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

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.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Unravelling The Bare Bones of the Matter

With Fox looking confident, Villa splashed out the £50 millions received for Benteke and Delph and sat back. But he was utterly out-foxed – by the Foxes, whose preferred starting XI value is said to be £22 millions.

Now – at the end of the season – the Foxes are triumphant, and with Ranieri talking of “love” and “harmony” in the club there must be something spiritual happening there! In fact, it appears that the club’s Thai owners have, for the last 3 years, had Buddhist priests flying in from Thailand to bless the turf. And that all happening since Richard III’s bones were recovered from a Leicester social services car park!

I will always remember the Channel 4 documentary on the Humpback’s discovery. The archaeologists in fact didn’t know where to start digging, but one of them had an inspiration that the digging should start in one particular bay – and that is exactly where his bones were found; they had hit the spot at the first attempt. Ever since then (in 2012) it’s been upward and onward for the Leicester footballers. Whether Richard III and the Buddhists prayers have any connection is for the reader to decide.

But one thing is unquestionable: the togetherness of the Leicester players, and their utter team spirit and committed play. That in utter contrast to the Villa’s disunity and powder-puff play, most of the time giving the impression only of a reasonably competent League One team. But even such a team would surely play with more spirit! Even though Villa looked better against Watford, it was primarily only because Watford were poor for most of the match until they woke up to the fact they had a chance against 10 men and a defence with holes.

With so-called Villa fan Tom Hanks declaring: “I put money on Leicester City to win Premier League” (believed to be at 1500-1), Aston Villa have suffered yet another humiliation in a season of humiliations. And this Saturday we may be witnessing yet another defeat, and with that the creation of another unwanted record: the most number of league defeats Villa have sustained in a string.

The experience of relegation is now something not that entirely new to Villa fans, though nearly 30 years have transpired since the previous occasion. The first time Villa was relegated, in 1936, was exactly 80 years ago, and on that occasion a Sports Argus reporter tried to capture the feelings of a very old Villa stalwart as he heard the news on his radio:

“The even, casual tones of the announcer came with an accompaniment of atmospheres from the dilapidated valves in the corner of the room. In a worn leather chair by the fire sat a white-haired man, his face marked by the years. Pale and old though he undoubtedly was, his eyes at that moment in the early evening of April 25th, 1936 were ablaze with keenness. He listened intently; the atmosphere was tense.

“Still the announcer read on … there was no trace of interest in his voice.

“Then, suddenly, the aged listener caught a familiar word; he braced himself. The moment he awaited had arrived.

“’Aston Villa … two … Blackburn Rovers … FOUR’. On he went. But one listener had heard enough. Silently, almost painfully, he rose, and, hobbling across the room, switched off the wireless. Then, returning to the fireside he sank once more into the chair.

“As I watched, the fire died from his eyes, the lines on his face grew harder. In every respect he was once again an old man. I would not bring myself to speak lest I disturbed the thoughts I knew were in his head. So I left.”

That ancient report needs no comment, and in 2016 our shock is perhaps even greater, that the old club has appeared to lose all its pride, and only in the short space of six years. I don’t need to remind the reader that it was seven and six years ago respectively that two great Villa combatants, Laursen and Boerma, had to hang up their boots. And not long before that Mellberg had left, but only after he had donated hundreds of Villa shirts to the fans, in appreciation of their support.

Foreign players? So long as you have players of the character of Laursen, Boerma and Mellberg then there never will be a problem: those three served Villa exceptionally well. But today’s squad – with the exception of only two or three – hardly bear a resemblance to them. It’s significant perhaps that the three players just mentioned came to Villa before Lerner bought the club.

The future? Well, according to Ranieri the blend required should be based on “love” and “harmony” and to be “professional, play with passion and [a] desire to win”.

Pearson for manager? I more fancy Ranieri and the Buddhist priests to be honest. And perhaps we should start digging under the Bull Ring for the bones of the original Boerma, who founded Birmingham! Well, if not that then we know where Archie Hunter’s and George Ramsay’s bones lie.