club through. That super-confidence nearly had disastrous results, of course, and it took the revolution of 1968-69  to change the club's direction.

But in my early days as a Villan, the club was able to call on the influence of mature midfield players and captains like Johnny Dixon and Vic Crowe to drive the team, and their example was always capable of turning round a match. And Villa Park was a great fortress in those days; apart from the worst years in Villa's history, it was only the best teams that could be given a chance of gaining a win at Villa Park.

What a change to the recent record, which shows less than 25% wins and 50% defeats at Villa Park over the last 3 years.

During the club's best ever period (say from 1880 to 1930), Villa achieved what they did as a result of great captaincy on the field, as well as the playing method they utilised. I almost drool when I think of the affect of captains like Archie Hunter, John Devey, Joe Bache, Frank Barson, Frank Moss and Billy Walker. And without exception these players influenced the team from either midfield or attacking positions. Before anyone says "Ah, but Frank Barson was a centre-half", I must point out that Frank was of the 'old school' of centre-halves - they were defenders as well as midfielders until the 'stopper' centre-half came into being.

To my mind, captaincy should come from the midfield area of the team. Dennis Mortimer, Kevin Richardson and Andy Townsend were perhaps the best captains in the club's 25 year period to year 2000, and they were all midfielders. Later we had Martin Laursen, of course, but he was such a strong man that it mattered little where he skippered from. We miss him, in my opinion.

In last season's January purchasing 'window', I strongly felt that the club should have purchased a mature and capable midfielder to come in and guide the players. Methinks Villa's team has too much youth and not enough leadership, and a Gareth Barry was (and is) just what is needed in my view.

The team will gain the experience needed if they are given chance, but I sometimes feel that today's team managers overlook some of the well-learnt principles of what seems like eons ago ... when Aston Villa ruled the football world. (Sigh)


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Cats ... and the Villa

We are suckers for cats. Well she indoors started the whole thing and I followed ... like a mouse!

So over the decades the unhoused cat population - wherever we have lived - seemed to hear about us and tracked us down without too much difficulty. Free food and housing? Any self-respecting cat would pounce at the chance!

Five years ago we came to Brum with the one remaining survivor of our brood. She's still here, aged around 23 and hanging on as the matriarch. But gradually the homeless cats have homed in on us all over again. By last year we were supporting a total of 4 cats, and this year 2 more arrived.

Now, last week something very intriguing occurred. We had suspected that one of the new arrivals had recently had kittens, and last week she turned up with the (probable) surviving one ... clearly showing it where we lived and the opportunities that existed. But all of a sudden, one of the most extrovert of our bunch - a beautiful black and sleek variety - went a.w.o.l., and has remained so ever since. But the kitten suddenly moved indoors with its mother. It has taken over from 'black streak'.

The kitty's mother - sweet little thing she is - has clearly and cleverly mugged us. She engineered a situation for her kitty and made it happen.

Do you know what? - the feeling of being mugged is just what I've been feeling about the owner and his crew at VP for some time. But, pottering around the Villa blogs that I respect the most, I find the main writers saying, effectively, "well we just have to go with the tide ... we just have to lump it. The owner, nor Lambert, is not going anywhere."

We most likely have to experience some more pain yet. But how much more will the Villa supporters take - those that have paid good money to see regular first-class performances at VP at least?

I reckon that signs to indicate that the Villa's lion is properly waking up must occur by the end of October, 2014; one year's time. It took until Ron Saunders' third season to show the benefit of his reign, so Lambert deserves the same chance. But if he fails, is it simply the manager that deserves the chop?

As I said - cats fascinate me. But more so the Villa lions. Perhaps they've been over-domesticated these last few years?

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Yo-yo effect!

When we saw the fixture list for this season, it was as plain as the nose on my face (no comments please!) that the fixtures up to the end of October were tough. Very tough. It was hard to see where Villa would pick up points in the first 9 matches apart from the matches against Newcastle, Norwich and Hull.

But the matter got turned on its head when the Villa went to the Emirates on the first day to extract the only defeat that the Gunners have so far suffered this season ... and when Man City came to Villa Park and we actually won - without Benteke - we became all of a flutter. And the stats show that compared with last season against the same teams, we are 6 points up.

But the latest match (against Spurs) brings us right back to earth again with regard to our performances at Villa Park. Yes, Villa Park, where signs have now been hung in the players tunnel to remind and motivate the players as to just what kind of club they are playing for. The signs tell the players just what trophies the club has won, and the years when they were won. And the effect of all this? Some 38% possession in the match and 2 shots on goal. And this against a Spurs team that is a shadow of the greats of 50 years ago.

We are left with an abysmal home record over the past 3 years, and next week's visit of Everton - complete with a certain Gareth Barry, who we refused to re-admit to Villa Park - is not going to raise our hopes too much. Perhaps we'll get a draw.

I think no-one would have said that we could expect too much from this season except that it would be an improvement on the last, but - and I continually trot out this line - where, oh where, is the sense of belief in the Villa team; and where is the player in the team that can act as a true leader for the rest?

It wouldn't be so bad if we didn't get our hopes raised by unlikely wins over Arsenal and Man City. This yo-yo experience can make you feel quite sick.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Holding on to that spirit!

The news filtered through this week that Peter Broadbent, aged 80, had died. A lovely player in the old tradition of inside-forwards.

What connection does he have with Villa, some might ask! Famous with Wolves and England in the 1950s and 60s, of course, he did have an interesting sojourn with the Villa, joining Villa only a few months after the departure of Phil Woosnam in 1966. Phil only died (strangely enough) just a few months ago, also aged 80.

Now the recent death of these two makes me recall that Phil Woosnam's departure left Villa without much by way of creative talent. Alan Deakin was often out with injury by that time, and that did leave Villa short on skills. The situation was made worse by the fact that Villa's coffers were at a low ebb, despite the lucrative sale of striker Tony Hateley a few months into the 1966-67 season. Owing to this combined situation, Villa purchased Peter Broadbent, not from Wolves but from Shrewsbury, as this veteran had by then gone down to the third tier!

At the age of 33 Peter's skills were still visible in the top flight, but by himself he was insufficient talent to prevent Villa's relegation that season and their resulting absence from the top flight for eight years. Interestingly enough, however, striker Barry Stobart was re-introduced into the first-team half-way through the season and that successfully re-ignited a partnership as he and Broadbent had been at Wolves and both had played in the 1960 Cup Final. Stobart had his best scoring patch for Villa at this time with 11 goals in 18 games, due to Broadbent's skilful prompting. But it was not enough.

After a spell in the reserves, Peter (by then aged 35) came back to play in season 1968-69 and was outstanding in a couple of marvellous FA Cup games for Villa against top-flight Southampton and Spurs and in these matches scored his only goals for Villa. These matches were played shortly after Tommy Docherty came in as manager, but despite those performances Broadbent was dispensed with to make way for youth in the summer, probably just when Broadbent's skills and experience were most needed. He made a total of only 68 appearances for Villa over 3 seasons.

But this reminder of a time that is now over 40 years since causes me to recall the late 60s too well - a time when I still went down to Villa Park even when reason told me there was no basis to expect a win. But I have to agree that even in those days of desperation, the players' will to fight (at least well into the 1966-67 season) stood out even though they didn't have the skill of the best teams. You continued to support Villa then because you knew they'd try to make a match out of it.

Of late (this season, and the previous 2 seasons), we noted the absence of will in the players in many of the home matches. We looked to the Man City match with trepidation, particularly as our main 'guns' were not playing. What a marvellous surprise we all had, instead, and how pleased I am (we all are!) that a true spirit seems to have returned!  However, we thought the spirit had returned when Villa trounced Sunderland 6-1 at the back-end of last season, but since we've had a few disappointments.

Team spirit has been a traditional aspect of the Villa's play since the club was founded, and when that spirit has waned then the warning bells have sounded. Let's hope we see the spirit maintained - but not through the imbibing of whisky!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Overdue, But Very Welcome!

Given that Villa's 2 major strikers were absent, plus the absence of 2 other main players, the triumph over Man City at VP has to be considered a major achievement. The City have been flying of late, and Villa stopped them in their tracks.

A good win at VP (and even just a win!) was vastly overdue on Villa's home turf and the manager's team selection proved to be spot-on given the major absences. Also the manager clearly had the team suitably motivated to come back as they did in the second-half, with City probably a little complacent at half-time.

Now to build on that. We don't want to see any more shirking - at VP in particular!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Going to the next match?

The miserable results and performances at Villa Park have generated some debate as to whether it's worth going down to the ground any more! But as a Villa fan of such long standing (sometimes sitting!) I do not take that view.

I remember the 60s too well and still went down even when reason told me there's no reason to expect a win. But I have to agree that even in those days of desperation, the players' will to fight stood out even though they didn't have the skill of the best teams. You continued to support Villa then (up to 1967) because you knew they'd try to make a match out of it.

Now? I agree it's a different situation. The game is now mostly about money, media and makeover and the old club's tradition has (we have to say it) now gone. The players no longer feel the pride and affinity with the previous greats. As a result of the current set up we now seem more remote from the last great achievements.

Since the departure of dear old Eric Houghton I think that's how it has been and I think we now have to accept the fact that Aston Villa is - effectively - a new brand. No-one appears to want to listen to Denis Mortimer anymore, either.

At the moment it appears that the new brand is as a New Wigan, but I do think that the club has got higher aspirations and the evolution is just taking us through a phase.

However, whether the current set up have got their evolutionary execution right remains to be seen.

The overall approach still has to be be given time. In the short term, the performances at VP badly need addressing.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Villanous Dreams

There's been some gnashing of teeth in the past 3 years or so about how Villa have gone down in the world (which situation we hope will change very soon!) but I was a-thinking that if we examine the last 80 years of the club's history, there have only been two significant periods (and one shorter period) to write home about.

Yes, you can argue about the 1936-39 period and 1957 and even 1960-63, but I'm talking about a solid presence in the top flight. The periods I allude to are, of course, the periods of 1976-1983, 1989-2000 (with 2 or 3 disappointing years included) and 2007-10.

So, in 80 years, we can say that Villa have provided meagre faire in more than 50 of those years. That's 67% of the last 80 years less the war years.

On the other hand, the three good periods just stated have all occurred in the last 37 years, so the meagre periods % then reduces to 23.4% for those 37 years. Not too much to shout about, but much better than virtually 100% of the 43 years from 1933 to 1976 - and particularly 1933-1970, of course.

But for a club that can boast that it's the Pride of the Midlands, the record of the last 37 years is still not what it should be given the population of the area. And, frighteningly, we're still a long, long way short of matching the post-WW2 records of the leading clubs in the north and the south.

In the 1981/1982 time we felt we were on the brink of being equal top dogs with Liverpool, Man U and Arsenal ... but the dream seems ever more to slip away, particularly these last 10 or 12 years.

But are we downhearted?! Never!! .. It's always 'Up the Villa!' so far as the supporters are concerned.


Sunday, 15 September 2013

C'mon ... Wake Up The Villa!

Oh, dear! I seem to recall that it was against yesterday's opponents last season that the second-half performance triggered off a recovery. We were spared relegation following improvements after that match, even though the result was identical. Have we gone full circle?

So, what's going on? Judging by the first-half performances of the season's first 2 home league matches we seem to be afraid of doing something wrong in front of our own people!

Still too early to judge, but we really did need 3 points from yesterday to boost morale and in view of the matches to come. The way it's going I suppose we'll win at Norwich and Hull, but lose our home matches between now and November.

Overall, I feel that Lambert's strategy is good, but he seems to be missing in a couple of vital areas - particularly defence and midfield. Clark seems to have pushed his way back in (though inadvertently). And as Scylla finished fairly well last season, why isn't he being played?

And another big worry is that only Benteke is scoring any goals in PL matches. I am surprised that Gabby hasn't chipped in yet and he certainly lost his bearings on one magnificent occasion yesterday.

If it goes on like this I can see big changes in the starting team selection ... but will it cause improvement in the quality of play, and the number of points garnered?

We can only wait and see! The life of a Villan is never easy!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Gabby for England!

I see that Tony Morley is bemoaning the fact that Gabby has not been called up for England duty - he reckons that Gabby would be a good squad player and (if not included in the starting 11) could be brought on to use his pace in the latter part of a match for England, and boost England's chances.

Perhaps there's something right in what Tony says. Given the shortage of strikers available for England, and Gabby's playing record since the beginning of the year, I'd say that Gabby has been overlooked and perhaps deliberately.

It makes me recall how often Villa's players have been overlooked for England since the War, the main exception being (1) after Villa's EC success, when England had no choice but to select a couple, but they never made great use of Cowans (2) when Graham Taylor was England manager and (3) in MON's days at Villa, when he probably had influence at the FA.

I can think of England failing to make use of Villa's players going back to 1952, when Johnny Dixon was at the height of his form, but was overlooked. Then the case of Nigel Sims, who was surely the best keeper in England for a period, but lost out - though I think it was something to do with the Wolves' chairman being on the FA and sour grapes about Sims leaving them for Villa. The FA also took their time in making up their minds about Gerry Hitchens, though I admit Gerry had a lot of competition in the c-f spot.

Alan Deakin is another example. When Bobby Moore broke through, some thought that England's 2 wing-halves should have been Deakin and Moore. None of Mercer's Minors got to the England first team.

But Brian Little's case was all too obvious as a magnificent failure to use real talent by the FA. Gidman also probably deserved a better chance.

It seems to me that Villa's success before WW1 always rankled the ruling bodies in football and they've since done their best to push Villa down the ladder - just as the London papers have tried.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Bring on the big boys!

Christian Benteke appears to be no 'one-season wonder'! He has already indicated that there's a lot more to come from his golden boots (and head), but the manager has bought yet another striker of substantial girth to presumably help Benteke along the way. In Kozak and Helenius we possess two more tall strikers who promise to be able to do the old Tony Hateley job of getting into the clouds to create mayhem in the opponent's citadel.

After too many years of possessing relatively lightweight cannon, we now seem to have big guns!

Another aspect of Benteke's play is that he's not afraid of putting himself about. This can be dangerous on two fronts - the referee's wrath, and also injury - but this characteristic was one possessed by many of Villa's great centre-forwards of long ago. With devastating results!

We can recall in recent decades the daring-do of one Andy Gray and one Peter Withe, both of whom were strong and did not flinch from going in where it hurt. Dion Dublin was of the same category but in his case he nearly died as a result of his efforts. He was never quite the same player after that frightening injury.

'Arry 'Ampton (1904-1920) was probably the first of Villa's main strikers to be of concern to the referee in the way he ('Arry) would go about his challenges. 'Arry had a particular penchant for goalkeepers and scored a number of goals by bundling 'em into the net in the days when such a thing was legal, provided the keeper had his feet on the ground. The opposing centre-half was often given a few bruises, too, and there was the famous case of 'Arry and his marker in frequent conflict during the 1913 Cup Final. As a result, both were suspended for the opening of the following season. 'Arry was hated by the opposing fans but loved at Villa Park! He still holds the club record for the number of league goals scored during a career (215).

Succeeding strikers of the strongly combative type include the famed 'Pongo' Waring (1928-1935) who scored a remarkable 50 goals in season 1930-31 - still a club record for one season. His on-the-field temperament is the reason given for his not acquiring more England 'caps'.

The oldest Villa supporters can remember Trevor Ford (1946-1950), whose penchant for 'keepers was similar to 'Arry's, and Peter McParland (1952-1962) who had the serious collision with the keeper in the 1957 Cup Final when keepers still had a tough time. Today they are nearly always protected from harm. Tony Hateley (1963-67) did not flinch too much either, and we also had Andy Lochhead and Sammy Morgan during the lower division days of 1970 to 1975, who did their best to uphold the club's physical tradition in that department.

So in these few words I have summed up the great physical strikers that have been seen at Villa Park. With few exceptions, when Villa has possessed such strikers then Villa has achieved success. And now we have the potential of a lot more fireworks!


Monday, 2 September 2013

No Real Surprises (?)

I was quite optimistic before the season started; I felt that Villa would come out of their tough first three games with three points, and they have. But the gremlins decided to interject so that the three points were surprisingly (and happily) obtained at The Emirates in the first match, against a rather disunited Arsenal.
I had expected that the points would be obtained in the third match – against Liverpool at home – but Villa disappointed a little in the first half.
The overall situation is more-or-less what I had hoped for at the start – that Villa have confirmed that they have substantially improved since mid-way through last season and, indeed, that the squad looks capable of producing at least a middle-of-the-table finish to the season as the re-building continues. Their form in the Arsenal match was encouraging, and in the match at Stamford Bridge only four days later, they were unlucky to come away without any points.
These first three matches have necessitated the gradual introduction of new ‘blood’, and they will take a little time to develop understanding amongst themselves. But the squad looks as though it will be capable of dealing with the tough programme of fixtures to the end of October and should then be in a good position to develop well in the rest of the season and perhaps even give us a good run in one or two cup competitions.
There is good reason for hope.
My fear is that the effective breakaway tactics used in away matches will not be appropriate in home games. The tradition was once that Villa should be the top-dog on their own soil, and that meant visible domination of the opposition. We’ve not really seen very much of that for quite a few seasons at home, and certainly not much against the top teams.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The New Season Is Days Away!

In my previous post, I was worried about keeping my expectations in check.

My self-control has now been made more easy by the way Malaga came back into the game in the week-end just gone. And, though it was a friendly, I suppose Malaga do represent something like the kind of opposition that Villa will be facing in the season's first 3 games, and even the best part of the first two months.

While Villa's attack offers enough to excite, the main concern about Villa is the same as it was last season, I suggest. The defence.

Have the deficiencies been nailed? Well, it could be that Lambert's defensive signings will be an improvement, but can they gel quickly enough for Villa to get through the first 2 months with enough points?

I'm wondering whether we might see the first three matches ending something like 2-3, 2-3, 3-2. Yes, I see Villa getting something out of the opening sequence, and then they have the chance of re-grouping against The Millers (Rotherham, in the League Cup) before taking a lengthy break.

The new season is offering some tingling prospects - with an added element of fear!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

A New Season Beckons!

The scent of the new season is in the air. The turf is again to be shown in its most immaculate dress, but these days it will be nearly like that throughout the whole season. It would seem that gone are the days when mud and pools of water clogged the pitch in mid-winter, bringing forth remembrances of the forwards who thought they were certain to score but suddenly found that the item needed to put in the back of the net - the ball - would be stuck in the mud behind the sharpshooter's best striking boot! Did the fans groan - or laugh if it was the opposition that happened to.

But let's stay with the opening of the new season. The fragrance of it's blossom ushers forth as we contemplate on what might be. We always trust that the new season will end as one to be remembered, and we even hope that the first match will give us something to hold onto to consider that it might be this season that will end up with a major trophy on display down at t' Park. The fact that Villa have twice scored five in two pre-season friendlies (against lower league opposition) should not cause me to get too excited, but scoring five in pre-season friendlies hasn't been happening much in the last decade has it?

I've always been happy if Villa's fixture list showed the opening game to be at home to West Ham, as that match always seemed to find Villa in charge against the other claret-and-blue team - as it did 3 years ago when James Milner delighted us in his last match. But this year the Villans visit London to face two of the capital's best before our team have chance to put themselves on display in front of their own fans, against another toughie: Liverpool.

Realistically, any hopes of starting off the season with a blockbuster win in the first match have to put off till we see next season's fixture list, but even at home it has very rarely been the case - despite West Ham's ability to roll over - that Villa have gone on a scoring spree in their first match of the season.

Back in 1930-31, Villa opened their record goalscoring season account with a 4-3 at Man U with our 'Pongo' getting all four - and that was in spite of most of the Villa team having an off-day. But even that scoreline could hardly be considered a blockbuster win. To find such an opening day occurrence we have to travel all the way back to 1925 and a 10-0 win against Burnley (Capewell 5, Walker 3). It appears that Villa had done some proper homework on the new offside laws that had been implemented that season, and triumphed so well because of that. Dicky York even popped in an eleventh 'goal' but the whistle blew for time before it hit the net.

Villa so shocked themselves by that event they didn't win another match for four games! And it finished an average season by their standards in those days.

The previous season, Villa opened with a 4-2 win at Liverpool, but then finished poorly in the League.

1920-21 started well, with Billy Walker scoring 4 in the 5-0 demolition of Arsenal, but again the season did not finish too well. However, in the 1909-10 opener Villa again put 5 against Arsenal in the season in which Villa went on to win the championship.

But to find another  opening blockbuster before 1925 we travel back to the 19th century and a 9-0 win over little Glossop in the first home match of the 1899-1900 season. Again, Villa went on to win the championship.

That home match brought to an end a remarkable goalscoring sequence as in the previous 3 consecutive home matches (ending the championship-winning 1898-99 season) Villa had scored 18 goals. Added to the 9 of the next season's first home match the Villa thus scored 27 goals in four successive home matches.  Villa's next home opponents - Albion - were warned that they might expect a pasting. But the joke backfired on Villa as the Albion turned up and played all kinds of spoiling tactics - and won 2-0!

So the days of getting the season off to a blockbusting start seem to be well behind us. Perhaps we can, however, look forward to a season that will bring warmth back into our bellies. This year I shan't hope for more than that.


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Today' s Villa Hero

There was a time when every decade contained a great player in Villa's ranks, and ones that were proud enough of their team to stay and help make Aston Villa the great club it became. Names such as Archie Hunter (12 years), John Devey (10 years), Howard Spencer (13 years), Joe Bache (15 years), Harry Hampton (10 years before World War One intervened), Billy Walker (14 years) and Eric Houghton (10 years before World War Two intervened). There were others that could be mentioned.

Now, it was easy to stay with a club that was at the top in the country's estimation, but what happened after World War Two, when Villa really sank below their former greatness? Great players still came to Villa Park - Ford, Blanchflower, Thompson, Hitchens - but they were the first of the breed of Villa players that decided that their own careers came first. The significant difference was also that these players had not grown from the youth ranks (like the greats from Howard Spencer onwards) and were not bred in the Villa way.

So, even after Villa's demise following World War Two, fine players that began as youngsters at Villa did not lose their roots very easily. We are talking of Johnny Dixon (16 years from 1945), Charlie Aitken (15 years from 1961), Peter McParland (10 years from 1952) and even Gordon Cowans who, although he left Villa twice, it was not much down to his own choice in the matter and he still accumulated 530 appearances for Villa over 18 years. Brian Little was another that would not have left Villa of his own volition, and injury finally did him. Perhaps Shaw would have been of the same ilk.

Coming through the 1990s and into the 21st century, what can we say happened then? Well, Gareth Barry was another from the youth ranks who looked at one point as though he would become a veteran at Villa Park and indeed managed over 10 years of service. Then his head was turned.

But this age has not turned another man - one Gabriel Agbonlahor. The Brummie-born player has affirmed over and over again that his head is not for turning. He started to make an impact at the start of O'Neill's reign and began to feel the heat of competition to be at the top as Villa challenged hard for a time as  a top-4 side. But even though Villa have been in the doldrums these past 3 years, he's still there and last season (after fitness problems) came roaring back.

I grew up with Johnny Dixon being at Villa Park. Apart from Charlie Aitken, I have not since seen another Villa youngster stay the pace so well - during lows as well as highs - until now.

For me, Gabby is Villa's 'Today Hero'.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Is Benteke a re-built Hitchens?

The talk about Benteke - and whether he's going or not going - caused me to hark back some 50+ years. To the time of Gerry Hitchens' exit to be exact (1961).

What comes to the fore of my addled brain is that I do believe Villa have never properly found a true replacement for Hitchens ... until now.

When was it (since 1961) that we've had a Villa striker who's frightened the opposing defence in quite the same way? Until Benteke came along, our best pure striker since WW2 has been Gerry. His strike-rate confirms it.

Yes, there was the Doog and then Hateley, who both found the fans' hearts in different ways ... and Brian Little, but I don't like to include him in this particular topic because to me he was of a special breed that you hesitate to call pure strikers ... Andy Gray, Peter Withe, Gary Shaw (who might have been the ultimate striker), Dalian, Deano and ... the Calypso Kid. And then we had an Angel who flew in. Carew? Well... and the same for Bent, despite the goal-rate of both.

For my money Benteke is the first that you could say is the proper replacement for Hitchens. Benteke is a bigger player, but his pace and directness and strength on the ball bring back to me a reminder of our Gerry and the kind of centre-forwards that Villa used to be blessed with (I daren't dwell on the days when we had 'Pongo', 'Bomber' and 'Dai' at the same time!).

Boy has he taken his time in coming ... and hence all the more reason to keep him around for as long as possible. The big sadness is that - just like Gerry - the best of him will probably be seen elsewhere before long.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Villa Have Renewed Their Licence ...

Villa's licence as members of the Premier League has been renewed thanks to an overloaded Wigan schedule. The highs they must have obtained on Cup Final day came to nought within days as the main purpose of the season - the League - brought them cruelly down to earth.

Wigan's ambitions proved to be their undoing whilst Villa live to fight another day. And the opportunity even remains for Villa to win their last game at Wigan to rise even higher in the table. That really would be rubbing salt into Wigan's wound.

Paul Lambert really has to be given credit for sticking to his guns and following through what he believed in. He didn't orchestrate what went on in the previous two seasons and inherited a sad financial situation in the club and (expensive) players that clearly didn't pull their weight. He tried with Ireland, Bannan, Holman and Bent and also El Ahmadi (Lambert's own signing) but he clearly could see that they were not going to fit the bill he had in mind. He identified which players had enough fire in their bellies.

Since the beginning of February we have witnessed a remarkable transformation following the reconstruction of the team, with Benteke scoring 14 league goals - apparently the third highest total for 2013 in the world. By the end of the season, there's a semblance of a team in view now... players like Delph have grown immeasurably, and the rest of the midfield is beginning to look as though they're good.

It's a definite case of 'May auld acquaintance be forgot!', for I'm sure the hurt that the owner and his appointments imposed on the club's long-suffering fans (since 2010) will be put behind us from hereon in. Paul Lambert must have gained great insights from the last 4 months of the season and - crucially - solidified in his mind what he needs to do to make next season a much better one.

Hail St. Paul!! Don't tell me he doesn't know how to motivate players: he clearly does.

All we need to do next season is for Villa to win the FA Cup - 57 years after they last won it in '57! That accomplishment would put the supporters in a much better frame of mind. That combined with a mid-table (or higher) finish would be reasonable targets next season.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The end (of the season!) is nigh...

Well, it just shows how much I know with Wigan beating Albion and then losing versus Swansea! I had forecasted that they would draw with Albion and win against Swansea.

The outcome now is that Wigan have to win at Arsenal to stand a chance of catching Villa,and that only 3 days after their cup final against Man City. Wigan must now realise that relegation is staring them in the face, and the situation may well affect how much concentration they will put in on cup final day.

Villa must be feeling more confident now after their recent results and also the state of Wigan and other teams (Norwich are very capable of going down even if Wigan recover), so this week's match against Chelsea could be a classic. I don't quite fancy Villa to win, but just as Chelsea will probably score a couple of goals, I see Villa scoring the same number. A point will make Villa that extra bit safe before their final game visit to Wigan.

It has been an extraordinary season, with most of us expecting the worst in January after a series of poor results. But from the beginning of February the Villa have quietly pulled themselves together and built up their game.

The only thing I ask for now (assuming no relegation) is that we will see Villa rise up the table in future seasons and become the Midlands' masterclub once again. The Villa have been mainly under-performing for more than a decade, and I sense that Lambert may be putting together a team much in the way that Sir Alex did when he first went to Man U. I hope that as the great man retires that Villa's manager will attain the same greatness.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Wigan To Fall Off Their Pier?

Here are Wigan's remaining PL fixtures...

Spurs (h) (this week-end)
Albion (a)
Swansea (h)
Arsenal (a)
Villa (h)

The key here - as I see it - is that the Albion thru Arsenal matches, plus the Cup Final before the Arsenal match (4 matches), have to be played over a 11-day spell.

I'm not going to count my chickens, but I'd say that this fixture load could well bring the end for Wigan.

I can't see them getting more than a point each out of the Spurs and Albion matches, but while they may well get all 3 against Swansea (a potential total of 5 points) there's almost a certain defeat waiting at the Emirates, particularly if Wigan are beaten heavily by Man City in the cup final only 3 days before.

That would put Wigan 2 points ahead over Villa if Villa fail to pick up any more points before the last match of the season.

It could be that Villa just need one win from their next 3 matches and before the Wigan visit to ensure survival.

However, I have been informed about the awful stat that whoever Wigan have played in the last game of the season for the last four years has been relegated! And we play them them in the last game. Gulp.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Engine's Still Revving!

Before the Fulham match, the BBC sports page on that match stated:
    For Villa fans it must be just like that scene from The Great Escape film. Steve McQueen is nearly there. The Swiss Alps are just across the barbed-wire fence. The motorbike is revved. Jump it this time! Get there!
And we are still trying to get over the fence, engine racing like crazy!

It was, of course, a disappointing result having yet again had chances to put the match beyond doubt, with the own goal boy missing a glorious opportunity towards the end.

I feel that the loss of those 2 points could be crucial, certainly as Sunderland have found some life under their new manager. Villa's last matches are:

    Apr 22 A Man Utd
    Apr 29 H Sunderland
    May 4 A Norwich C
    May 11 H Chelsea
    May 19 A Wigan A

So, it's important that the team do not get a bad result at OT (meaning a thrashing) and are able to raise themsleves to get at least a point out of Sunderland.

Given a draw against Sunderland will, in my opinion, still leave 2 wins to be obtained in the last 3 games. It's not easy - plenty of nailbiting yet.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Are we safe? Of course! (says he, nervously)

Three wins in four matches and a genuine capability of maintaining superiority over bottom-half of the league teams have sewn the basis of Villa's recovery since January. That Liverpool out-muscled and out-thought Villa in the second half last week was more of a reflection of the fact that they have a couple of old heads that knew how to get the better of the Villa. That is Villa's current downfall in not having any player in the team of both sufficient experience and level of ability to guide the rest. Stan (Petrov), you have been missed in that department.

As a wise writer in the Daily Mirror put it after the Stoke match:
    As a Villans fan, you must feel as though you are in on the start of something, that you are party to a worthy new project ­ one that might stutter in its embryonic stage, one that might never reach satisfactory fruition, but one that has a certain nobility in its concept and one that will intrigue and entertain as it unfolds.
A couple of wins may well be sufficient to ensure safety, and in these remaining matches, surely we can see 6 points being gained out of Fulham and Sunderland - and in the latter match 3 points could be decisive as Sunderland are currently below the Villa.
    Apr 13 H Fulham
    Apr 22 A Man Utd
    Apr 29 H Sunderland
    May 4 A Norwich C
    May 12 H Chelsea
    May 19 A Wigan A
To have safety sorted before the visit to Norwich - and certainly before Wigan - would be very pleasing.

I believe safety is within reach. But that will not stop the fingernails being kept very short until the matter is sorted!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Two Fine Comebacks. But not safe - yet.

As Dave Beaston rightly says on his VillaFan blog: "Since that amazing second half performance against Newcastle, Aston Villa have pushed on as a team. The young lads such as Westwood, Lowton, Benteke & Weimann have improved with every game."

He goes on: "But, massive credit has to go to Brad Guzan. The American was re-signed by Lambert in the summer & has been nothing short of breathtaking so far in this campaign. I will go on record by saying this, if it wasn’t for Guzan’s amazing performances this season, we surely would be going down. Brad has to be fans player of the season for sure." Perhaps also the player's player?

Dave further says: "The players have improved because of one person, Paul Lambert. He went in with a vision, which has seen the old guard hardly see any playing time at all. A risky view to some, but to others it was the right choice. Players such as Bent, Ireland & Given (just to name a few) should be looked upon by these young lads for guidance & leadership. Instead, their lacklustre performances have just frustrated Lambert & the fans."

Dave, I applaud you for these comments. I totally endorse them. There have been quite a few who have moaned about Lambert, but I have always felt that he has a strong mind and knows what he wants. That he left those experienced players out had to have a reason behind it, and that reason has to do with the words 'commitment' and 'compatibility' (to fit in with Lambert's playing style).

But the situation is not yet sorted. Wigan are still picking up points, and if they win their game in hand then it is Villa that will go back into the bottom 3. Villa have to get 3 wins and a draw from their last 8 games in my opinion.

We seem to have a decent keeper, an OK midfield (needing Delph i.m.o.) and a decent attack. Most of the others are there to lull the opposition into the notion that they have a chance!

Survival is do-able. But it's going to be a nervous ride.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Are we facing a disaster - like previous disasters?

After sleeping on the (non-)events of the last few weeks surrounding Villa Park, my mind drifted back to the previous main downfalls in the club's history.

These were (as if we need reminding) the mid-1930s, the late 1960s, and the early 2000s' situation.

And I have to ask myself why was it that there was big change instigated in popular fashion then. And yet, when the club is approaching another dire situation, the current board manages to retain the affection of a segment of the fanbase and may well retain sufficient loyalty even if the club gets relegated.

I wasn't alive in the 1930s, but my feeling about the next two sad periods of history is that those downfalls occurred primarily because the board failed and because they had become too familiar to the fans. They had been in power for too long and, with the slippage, they lost the respect of the fans. In both cases it took some time for a revolution to occur.

What is the difference now? Simply that the current owner established an affectionate link with the fans merely by spending money for 3 years in a way never seen before by the current generations. So, despite his about-turn stance (for reasons we have largely tried to accommodate in our reasonable selves), we carry on thinking that a form of Eldorado will be found; that Aston Villa will succeed once more.

Indeed, until January I felt that if commonsense signings had been made then the board would be seen to be what we thought it was during its first 3 or 4 years. That nothing really had changed: that Premiership survival would probably be obtained and Mr. Lambert would have the time to re-shape the team into a basis for success in (maybe) 2 or 3 years time.

But those signings did not materialise in January, and I am afraid that Monsieur Sylla looks to me what he has been - a French second division player. He might well turn out to be a good purchase next season, but in the current state of things now is not the time to blood such a player.

Though we gained a valuable point yesterday, all the other teams around us did the same, or better.

And our home record is as bad as it could ever be. It's been like this at VP for two seasons now - never before has the Villa fan had to endure such a situation. The team has to make a significant improvement in its performances to succeed in the forthcoming home fixtures.

The Villan in me always wants to think positively, but I have to ask ... is the current board doing anything that is any better than we experienced in the late 1960s or under Doug in the early 2000s? Is it at least equally capable? I'd say not to both questions.

But what to do? I suppose we are to sleepwalk into the logical outcome - a relegation with no guarantee of an early return.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Looking forward to Spring?

January is over and the snow has gone - for awhile at least. Should we therefore be feeling a bit warmer and looking forward to Spring? Well that is a leading question, I believe.

Aston Villa-wise, we have been looking aghast at what has been going on down at the Aston Lower Grounds these last 2+ years, and if we thought that another Bent-like saving grace was to appear before the close of the 'window', then we have sadly been let down.

Just what has happened these last 2 years? In January 2011 a package of some £24 mill pulled in Bent to do a saving job and he just happened to be the final link that was needed to do that. But since then it's nearly all been downhill.

Just at the point when it looked to me as though some real experience is needed to be pulled in to help turn things around at the 11th hour, we instead get a French league two player and another who has tasted precious little Premier League football.

When Villa were in very similar circumstances in December/January of the 1955-56 season, Villa went out and spent a little fortune on players of real worth: Sewell, Dugdale, Sims and Smith. They proved to be the main basis of the Villa team for the next 3 or 4 years, so solid were they, and, importantly, they enabled Villa to fractionally scrape away from relegation for that season at least.

Will these latest two signings be able to help Villa to do a similar escape act, now? Well, if Dunne is not to appear again then Villa really are up against it as cracks are still showing, even with Vlaar's return.

So, we are left with these yawning questions - does the owner really care about the club and its potential dire position? Does he really believe that Villa - if relegated - will be able to bounce straight back up again?

Even if the answers to those questions is "yes", then it's plain that he has scant regard for the traditions of the club and the feelings of the real fans that are left, but are beginning to dwindle. We didn't welcome Randy Lerner to lead the club into this sort of position - it's partly for the reason that we thought Doug was leading Villa that way that we welcomed Lerner to bring back some hope.

This Odyssey is very close to hitting the rocks. But being the Villan that I am, I wait for that fair wind that the forecasters have not yet seen coming. The sails may be torn and holes may be appearing in the hull of the ship, but hope remains eternal.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Flashback to 1972

Here is an article of optimism ... about a resurgent Aston Villa emerging from the ashes of near disaster 40 years ago last year.

This was the time when we thought that Villa were on the way back up ... and for 10 years they were. We trust, however, that we don't have to (unnecessarily) go through this cycle all over again!

Wednesday February 23, 1972
By Geoffrey Green
Football Correspondent - The Times
Title: Over the claret-and-blue rainbow

The echoes of a great past are being raised again at Villa Park.

Even its historic portals suggest a glowing pride once more, a sturdy edifice of red brick redolent of a Victorian age when no wars threatened from without and when England, safe behind the shield of the navy, thought of life in terms of peace and security.

But in football, as in other things, there is usually a limit set to peace and security.

Once Aston Villa were at the top. In recent years, they have slipped down the depths.

But they are on the rise again after a period of crisis when ageing hands were prized from the tiller and a younger generation took over, realists whose eyes were not grown misty by heroic deeds of the past.

Under the driving chairmanship of Douglas Ellis and the managership of Vic Crowe - one of the modern tracksuited breed - the renowned claret and blue shirts currently lead the Third Division and look set fair for the promotion they nearly achieved a year ago.

Last season, however, had its compensation.

The voice of Aston Villa was heard again as they gained a great win over Manchester United in the semi-final round of the Football League Cup and then took Tottenham Hotspur in the final at Wembley.

The other day they gained a new feather in their cap by beating Santos containing the great Pele, an occasion that drew a 54,000 gathering on a night of power cuts defeated by the club's initiative in buying a £5,000 generator to operator their floodlights.

In spite of laying out that sum as an addition to the £12,000 guarantee paid to their Brazilian visitors, Aston Villa are sitting pretty in their parlour and counting out a £20,000 profit.

It was an astute piece of business in every way, heightened by the interesting fact that it was Santos who first broached Villa for this fixture.

Crowe revealed that, unwilling to overstretch his team, he had turned down several other attractive approaches from abroad, including Kiev Dynamo and the Russian national XI.

What has been abundantly revealed is that the soil of Birmingham is ripe for sowing and that the long tradition of loyalty to Aston Villa still lives on.

Crowds of 62,000 against Manchester United last season, 54,000 the other night and 48,000 recently for a Third Division game against Bournemouth are figures that would make many a First Division mouth water.

Within the last month, too, 40,000 people saw the two FA Youth Cup ties between Villa and their great rivals Birmingham City, across the way, which goes to show how deep are these Midland roots.

Having taken over the manager's hot seat from Tommy Docherty a couple of years ago, Crowe's immediate priority is promotion to the Second Division.

It will be a hard grind to the last yard, with key away matches to come at Notts County, Brighton and Rotherham, all close rivals who lurk in the top five places.

"Even our game this Saturday against Port Vale will be a tough examination," said Mr Crowe.

"Everybody plays us hard and there could be a let-down after the morale boost of that Santos win."

Mr Crowe understands the psychology of a player.

The wise manager is always looking over the rainbow and planning for the morrow.

"We've still got to get to the Second Division," he says.

But already he is grooming for the future. Having strengthened his hand by the acquisition of Graydon, a fast incisive winger from Bristol City, Cumbes, the Surrey cricketer and former West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper and Vowden from Birmingham, only 48 hours ago he laid out some £70,000 for Ian Ross, a useful all-rounder who has had many a run with Liverpool.

Bit by bit his first team pool of 18 players is being strengthened for the tasks ahead with an active policy of home grown youth as part of the overall blueprint.

With a home tie to come against Chelsea next Monday, Villa are on the edge of the FA Youth Cup semi-finals, with promising young players like Brian Little, John Gidman and Jimmy Brown as part of the insurance.

Aston Villa's real place of course is among the elite. Tradition demands it.

But the old cry of the Villa is being heard again ringing round Villa Park, which in its time has mounted World Cup matches and more internationals and FA Cup semi-finals than any other provincial stage.

Yet some 70 years ago here was the setting of a lake, the club offices and gymnasium were an aquarium, on the VIP car park there once stood a theatre and concert hall, and nearby was a rifle range.

Villa Park was once to Birmingham what Belle Vue is to Manchester and Battersea Festival Gardens is to London.

Here Athersmith once dribbled down the right wing holding an umbrella aloft in a heavy rainstorm, among the great passing cavalcade have been Sam Hardy, Billy Walker, Dorrell and York, heroes of my youth when the claret and blue shirt was the most respected and feared in the land.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Penalty? No ... but who has been really penalised?

Why Villa only decided to start playing with some energy in the second half is amazing, but I suppose the youngsters were shell-shocked after that penalty. And at least the last 15 minutes were reminiscent of those days way back when Villa would finish a match with all guns blazing.

Pity that this time the aiming equipment was rusty and the finish to the match was, in all honesty, not dangerous enough to cause us to think that Southampton were lucky. Apart from, that is, another very reasonable chance spurned towards the end of the match (as there was by Bent against Bradford in mid-week)

One goal scored at home in the last 6 Prem matches says a lot doesn't it? So it's alright for the manager to (rightly) go on and complain about a penalty that shouldn't have been, but who has really been penalised here? It's the poor fan who has been penalised ... the fan who has been paying through the nose these past three seasons for a glimpse of hope and instead has been fed a misfiring cannon. McLeish certainly failed big-time and now Lambert threatens to produce similar - or worse - statistics.

The fans mostly wanted Lambert in this season ... and they got him. But I don't think the fans expected that all commonsense would be thrown on one side in the club getting rid of virtually all their most experienced players - yet keeping Ireland! I am, in fact, a fan of Lambert in his vision, but it does need adjusting with that bit of commonsense to ensure survival in the Premiership. I don't entirely blame Lambert for this current situation but a board that knows only how to control purse strings. I'm beginning to think that Doug was more effective in that role.

The good news, though, is that we've still got 3 weeks to go in January to get reinforcements.

Two fighters in the spine of the team will go down well.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The January Fixtures

Having gained just a tad bit of confidence at Swansea, the way would appear to be open in the next two matches for Villa to restore more sense of self-belief in facing two lower-league teams in the cup competitions.

Easier said than done, of course, as such opposition has often proved to be the banana skin on which many a top-flight club has slipped, but nevertheless an opportunity to raise self-belief. An early goal against Ipswich might just be the tonic needed to press ahead and gain a solid win and a good base to face up to the League Cup semi. With this tie, memories of Tranmere Rovers in 1994 (nearly 20 years ago!) are ignited, of course, but we got through then, didn't we?!

Then, assuming those two matches are tackled successfully, the next-up arrival of Southampton would not seem to be so daunting and that 1-4 slip at St. Mary's would seem to be that further back in history. But it is a match which Villa 'must' win ... the opportunity is there to start generating space away from the bottom three and it must be taken. As also with the end-of-month home match against Newcastle.

In-between and we face Albion at the Hawthorns. Well (as things stand) the Baggies do not seem too daunting a prospect and a point gained there will go down very well indeed.

So, let's start to look forward to a good month. And, who knows, by the end of the month we might be:

1. Several places away from the bottom-3;
2. In the League Cup Final;
3. Going forward in the FA Cup, and...
4. In the possession of Paul Scholes (well, we can but hope!).