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

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Something's A-Brewin'!

Our sparring partners for the Boxing Day fixture happens to be a club that we have never before met in the league: Burton Albion. And such has been the interest generated that the match would appear to be close to being a sell-out, giving the appearance that there is something about it that invites curiosity. More 'derby' feeling seems to be generated for this than a Blues match, it might seem.

Well, though Burton is new to us in major competition, the town of Burton figured a good deal in Villa's early exploits in the late 1870s and early 1880s. So-called friendly matches against Burton teams were usually vigorous affairs, and (as Archie Hunter would have told you) they could throw a mean punch. And for that they didn't need to play on Boxing Day for the excuse!

It was at Burton that Villa's famed skipper of the 1880s, Archie Hunter, made his debut for the Lions in 1878. And it quickly developed into something of a free-for-all, with 'hacking' and sly digs being a feature of the match. In fact, the match finished on such a warm note that the Villa players had to get off the pitch quickly. The match score? Well, there were various opinions about that depending on which side you supported!

But though the word "boxing" describes the day of the upcoming match, it should not - I would hope - mean that this fixture will succumb to the atmosphere of that in 1878, and with Nigel Clough being the man in charge of the Brewers, peace should reign.

From Villa's point of view, and being unbeaten so far at Villa Park this season, this match offers some hope that any Christmas cheer will come Villa's way, especially if Mr. Kodjia remains in determined mood to keep his scoring tally going.

For my part, I would also hope that Jack Grealish starts this match and really shows what he can do as a team player. I sense this is just the opportunity that he needs to strut his stuff and show himself to be the great player that everyone thinks that he should be. The second tier of the league should offer Jack the opportunity for him to show more of his true ability, and if he can't do it at this level, then what chance does he have when Villa are promoted?

As I have said before, I would hope for youth to be given its chance, and if Hepburn-Murphy were to partner Kodjia that would be wonderful. However, I can't quite see RHM actually starting the match and I would expect that the Villa team that won at QPR will start this match, with the possible switch of Grealish for either Gardner or Bacuna: it's important to play a settled side. 

It would be 'nice' to achieve a comfortable win if for no other reason than to increase the belief that we are able to dispose of Leeds, who visit only 3 days later. 


Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wow! What A Year!

What a year! As we approach the half-way mark in our first season out of the top-flight for 29 years there's a certain amount of misfiring of the cylinders, but at least Aston Villa has started winning some games again, a feature we've seen little of over the last 5 years, especially at home where once Villa Park was universally acknowledged as being a fortress. At least this season we've yet to be beaten on home soil.

When we started on a new journey with Randy Lerner just over 10 years ago, we had good cause to be reasonably cheerful early on, but it was eventually proven that the said owner was not really what we hoped for as our chairman: apart from his appreciation of aesthetics, we found him not really appreciating what was needed to guide one of the greatest pioneering clubs of the great game, let alone being the leading club of the Midlands. 

But now Aston Villa is getting back on track - isn't it? Or is it not yet safe to make such an assertion after 5 years of disillusionment? Well I, as a glass-half-full supporter, think it is safe to say that a revival is under way under an astute owner and chairman, though at this stage we may be huffing and puffing a little. 

I thought it might be worthwhile, at this stage of renewal, to reflect a little on the great pride that once existed at Aston Villa.

Not so very long ago we were European Champions, but if we were to go back about 100 years, when the world of football was utterly different to what it is now, it was our club - Aston Villa - that was regarded at that time as the leading club: apart from continual successes in the top flight (when being runner-up was also regarded as a big achievement), Aston Villa epitomised the notion of football glamour of those days. And that popularity continued right until the Second World War and beyond, despite the success of Arsenal in the 1930s. 

In terms of vision, Villa have had plenty of seers. We can go way back, of course, starting with the arrival of George Ramsay in 1875/76, who finally ended his full-time commitment to the club over 50 years later. And it was an old Villa director (the little known Charlie Johnstone) who spotted the South American potential over 100 years ago. Charlie was a smart 'reader' of the game and was full of ideas about how coaching and training methods should be developed: indeed, some of his ideas came to fruition. Further, Fred Rinder successfully led and developed the club as chairman from 1898 to 1925, yet returned as a director at age 78, in 1936, to help to re-awaken a Villa that had (temporarily) slipped from its high perch. It was he that brought Jimmy Hogan to the club.

Jimmy Hogan was appointed as Villa manager after he had spent years helping to develop football in Austria, Germany and Hungary, and when Hungary famously defeated England at Wembley (by 6 goals to 3) in 1953, the Hungarians hailed Hogan as being the inspiration behind their success. They became World Cup finalists in 1954 and they again beat England in a friendly, by 7-1. 

Hogan was associated with Villa from 1936 to 1939 (as manager) and then again from 1953 to 1959 (as youth coach), when some very good players emerged from Villa's academy, like Alan Deakin, John 'Slogger' Sleeuwenhoek and Harry Burrows. A one-time young Villa player we came to call Big Ron was substantially influenced by Hogan, and we saw the benefit of that influence when Big Ron was our team manager. Eric Houghton, who was manager in our last FA Cup-winning year of 1957, was also greatly influenced by Hogan.

And - perhaps most famously of all - we were blessed with the presence of William McGregor, who was not only called upon to lead Villa away from bankruptcy in 1886, but (with George Ramsay as the then new full-time secretary and Archie Hunter as skipper) galvanised the club to become the Midlands' first winners of the FA Cup in 1887. One year later, in 1888, McGregor became (of course) the creator of league football. Within 10 years of that great occasion, Villa were proving themselves to be the masters of that era in both league and cup football.

Fast forward to more recent years, and a number of us still clearly remember the revolution that took place at Villa Park in late 1968 to save the club from sinking into oblivion, and the Christmas present of that year that started the momentum which enabled the club to win the old Division Three championship in 1972 and then onwards and upwards to becoming (in just 10 years) European Champions.

Doesn't Dr. Tony Xia's approach remind you of some of the characteristics of the personalities and events of yore as listed above? Aston Villa once always led as the most innovative club around, and in Dr. Xia I see some of those same enthusiastic yet far-sighted traits. How much Villa can achieve under his leadership remains to be seen, but I would be very surprised if he doesn't achieve a majority of his targets. 

Crisis threatened the club in the years of 1886, 1936, 1968 and then this year, in 2016. But each time there has been a saviour that has arrived to guide the club back to a worthy status. Well, let's at least say that Dr. Xia's approach is as much part of Villa's tradition as anything I've yet seen in 65 years of being a Villa supporter. He appears to have created order and method out of chaos in just a few months.

And with the welcome thought of a Villa rejuvenation in mind, I wish all Villa supporters a very Happy Christmas and a highly successful New Year!

Thursday, 15 December 2016

When Necessity Raises Its Head...

The honeymoon with Brucie went pop on that night at Leeds. And the next match, at home, seemed to suggest that there was a hangover, but when the late late great winner was planted by Jack, I would have thought that heads would have cleared and that the Villa bhouys would have gone to Norwich ready to blast them out of the water. After all, the Canaries' recent form was none too good and they started the match nervously.

So what is it about the Villa? As there are so many non-nationals in the team, do they not understand Brucie's Geordie twang, and have they taken his demands for more as a personal affront? Well, the answer must not be so simple as the locals Jack and Gabby (and Villa fans to boot, we are told) scarcely put a foot right on the Norwich pitch. And Gardner has not exactly set the place alight either. The whole thing is a mystery.

A wrong team selection has been mooted as a possible reason for the dim display, and as Albert and co. (the subs) showed a bit more urgency and finally inspired a shot on goal, then maybe there's something in the team selection reasoning. But if that is the case then what is a squad for? A squad is surely there so that when there are fixture pressures it does not matter so much as the manager should have options he can trust. But it looks as though he cannot (trust the options).

So maybe the issue is as a lot on this blog probably suspected, that the lack of hungry players on view is the wake up call for clearing the decks and bringing in the talent from the reserves to show their expensive counterparts (and the locals whose heads have got too big) what's what. And to bring in equally hungry players in the January 'window'.

It appears to me that the whole idea of rebuilding a team from simply spending money is totally fallacious; last year it didn't work, so why should anyone think it would work 12 months' later? Well, different owners and managers may possibly account for the error, but Bruce (for seven games at least) did manage to pep them up to raise some hope. Perhaps the reality check has come just at the right time?

Now we will see what Bruce does with the team at QPR. He has threatened he will bring changes, but what changes (apart from re-installing Bacuna and Tshibola) can he introduce right now other than the young players that have not even been on the bench of late. 

I have a fear that I may be accused of not recognising that times have changed, but there was an old Villa principle that lasted for the best part of 100 years that the best system was to rear your own players from young and only buy in when it is absolutely necessary. The only time in that 100 years when that approach was dispensed with was between 1928 and 1936, when huge amounts of money were spent for those days, but the eventual outcome was relegation. The old method was then quickly reintroduced,  so why has it been so easily rejected again?

I beg to suggest that old methods should not be dispensed with so easily. Yes, I now agree with those that have been calling for youth: it would seem the time has come. The lean and hungry brigade deserve a chance.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

A Time To Get Back On Track?

Amazingly, the defeat last week at Leeds brought out quite a lot of frustration in many Villa fans, they seeming to think that all is wrong still at the club. All because we lost, and against one of the better managed clubs in the Championship, and, they say, because the team selection and the tactics used were strange. Well, so strange that (having put a good chance over the bar in the first half) Leeds did not get an attempt on target until past the hour mark. Unfortunately, that attempt also resulted in their opening goal, Villa's 'keeper seeming to be asleep on the job after an hour of mostly inaction.

Villa's side of the story is that they, also, were restricted in attempts on goal, but they did seem to be more likely to score, particularly when Albert wonderfully tricked his way through to a one-in-one situation on their fine veteran keeper (Green), who diverted the attempt away from goal. Somehow the referee gave a goal-kick!

And even after Leeds had scored, I felt that Villa would come back to gain a point. But that was not to be, and the score-line at the end became exaggerated.

Well, Villa had to lose a game at some point, and my feeling is that they should not lose more than another two or three all season. If that proves to be the case then there's every chance Villa will finish in the play-offs for the third promotion spot.

So, what's next but an opportunity to clear our heads and put the fans into better spirits with the visit of Wigan.

Villa had never played Wigan in any league until 2004, and Wigan's sojourn in the top tier lasted 8 years until they went down at the end of the 2012-13 season. Villa's record against them in that time (of 16 matches) was Won: 5  Drawn: 6  Lost: 5, and never were they considered to be rank pushovers. In fact they did not get relegated with a whimper, having beaten Manchester City in the FA Cup Final that very same season. And even from the Championship they reached the semi-final of the FA Cup competition in 2014. 

But this week finds Wigan in a relegation position in the Championship, and although they should still not be regarded as a pushover, they are clearly down in the bottom set for a reason. Villa have beaten all the teams around them (Rotherham, Blackburn and Cardiff) so, surely, this match should be a 'cert' - shouldn't it?

My view is that if Villa fail to take advantage of Wigan's plight and not put them to the sword it will be a lost opportunity to regain any spirit lost at Leeds. And I can't imagine the likes of Codger not wanting to get back on the scoring trail. Besides, Jack will be starting in this game - won't he?

To finish, I would like to state that I would agree that all is not yet perfect at Villa Park. How can it be after six long years of poor management and the awful incompetence and malaise that was allowed to develop? But I do think a recovery is under way and there's more chance of us being more cheerful at the end of the season. That in itself would be a heck of an achievement after our fears earlier in the season of further relegation.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Villa Have No Intention Of Being Led By Leeds!

I have no doubt that Leeds is a wonderful city, but why is it that over the last 100 years the city has been associated with more football irregularities than any other place? It's about that length of time ago that the Leeds City club went under after "financial irregularities" became apparent. Interestingly, though, Herbert Chapman was the City's manager: he subsequently became famous with Huddersfield and then Arsenal, bringing both clubs out of mundanity and into great success.

Leeds United then took over the mantle as Leeds' footballing representative in the big time, but, despite being under the management of the far-seeing Major Frank Buckley (originally of the Villa) for a time, and during that period acquiring Jack Charlton and the great John Charles, the club achieved nowt until Don Revie's arrival. As Wiki says:

"In March 1961, Revie was appointed player-manager of Leeds United, then a Second Division club who had never previously won a major trophy. Under Revie's management, Leeds became a major force in English football, winning the Second Division in 1963–64, the First Division in 1968–69 and 1973–74, the FA Cup in 1972, the League Cup in 1968, the FA Charity Shield in 1969, and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1968 and 1971. Additionally, Leeds were First Division runners-up five times, thrice FA Cup runners-up and runners-up in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and the European Cup Winners' Cup."

But, despite all that, Revie was criticised for the physical and often negative approach of his teams, though highly physical football was noted across the country at that time. Revie left Leeds to manage England but his resignation to manage in the Middle East after his 3-years sojopurn in that role fuelled criticism of him as money-obsessed. And there were unproven allegations of bribery and financial misconduct that also tarnished his reputation.

The Revie period was followed by the Brian Clough fiasco and then attempts by numerous former Leeds United playing heroes to get Leeds back to success. 

The dour Howard Wilkinson arrived in 1988 to turn things around, and, behold, Leeds won the league championship in the last season before the Premier League was launched (1992). Notable among that successful team was a certain Eric Cantona who left for further glory with Manchester United. But his departure also seemed to bring a slide to the fortunes of Leeds, who were poor losers to Villa in the 1996 League Cup Final, an occasion that also represents the Villa's last major trophy-winning achievement.

Over the next five years (1997-2002) Leeds United showed promise, first under the management of former Villa youngster George Graham, and then by his protégé, David O'Leary, who was sacked and arrived at Villa in 2003 for three inglorious years as Villa manager. 

With Leeds' lack of success, and the team being expensively assembled (but with heavy reliance on loans) by the chairman, Peter Ridsdale, financial troubles for the club began in earnest, and the club went into administration, the fall-out of which saw Leeds drop two divisions before their recovery to the Championship. During recent years, however, the then chairman, Cellino, was disqualified by the Football League in 2014 after they obtained documents from an Italian court, where he was found guilty of tax evasion. He was disqualified from running the club until April 2015. He subsequently sold the club.

So, that is a potted resumé of Leeds as a footballing city. A history marred by strange events, but also some fascinating periods when Leeds United possessed players that were known world-wide, such as John Charles, Jack Charlton, Billy Bremner and Allan "Sniffer" Clarke, a player from a Walsall footballing family who should have played in claret and blue if tradition had been followed. But Leeds in Revie's day never allowed tradition to interfere with their progress. And who can forget Norman "Cruncher" Hunter.

One more note: it was back in 1950 that Villa bought a certain Cornelius ("Con" for short) Martin from Leeds United. A remarkable player in that he played for club and country as both a goalkeeper and as a defender. He stayed with Villa for six years and is regarded as a great stalwart in Villa's past. A certain player named Fabian Delph was a more recent ex-Leeds arrival.

As to the outcome of the forthcoming match this week-end, well, it will be a tough match against another team with promotion hopes. But Villa are on a roll and I expect at least a draw.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Bluebird Pie For Dinner This Saturday?

Cardiff are up 'ere on Saturday. That club's name brings back some memories for me, not the least being a league match against them in March, 1957 when we won 4-1, but the terraces were very sparse that day. "Why?" you may well ask. Well, the match was played on a Wednesday afternoon! Again, the question "why?" is inevitable! 

In those days if a club didn't have floodlights and a re-arranged match had to be played in mid-week, then Villa played such matches on a Wednesday afternoon, being (back then) a half-day working day for many workers. And you will now have realised that in 1957 Villa did not have floodlights: they didn't arrive until the next year. So that match I saw played in 1957 may well have been the last that Villa ever played on a Wednesday afternoon.

The scorer for Cardiff that day was a certain Gerry Hitchens, the former Kidderminster player who was making a big name for himself down at Cardiff, having started there with a certain Trevor Ford as his companion in their forward line. What a combination! Well, Ford was past history for Villa, but Hitchens (Blews having nearly scuppered Villa's ambitions!) joined the Villa in December, 1957 and for nearly the next four years increased several times over in ability and the love-in Villa fans had for him. His 29 league goals (42 in all) in season 1960-61 has not since been equalled at Villa.

Anyway, the story of Hitchens has been told elsewhere over and over again, but in season 1959-60 - when Villa were temporarily in the second tier - Villa had Cardiff as their competitors for the division leader spot, and the match against them late in the season will go down in Villa's annals as one of the finest and most tense matches ever seen at Villa Park. It was 0-0 with around ten minutes to go when Villa finally took the lead, and it was Hitchens who soon grabbed a second to remind Cardiff of his talent.

Well, though Cardiff did finish as runner-up in that season and reached the top flight with Villa, their history since has been none too great, though in recent years they had a little flurry. As for this season, they now lie in the position that Villa occupied only a few weeks ago. In theory, the difference of just four points between Villa and Cardiff might indicate they are not a team to be taken lightly, but - using my half-glass full philosophy - I would say that since Villa appear to be on the 'up', they should win this match fairly comfortably. Yes, even with Rickie Lambert and a certain Peter Whittingham in their squad.

A win here followed by at least a draw at Leeds and then another win - against Wigan - would go down fairly well, I think.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Seagulls, Crabs ... It All Sounds A Bit Fishy!

It's always worthwhile to take a trip to Brighton. Except when it's not, when you fall foul of the parking attendant's book and collect a parking fine! That's what happened to me when I lived down souf and decided to take a trip there on March 25th, 1972 to see the new-look Villa team. They had just gone through 11 games undefeated and had not long acquired Ian Ross and Chris Nicholl. And it was Ray Graydon's first season.

Brighton, in fact, were doing well back then in that division (lying third), just as they are doing well now. But I still felt that Villa, being top of the table and with their recent acquisitions and Bruce 'the Cannon' Rioch in their ranks, would be shooting down a few seagulls.

Well, it was a disappointment. Despite a 20-yarder that was put home by Brucie, Brighton won the day 2-1. I remember someone got stabbed in the crowd, and then I collected that parking ticket! But Villa only lost one more game in the rest of the season (2 defeats in 23 games) to finish top of the old Division Three. Funny that the other game they lost in that run (again 2-1) was also on the south coast, at Torquay, but a month later Villa squashed 'em 5-1 at Villa Park having already been promoted through Charlie Aitken's goal at Bradford.

So, 44 years later we visit them again in a lower division. And, as we all know, before the latest Brucie arrived we would not have been having thoughts of the possibility of getting a win at the second-placed club, who are five points ahead of the third team and chasing Newcastle hard. In fact, I wonder how many Villa fans think now that Villa have a chance of winning?

In fact, though I expected Villa to win back then in '72, I don't expect them to win this time. It's a long trip down to Brighton, but provided Villa put in a spirited performance, I do expect a draw. We have the firepower with Codger up there and one or two useful assistants, so I think we'll at least manage to increase Brucie's unbeaten run.

Psychologically, it's so important to keep this unbeaten run going and to raise confidence. In fact, as we all know, Villa have spent so much money in assembling this squad that it's galling not to see them scrapping it out at the top of the table, but money alone is clearly not the answer. Brucie has proved that it's old-fashioned man-management techniques that will win the day (plus some talent and energy, of course) and to my mind he has answered the emergency call extremely well. Reservations about his capability of taking the club to the very top of the top tier remain, but for the moment I feel it's wise just to enjoy the ride: the future will take care of itself, I believe.

So, they're off to see the sea! Let's hope Villa don't manage to catch a crab!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Blackburn’s a-Rovin’ to Villa Park! Will it be their ru-i-n?

Two great clubs from a different era meet this week-end, and since the Villa are playing Blackburn, it could be that Rudi is licking his lips!  

We've won 65, drawn 33 and lost 58 of our 156 previous encounters, and the last two home encounters at the two ends of the year 2011 resulted in 4-1 and 3-1 wins to the Villa. But who can forget the second leg of the League Cup semi at Villa Park in January 2010, when we won 6-4 in a roller-coaster of a match, and winning overall 7-4 thanks to a brilliant Milner strike at Blackburn.

So, 13 goals against 'em in three out of four most recent home encounters! (Er, they beat us out of revenge for the semi result in May, 2010). I suppose we could almost be accused of being in la-la land if we were to start openly stating that Villa might score a few this Saturday, but I have to say, though, it is a possibility. After all, Blackburn seem to have a shaky defence and they are lying in one of the relegation spots. 

With Brucey's record of two wins and two draws since he took over, I can imagine he'd really love to get a decisive victory this week, against one of the lower clubs, to not only win but to add confidence to his team - and us! But Rovers are going to come to Villa Park and treat it like some cup final of long ago, when winning cup finals was their stock-in-trade. Even so, I have this little feeling that if Villa can score within the first ten or fifteen minutes, they could be runaway winners in this fixture. 

Ayew's not going to be with us for this match, so there's no opportunity for him to miss chances! So, whoever plays instead of him will have a chance to make a name for themselves! Could it be Gabby?! Maybe not: I'd expect 'Mac' to be in the starting line-up, though if Adomah is not fit then Gabby might be there. Or, as I started by saying, our Rudi may be given the chance to run riot against his old mates.

And - being Guy Fawkes Day - maybe we'll see some fireworks!

It could be a very interesting match, and the chance to lift us up closer to mid-point in the table.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

We Won!

An away win at last. And the fact that a win of any flavour has been obtained is, of course, to be cheered! It does not mean, of course, that all is now hunky-dory and that promotion is in our grasp, but it does mean that a small weight has been lifted from everyone's shoulders.

After Saturday's result, I believe I uttered some wish that we would win at Reading to help put the players mind into a better state for their next home match, for it is at home that the players seem to freeze the most. My wish was granted.

I was not able to see the Reading match, but analysing a combination of the report text and the stats gives some clues as to how Villa played. With a possession stat of only around 30%, Villa matched Reading in the shooting department, including the number of shots on goal. It was good to see Bacuna, Gardner and Adomah showing up well in terms of shots or assists against a team that had been unbeaten at home until last night. And the fact that Villa fouled a few times more than Reading may well indicate some extra effort on the part of our team. The Birmingham Mail analysis stated: "The way some of the previous under-performers ran around for the cause was so impressive".

And the nerve of Ayew to take his last minute penalty kick in such a cool way deserves praise.

So, was this apparent improvement down to more sustained training since Saturday? Of course not. Our new manager made a brave team selection, clearly organised the players in the most effective way and probably also managed to get a message of responsibility into their skulls. And he made good substitutions. What was indicative to me was that the enforced absence of Grealish (and Elphick too, for that matter) seemed to cause little concern for the Villa, which might support my feeling that Villa are not really any better with Grealish in the team. I may ruffle some feathers by saying this, but though he may well have talent, I feel he still has a lot of growing up to do and that Villa cannot wait for that development to take place while they're trying to find a way back to the top tier. Well, it's possible that under Bruce he might be different.

So, another win this Saturday would set us up well for the Small Heath encounter the following week. All of a sudden the game - and winning - seems so simple. I hope I'm not expecting too much from our lads over the next couple of weeks! 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Di Matteo Has Gone! Will Another Manager Make Any Difference?

"Results have gone awry! We must sack the manager!" That has been an all too-common cry of frustration from fans for the last 50 years, often egged-on by the media. I remember very clearly a certain Villa manager who was thus axed after nearly 6 years in the job, frustrated by the Villa board's inability to get to grip with the modern game then emerging in the early 60s, and was so conscientious he took the blame on his own shoulders and made himself very ill. The board immediately sacked him. Four years later, having become the manager of Manchester City, he took the cheers when City won the league championship with players of the ilk of Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Franny Lee. Six years after that, the same manager was temporarily in charge of an England team which produced some of the finest football seen from an England team in maybe 10 years. That manager's name was Joe Mercer.

So when the fans cry to have a manager sacked I always think back to the time of Joe, the manager who always had a smile - except when things went wrong in his last days with Villa. And I think and wonder whether the 'fault' of the manager that the fans want out is his - or is it the board's - or is it something else.

In fact there was a time, of course, when Villa did not have a team manager. The board and the club's secretary ran all the affairs of the club and thus maintained a continuity that sustained the club well for 50 years. If results went astray, the board got together and decided what had to be done - and did it! Like the beginning of the 1919-20 season when Villa found themselves bottom of the league after 10 games. At that point Villa went out and signed a mammoth of a player from nowhere (Frank Barson - said to have been one of the hardest players to appear in a Villa shirt), brought in a certain youngster called Billy Walker ... and the rest was history. Villa finished in mid-table and won the FA Cup!

Right, those times have been long gone. But the need for continuity hasn't. Somehow over the last few years we have lost sight of what Villa is, in my opinion. I for one have a different feeling about the club than I had ten years ago - vastly different, in fact. At times I struggle to see why I continue to take an interest.

Having said all that, in Dr. Xia I see some tangible recognition in him that he has a sense of reality, apart from the nature of the club's history and expectations. But what I also see in Dr. Xia is an ambition that rules over sensibility; when Di Matteo was appointed I had my reservations (as I think others did) but I honestly did not think we would see too much of a problem in this league with him in the job. That appointment is well and truly down to the good doctor.

But what seems to be overlooked (and the cause of some games being given away) is that some of the symptoms of last season have re-appeared. The almost impossible-to-understand defensive errors have again appeared, and yet with a new set of players who are supposed to be leaders in their own right! Also the failure to score ... again very prevalent last season.

Yes, we can try to put the blame on the manager and the midfielders, but in my view, there is something awry with the aura at Villa Park and that it is not the manager that should take the can. In fact, if he goes and is replaced, I fully expect the same symptoms to continue or re-appear - until the cause of this miasma is fixed.

The cause of the miasma? Oh, the previous owner, of course, was its instigator. But in my view it's up to the doctor to now re-vivify the club with a real understanding of what the club is about. He must take off that weight of expectation that seems to be on the players backs and which is making them 'leggy'. Sacking an above-average and mostly faultless manager is not the answer in my view.

What is needed? Being Chinese the owner in all seriousness ought to apply some Feng Shui to get harmony back at the club.

Monday, 19 September 2016

You can’t please everyone … can you?

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” So said Joe Lydgate, a medieval monk and poet, even before organised footie had been invented!

So there’s nothing new in the world, going by that statement. Football supporters generally simply expect the single pleasure of gaining maximum points from the match aided by the pleasure of supping a can or two of their favourite beer. Nothing else will do as many a supporter will not want to know how long it takes to get from utter cr*p to perfection: “Get rid of the old lot, replace ’em with new, and that’s it” seems to be the philosophy of quite a few.

Now I don’t blame my fellow Villa supporters one bit as I can’t get down to watch matches these days and therefore don’t experience the pain of being there and seeing maximum points whisked away from their eyes in the dying minutes. Nor do I expend the cost of the match ticket nor anything else that forms the accoutrement of the average supporter’s day out, especially those that haven’t had a significant pay rise in years. Nor the mournful journey back home.

The total experience has been awful as we have seen the ominous slide from grace over 5 long years. But of course I remember all too well, and experienced, an ominous slide from grace in the 1960s: the return took a long 8 years, and in the end a mostly enjoyable journey back. But Villa’s recovery was initially not aided by the intransigence of the old board who stayed in power for more than 15 months after top-tier relegation and waited until the results had miserably declined and the attendance had dropped below 12,000 before stepping down amidst the fans’ vehement protests.

Then we had the arrival of the mercurial and charismatic Tommy Docherty as coach under a new club management. The crowd numbers suddenly leapt into the 30,000s and ‘Doc’ played out a plan to save Villa from relegation to the third tier. He was lauded as an overnight hero as ‘Doc’ watched the fans stream out to watch the washing on the line. “Promotion next season (1969-70)” the fans said. Wrong!

‘Doc’ changed the club strip to something unrecognisable, bought the young Bruce Rioch for a new club record (a fine step), and Chico Hamilton, and took his Pets out on a gruelling get-fit regime and a hard series of pre-season matches. The fans streamed in to watch the new season but the new season fizzled out before it had started: all the hype came to nothing. It wasn’t too long before Doc was booted, but too late to stop relegation to the third tier.

There are not too many supporters still around that clearly remember those days of the late 60s. At that time, they were the worst years (1963-69) that Villa had ever experienced: not until the most recent 5 years has anything similar been experienced at Villa Park. And there is one big similarity – that once the downward spiral goes beyond a certain point, it takes some Newtonian force of gravity to reverse the trend. Yes, even with a new regime and a new set of players. It was not a far different situation in 1969 to that of today.

In my view the nettle has been grasped more quickly this time. The old ownership more quickly realised that the game was up and now we have quite a different – and more positive – structure in place. We have a new ‘Doc’ with us today, but this one is the owner. As back in the 1960s era, the inertia generated these last few years is taking its time to be replaced with something to satiate the fans’ needs. Perhaps a survivor of the tail end of those last 5 years – Ayew – is a reason why we’re not making better progress: if just some of his misses had been turned into goals we’d probably be a lot more happy. Maybe the negativity of last year has retained a place in his soul. So why, then, are some fans taking their frustrations out on the manager?

As fans we need to tread carefully. More negativity in the stadium might surely cause the ruin of the whole enterprise.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Will The Doc's Surgery Heal The Wound?

The one thing that the previous owner of Aston Villa finally succeeded in doing was to transform 30,000+ Brummies into being totally miserable while at the same time putting grins on the faces of the fans of the local opposition. And this coinciding with a time of government-sponsored austerity since 2010! Oh, how the Villans were shocked out of any complacency they might have retained since the days of Big Ron, and the smirk of contentment when Doug made his exit. 

The previous owner did not succeed, however, in causing the extinction of the football club he claimed to love, but (as Wellington once said) "it was a close run thing."

Enter the Doc. In what is hardly 3 months since his arrival he has totally transformed the mood, though it is noted that a number of fans are still not happy that we are not yet top of the Championship or that we have failed to score 11 goals against any opposition as Villa did in November, 1959, during another sojourn in the second tier. But wait: there's still time!

Yes, Wolves have managed to sign even more players than Villa during 'the window', but the Doc has made it crystal clear that he wants no-one playing for the club who has not the right attitude or the right level of experience to meet the situation the club faces. And the Doc has put his money where his mouth is, without a doubt, as well as removing almost all the demoralised dross that we saw last year.

So, Roberto di Matteo has been provided with what must be regarded as a very tantalising set of fresh ingredients to make a team that can get back into the big time, and also act as a basis for future development. Amidst the amount of experience that the manager now has at his disposal the right framework should exist for the times when injury strikes, or the Africa Nations Cup intervenes, and a youngster or two has to be thrown into the lion's den. It was a bit like that in the 70s, wasn't it, when what we would now regard as great players materialised from the youth ranks to take their rightful place in a mature and capable Villa team: players of the ilk of Little, Gidman, Deehan and Shaw, and others who were not too far behind in stature. It will be fascinating to see if Villa's youngsters of today can emulate those names of yesteryear.

Well, the manager has over a week to try to massage his new brood into some kind of shape that might resemble a team that will challenge for the main prize - promotion. And what better place to unveil his new pride of lions but at Villa Park in what should be a match to savour. We should not have expectations that all will 'click' in one go, but I feel the promise is there.

There has never before been so much emphasis on the "Up" in "Up the Villa"!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Isn't It All About Caring - Or Is That An Old-Fashioned View?

Well, a new campaign is about to start, Aston Villa emerging (we hope) from perhaps the bleakest period in the club's history. During last season we actually wondered whether any of the players actually cared about the club and its long-suffering fans, but here we are, mentally refreshed and buoyed-up a tad by the arrival of a new owner and a new manager.

But the question to me is - for the time being at least - do these present-day players care enough? It made me think.

I recently took my mind back to the days following the Second World War, and though I didn't see a match before 1950, I recall comments made by my father who was one of that huge crowd that watched a magnificent cup-tie against the first Busby Man U side in 1948 when Villa took the lead but had to come roaring back to 4-5 from being 1-5 down at half-time. Villa's Trevor Ford then hit the crossbar. A very late Man U goal sealed the win to them at 4-6; a match that was vividly remembered by all who were there.

However, 1945 to 1955 was a pretty bleak time in some respects. Villa didn't win a bean, and some of the players who played in WW2 friendlies and the wartime league were only just coming up to their retirement in the latter part of that decade. But though they didn't win trophies, the players were such characters in those days that the crowd loved 'em! In those days the entertainment was often more important than winning!

Just as now, there was some frustration in those times that Villa didn't make progress. Bought-in high-class stars decided to leave because of their disillusionment: Trevor Ford (1950), Danny Blanchflower (1954) and Tommy Thompson (1955). And those that didn't leave (like Johnny Dixon) stayed to renew the great days. In Johnny's case his stay was fully justified that day in 1957 when he led Villa to winning a (then) record 7th FA Cup win.

So, who were the main post-war players who shone (in character and ability) on the Villa Park turf between 1945 and 1955, yet didn't come close to any trophy? Here's my list for what it's worth (in order of joining Villa):
George Cummings (1936-49). A Scottish international left-back built like a tank. Captain of Villa from 1945 to 1949. He famously got the better of wingers like Stan Matthews and Tom Finney, usually forcing them to move infield to avoid his rigorous attention. If they didn't, their reward would sometimes be to find themselves shoulder-charged over the perimeter railings! 
George Edwards (1938-51). A mesmerising winger or centre-forward who, in the last season of wartime football, was beaten to the national scoring record only by Trevor Ford (then of Swansea). Wartime badly interfered with his career; doubtless he would otherwise have been a full international. Some said that he was a great player. He had to give up football in the end due to a severe illness, but was still highly regarded as a player when in his 30s. He helped to campaign for the ousting of the Villa board in 1968.
Frank Moss jnr. (1938-56). A Brummie and a centre-half or wing-half of great reputation (Tommy Lawton was just one great striker who talked him up) who happens to have been a second cousin of mine. His father played for Villa as well and captained England. Frank jnr. had two footballing brothers: Amos (who also played for Villa), and Dennis, the best of the three (it is said), who gave up senior football as a youngster to enter business. There could have been a Villa Moss Bros. half-back line of Moss, Moss and Moss! When Frank retired he took up pig farming in Cornwall. A bit of a toughie was Frank, who was sometimes heard to shout obscenities to any colleague who wasn't performing properly.
Harry Parkes (ca. 1942-1955). A Brummie and a fine all-round player who missed being capped for England only by injury. Eventually settled down at full-back, but is the only known Villa player to have played in every position, including once taking over as an emergency keeper. Was well known for his sports shops in Birmingham, and also very well known as the team joker! He was a Villa director for awhile in the early 1970s and vehemently opposed Doug Ellis. Parkes was believed to be leading a consortium to take over Villa in 1982, just as Doug Ellis performed a conjuring trick in share acquisition.
Johnny Dixon (1946-1961). Captain of Villa's cup-winning team in 1957. Had the distinction of breaking his nose in the first match he played for Villa, and also in the last (in 1961) when he made a goal and scored one in a 4-1 win, at the age of 37. Close to being an England international, he had his best scoring season in 1951-52 with 26 goals. Villa skipper 1955-58 and a trainer until 1967. A tea-totaller, he played his last game for the Villa Old Stars when about 70 years-of-age!
Dickie Dorsett (1946-55). A tough all-round player with a thumping shot and Villa's penalty taker. Opposing keepers were advised to stand out of the way! An occasional Villa skipper. On retirement he became a reserve team trainer for awhile before becoming a coach at Liverpool. Scored for Wolves in the 1939 FA Cup Final. In 1951 he came close to death when involved in a motor car accident.
Les Smith (1946-52). A smart and reliable left-winger: a wartime England international when with Brentford. He was an electrician by trade and ran a shop before restarting the Villa Old Stars' teams in 1961 to raise money for charity. Not to be confused with another Villa winger named Les Smith who played at Wembley in 1957.
Trevor Ford (1946-50). This Welsh international centre-forward of fiery temperament was a prolific goalscorer, and left for the then great Sunderland side in order to win trophies - but didn't achieve his ambition. A highly controversial player throughout his career.
Eddie Lowe (1946-50). A local boy who rose from Villa's 'nursery' teams to become a member of the 1947 England team which annihilated Portugal 10-0. A very cultured wing-half, but once manager Alex Massie left (1949) he was considered a luxury: they said his defensive abilities were minimal. He was sold to Fulham where he regained his form and went on to play for them 511 times and where he retired from playing in 1963. He played in the company of Johnny Haynes, Jimmy Hill, Bobby Robson, Jim Langley and other Fulham stars of the 1950s when Fulham's team was very good. It is extraordinary that Villa sold him as it was only a year later Villa paid a then large sum of money for Danny Blanchflower, whose defensive inclinations were none too strong!
Ivor Powell (1948-51). This Welsh international wing-half's career ended through injury, but in that short time he was a force to be reckoned with. Even though a small player he could get to high balls. Captain 1949-51. A friend of Stanley Matthews, he finally retired from football coaching at the age of 93 (!) after receiving an MBE for services to football.
Con Martin (1948-56). This tall Irish international was amazing - he occasionally played for club and country as a goalkeeper even though his main position was as a defender, usually at centre-half.
Tommy Thompson (1950-55). A regular scorer and worked in close harmony with Johnny Dixon, both of whom came from the north-east. Nicknamed 'Toucher' on account of the style of his play. In 1955 he signed for Preston where he partnered Tom Finney in attack; together they scored 200 goals in 4 seasons. Twice played for England.
Stan Lynn (1950-1961). A full-back in the George Cummings mould, he took over from Dickie Dorsett as the player with a thumping shot and Villa's penalty taker. The only Villa full-back to score a hat-trick (in 1958) and holds the full-back club scoring record for one season (9, 1957-58). He finished his working life in the stores at Joseph Lucas under the supervision of an old schoolmate and Villa friend of mine.
Danny Blanchflower (1951-54). Out of ambition, this fine NI international wing-half moved to Spurs in late 1954 and became their captain in winning the League and FA Cup double in 1961, the FA Cup in 1962 and then the European Cup Winners Cup in 1963. Managed Northern Ireland for a time. Always controversial in his views on football and wrote quite a bit for the press.
Peter Aldis (1951-59). A Brummie from Kings Heath who was the artist of the pair of Villa full-backs that graced Wembley's turf in 1957, Lynn being the other full-back. Close to becoming an England international. He only ever scored one goal for Villa. It was in 1952, and he scored it with a header that still stands as Villa's record for the furthest headed goal - 35 yards! Villa's skipper in the 1958-59 season. As he lived fairly local to me I saw him out running in our local streets: he inspired me to start my own keep-fit routine.
There were other players that made a significant contribution during that period including the very long-serving and tricky winger Billy Goffin and another winger, Colin Gibson. Also to mention the later headteacher John Martin and pre-war international Ronnie Starling, both fine ball-playing inside-forwards whose playing careers had been interrupted by war, but who continued to provide valuable support until 1948.

With players of character such as those described above, most of whom had an unswerving love for the club, the inevitable question is just how come they didn't win anything? But they didn't even come close to a trophy from 1945 to 1955 and, as in recent years, they were often in relegation battles but without actually getting relegated. In two such seasons when relegation threatened its head at Christmas time, the Villa summoned great reserves of determination (and money to buy in some playing help) to recover, and each time finished sixth in the league. Such is the mystery of football!

The end of the 1953-54 season is one vivid example of Villa's trials and tribulations in that decade. Villa experienced a tough season, but Peter McParland and several other youngsters made their mark later in the season to the extent that Cup Winners and League Runner-up West Bromwich Albion were trounced 6-1! Villa also put five past a high-placed Burnley to recover and finish in 13th place.

The year 1955 was a year of almost complete change at Villa Park. Fred Normansell, the Villa chairman, died, Billy Smith the club secretary (who had taken over from George Ramsay in 1926) had to retire through ill-health, and a whole host of very experienced players left. Danny Blanchflower had left before the preceding Christmas, Tommy Thompson moved in the summer of 1955, and long-time stalwarts Harry Parkes, Frank Moss and Dicky Dorsett all retired. Con Martin, Amos Moss and Colin Gibson would soon follow them into retirement. Villa sorely missed them, but the management had not planned a solution for this glaringly obvious exodus and relegation was only escaped by the narrowest of margins in 1955-56. The start of that season saw Villa signing Dave Hickson, the highly thought of striker from Merseyside (he played for Everton, Liverpool and Tranmere as well as Huddersfield). He clearly did not settle in the Midlands and was discharged from his duties having only scored one goal in 12 matches (and that in a pulsating 4-4 home draw with Man U).

In 1955-56 a new generation of fine players were to be seen at Villa Park, including later Welsh international, skipper and then manager Vic Crowe and Ireland international Pat Saward, but some of them were emergency buys to keep relegation at bay: keeper Nigel Sims, centre-half Jimmy Dugdale, former record sale Jackie Sewell and winger (the new) Les Smith arrived. Also, by that time Peter McParland had made himself a feared entity on Villa's left-wing after trials as an inside-forward. Peter actually joined Villa as a left-half! It so happens that a winger named Norman Lockhart appeared at Villa about this time, and for a season was competing with Peter McParland for the left-wing slot in the Northern Ireland team. A young Ron Atkinson was on Villa's books but did not make the first team: he went on to star for Oxford United. Young centre-forward Derek 'Doc' Pace was another for whom there were hopes, but he was sold to pave the way for Gerry Hitchens in 1958 and subsequently gave Villa continual reminders of his scoring ability whenever he returned to Villa Park in an opposition shirt. 

Villa was plagued with the loss of several very promising players in the early/mid 1950s: the interestingly-named young Herefordshire centre-forward Miller Craddock was thought of as a replacement for Trevor Ford and a future 'great', but was soon diagnosed with heart disease. He had to retire from football and died, still at a young age, in 1960. Injuries ended the hopes of the fine young forwards K. O. Roberts and Ken Roberts, and (later in the 50s) the young and brilliant Brummie keeper Arthur Sabin actually died of a disease shortly after making two highly-acclaimed first-team appearances. Bill Baxter, a useful wing-half, also had to retire through injury but continued for some years as a trainer.

So, that was the 1945 to 1955 era in a nutshell. A period in which the trophy cupboard remained bare, but was nevertheless a time of great enjoyment watching players who played as though the club's motto was stamped on their hearts and at times seeming to indicate that great days were just around the corner. And in 1957 we briefly thought that time had finally come.

The players loved playing for the Villa, and loved the old tradition of the club. But the training sessions were a laughing stock until former player Eric Houghton arrived as manager in 1953 and not long after brought in Bill Moore to provide discipline and method in training. This fine trainer was treated abysmally by the Villa board after the 1957 Cup win, and he soon left the club to manage Walsall, much to Houghton's chagrin. Houghton himself was sacked only 18 months after that Cup win but he left a fine legacy of young players that had been fostered by the great coach Jimmy Hogan, another Houghton appointee. Houghton eventually returned as a member of the Villa board in the 1970s and remained involved with the club as an ambassador for nearly the rest of his life. His death was the last tangible link with pre-war Aston Villa and, as a winger, he was the last player to have been coached on the field of play by his inside-forward partner, Billy Walker.

The great days, however, didn't really return until nearly 20 years after the FA Cup success. In fact, to add salt to the wound, my father (who had seen the Villa greats of the early 1930s, like Billy Walker, Pongo Waring and Jimmy Gibson) made his last visit to Villa Park in 1962 to see Villa beat Liverpool and to witness a fine youngster by the name of George Graham, who scored in that match. George was soon after sold by Villa to Chelsea for a pittance and immediately proceeded to make a big name for himself. He later became a bigger name with Arsenal and then Man U. Meanwhile, despite a remarkably high-scoring end to the 1961-62 season and then the arrival of Tony Hateley, Villa sank to new low levels before their phoenix revival started. And that is but another great story in this club's history told remarkably well in the book "Children of the Revolution" by the Times journalist, Richard Whitehead.

Do the present players care? Well, probably not as much; and of course many now have the lure of the kind of money that 60 and 70 years ago - and even 30 years ago - footballers could only dream about. The priorities of players and the way football is conducted have profoundly changed.

Friday, 15 July 2016

A Sign Of Sunshine Arriving

The weather forecast seems to indicate a raising of the temperature fairly soon, and with that news comes the information from Villa Park that “Ian Taylor and Brian Little have held a meeting with chief executive Keith Wyness to discuss how to bring the good times back to the club”.

Now, tell me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this what the fans were asking the previous regime to do for so long? But no, the old guard knew better, exemplified by an occasion when, following my suggestion to the club to take up Charlie Aitken’s offer of valuable memorabilia to utilise in the supposed museum, General Krulak replied with the words “what would players know about what goes into a museum?” (or words to that effect). But I knew that after talking to Charlie for just 30 minutes he knew exactly what he was talking about. Well, what would an American general know about footballers – especially those that have played for the Villa, and one that holds a club record after 17 years of fine service.

But the old guard is well gone, the club has already got the air of a spring-clean about it, and a lot of right noises have been made. And we even have a new player who has said that signing for Villa is a “no brainer”.

Wow, it’s possible the real Aston Villa still exists after all!

There is clearly still much to be done: another couple of players are needed, and some dead wood needs to be cleared. But at least there is a sense of renewed optimism. And with the stalwart Stan Petrov around to give a particular kind of inspiration after his personal battles, the players should have a better feeling generated by him about reality rather than the uninspirational situation that previously existed for 4 years or more. Even ‘our Jack’ seems to have gained a re-newed sense of urgency, and at least he’s not refusing to play in the Championship. Well done Jack.

In May I very much had my doubts that Villa could get back to the top tier within a couple of years, but the change of ownership and the pleasant buzz that has been generated this last month or two has automatically raised my own level of optimism.

Let’s go, Villa! Back to the top!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Media Isn’t What It Was

I don't like to remind about the old Villa motto: "Prepared". Over recent years the word was adulterated by the way in which the club was being steered, off and on the pitch.

Well, we are now presented with not one but three "P" words: "Passion, Pride, Purpose." These are the words now emblazoned on the club's re-vamped Villa Park shop, formerly called "Villa Village", but now called "Villa Store".

But, just like the old motto, there's not much point in having this emotive vocabulary unless there's some substance behind it, is there? We all too well remember that slogan "Proud History, Bright Future", don't we?

Are we in for yet another media-driven ride?

Well, until we start seeing some solid movement in the transfer market, followed by relevant performances on the pitch, we won't know what to think, I suggest. So far we are being fuelled by positive signals from the new owner, and that is good, but until that and the "three P's" are translated into action, they unfortunately don't mean more than an intention.

But as we've so recently been made to experience the horrors of yet another England damp squib in international competition, Aston Villa's horror story of last season seems to ebb into history with a realisation that football problems don't just exist at Villa Park. Too many English footballers clearly over-rate themselves, aided by a hyper-active media. As the wonderful lady Hannah Hawkswell has observed: "The media isn’t what it was". (Click here)

And if it wasn't for the recent passion and achievement of Leicester City to offer as an example, I would wonder if football any longer had anything of integrity to offer.

As Leicester and Iceland have reminded us, there is hope provided the spirit and work-ethic is there, 3 "P's" or no "3 P's".

C'mon the Villa!

Saturday, 28 May 2016

When The Grass Was Perhaps Greener

Waiting for Doctor Xia as the king-elect of Villa Park (er, Lotus Park) to be crowned is a little stressful, as is the appointment of a new team manager, but surely the stress of the last 6 years has been greater!

Perhaps, therefore, it may relieve some of that stress by recalling and comparing better times within the memories of most supporters with former times, asking the question whether the years before Randy were that bad.

I would agree that if we were to think back and remember the six years of the 2000 to 2006 period, you could see then that the club was on a downward trend, but it was perhaps a better time than endured in the last six years! However, after recently looking at a video of the proceedings of the 2000-01 season, the inevitable question is “Did it all start to go wrong at that specific point?”; and particularly did it all really start to go pear-shaped when Luc Nilis incurred that horrifying injury.

At the start of that season we acquired Nilis to join the likes of Merson, Joachim and Hendrie in a formation that looked as though it had the ability to produce the unexpected, and Nilis’s performance against Chelsea (and a superb goal), combined with Merson’s resurgence, seemed to confirm that promise. To add to that, Alpay had joined in the summer of 2000. He came across as a lovely man in that video I saw and he soon had the fans behind him. His combination with Southgate, added to the midfield talent and work-rate of Ian Taylor and George Boeteng, lively backs in the form of Stone and Wright, and a growing Gareth Barry, meant it seemed that Gregory was re-building nicely after losing players like Ehiogu.

But then, having lost Nilis in such a dreadful way, we also lost Southgate and Boeteng (both wanting to better themselves at Middlesbrough of all places, with Ehiogu) and we moved into the era of Bosco Balaban and the settling-in problems of Juan Pablo Angel. And Alpay’s newly-developed ego after the 2002 World Cup. Those were the issues that stood out for me at that time, added to a chairman who was ailing and probably becoming more disfunctional. He was at his weakest through severely bad health issues, and when that happens the hyenas sense their opportunity and pounce.

But that was the 2000-2006 period. In contrast, the opening eight seasons of the Premier League period had not been at all bad, with Messrs. Atkinson, Atkinson and Saunders achieving a runner-up finish in the PL’s first season after giving Man U a run for their money. And then a wonderful display at Wembley against that same lot in the 1994 League Cup Final – a final to be replayed over and over. Then came Brian Little who organised successive finishes of fourth and fifth and the 1996 League Cup win. Some suspect his success was a lot due to his assistant John Gregory who had departed, but he returned in 1998 and raised the fans’ expectations with a 12-match unbeaten start to the 1998-99 season that saw Villa at the top of the league for quite some time. And that after losing Dwight Yorke at the start of the season. But Coventry (and George Boeteng) came down and put continued hopes of a Champions League place completely on its backside.

But Gregory was tenacious. Getting to Wembley ended as a bit of a huff-and-puff affair, but in 2001-02 he got Villa back to the top of the PL for a spell … and then left, clearly disenchanted with the lack of ambition from the chairman.

But, to put the 1992-2006 14-year period in perspective, it largely replicated the 14-year era of Billy Walker and 1919-33. Statistically the two periods are remarkably similar, and even ended in a similar way. 1933-time saw the demise of the senior and valuable members of the Villa board (the legends Devey and Spencer) through age and infirmity and the club recruited a football manager for the first time (in 1934). And so, in 2006, the ageing and unwell Villa chairman (only legendary for his bicycle-kick!) also had to stand down.

So – I submit – we should possibly be a tad more grateful for what we received in the 1990s. Oh, and Doug will accept your apologies if you had any bad thoughts about him!

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Is This Xia Good Fortune?

Surprise, Surprise! After becoming inured to the prospect of continued prevarication in the selling of Aston Villa and therefore the chance of reverting the downward spiral, up pops something that - at first glance - seems to be everything that any good Villa fan has been praying for.

Great play seems to be put upon the scale of the new owner's wealth and the fact that he seems to be a 'self-made' man. He seems to have gained considerable experience and ability in his management of his business as well, and it is out of that management expertise we hope to see what kind of first steps he will take at Villa Park in terms of his appointment of CEO and also of the team manager. Names for both positions have already been touted, but we wait to see them come to fruition.

But I suggest that this is not really a "Dr. Xia Project" but a "China Project" in disguise. The Express and Star report Steve Hollis as saying:
I’d look at what’s going on in China - it is no secret President Xi [Dr. Xia's cousin] wants to win the World Cup by 2050. They are implementing strategies – 100 million six and seven year olds in China part of their curriculum is kicking a ball every day. Tony Xia wants Aston Villa to be the best supported club in China.
But there is no doubt that this event has halted the severe depression that has been intensely building up over the last five years, and the incredibly sad demise of what - even ten years ago; nay, even five years ago - was regarded as a major club in the UK. We, the fans, perhaps still think that Aston Villa is a major club, but the club has not won a trophy in twenty years, and the three cup finals we have played in since have got progressively worse in terms of the players' ability and commitment to succeed, let alone the poor management appointments, decisions and performance. Not only results but also the sheer attitude of the players have latterly been under severe scrutiny and the situation invites a complete overhaul by a determined and competent owner, CEO and manager.

It would perhaps be churlish to criticise something almost before it's happened, but I have to say that I am a little worried. I remember all too well the events of 10 years ago when 24 years of the reign of Doug Ellis had got too much for many supporters who welcomed Randy Lerner as the new saviour, and rubbished the previous chairman in one breath. Ten years on, the policies of Randy Lerner proved to often replicate those of his chairman predecessor, and so the resulting demise of the club created a backlash for this chairman as well. So, have supporters learnt from the last 10 years? Do they now put total faith in Dr. Xia to produce a miracle cure?

We wait, with a deep breath, to see what transpires and what medicine is applied. But please, Dr. Xia, do not make us hold our breaths for too long!

Thursday, 12 May 2016

A New Beginning Awaits!

It was Winnie, of course, who made this statement after El Alamein: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” A statement that gave notice that the turnaround had begun: that after years of being in a ruinous-looking situation, Britain was back on the front foot. And so it proved.

So, as the Villa’s seasonus horribilis comes to perhaps a welcome end, we seem (with a suspected imminent takeover) to be at a new beginning. But the question is, will this new era be triumphant? Will the new owners learn from what has gone before this last 10 years, and, indeed, the previous 24 years of Doug’s reign?

And outside the realm of Aston Villa there are other indicators that new owners may well note: the success of Leicester City as a supposed small club by comparison, and the observation in the press that moneybags Manchester City has become heartless and soul-less from the top down. Chelsea – a money driven club for a decade now – has also had its problems over the years, and particularly this season. Their supporters still seem to have a soft spot for Ranieri (now of Leicester), so it seems to me that the simple formula of megabucks and ego does not go down well with fans once that combination has been experienced. The thought of lucre to buy success may seem attractive, but it’s strange how banknotes lose their sheen if success does not get constantly repeated, even if the last major trophy win was only two years previous. Everyone loses patience if the dominance does not perpetuate: “We only finished fifth this season” looks like the grumble of Man U fans.

It is a welcome change, though, that it looks as though London will be bereft of any trophy winner this season, barring the possibility that Crystal Palace may yet produce a further fairy-tale story to accompany Leicester’s success.

But Villa? That the club has been relegated has been both unwarranted and unnecessary, but it is a fact and we have just got to go forward and heap our expectations onto new owners – and metaphorically even to offer our paintbrush services as was done back in 1969. And there lies the underlying needs of the club: to restore unity from disunity; to restore pride from shame. It happened in the 1969-82 years: it can happen again. In fact, it’s an overwhelming need for unity and pride to be restored in a football club such as Aston Villa.

Back in 1968 at a supporters’ protest meeting, a former Villa star player of the 1940s said: “The aura of greatness is no longer with us. … Once, the air at Villa Park used to be electric and the whole place was alive.” Well, we can say that now, too, can’t we? We have known some great days up until the end of the 90s, and some reminders in the days of O’Neill, but spirit is now in deep need of restoration. But although spirit can be found in a bottle, supporters need to go home from the match with the memory of something marvellous: something that the likes of Blanchflower, McParland, Hitchens, Rioch, Little, Gray, Cowans, Shaw, Withe, Saunders, Atkinson, Yorke and even Angel could provide in my lifetime following Villa. Even the efforts of defenders like Lynn, Aitken, Gidman, McGrath and Laursen have greatly aided in the creation of past excitement. That list could be extended, but aside from Benteke we’ve seen precious few of their ilk this past 18 years. Their like need to be restored as a priority at Villa Park in my view: players that can excite and warm the blood.

Winning is one thing, but firstly let’s get back to a base where pride and skill are paramount.

A “Bright Future”? Well, hope reigns eternal.