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.