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

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Any Christmas Cheer?

Well, I now have to admit that I cannot see Villa gaining automatic promotion this season.

For quite some time during the past 2 months I've felt that Villa would catch up with the top two, but the spate of injuries we've had have rather deflated the situation.

With the return of Terry fairly soon, and (hopefully) Green, and with perhaps one or two useful signings in January, then I see Villa consolidating a play-off position. But it will have to be a massive drop in form by Cardiff and other teams for Villa to get second place.

What worries me is that I no longer see enough spark in Villa's form to see them actually succeeding in the play-off stages. It is very difficult to remain very optimistic of Villa's promotion chances.

But how nice it will be to be proved wrong! However, failure to get promotion this season may well force Villa to start using their youngsters as the basis for the future. That's something that certain people have campaigned for, and it's a pity that one or two more young players have not been given more opportunity to date.

But I still feel very much that the Lerner regime did much more damage than has been realised. Not that Lerner himself is necessarily so much to blame except that his appointments at CEO and other levels left a lot to be desired. Still that's the past now. We can only look forward!

A Very Happy Christmas to all!

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Are Villa On A Roll?

My last post was just after the defeat at home at the hands (and feet) of Wednesday. I somehow felt that - despite having lost Terry, Kodjia and now Jedinak to injury for some time - the Villa would still bounce back, and that's what they've done. No, there's not been too much wonderful football to watch, but there's certainly a lot more steel in the players' resolve, as epitomised in Friday's draw at Leeds.

Three wins and a draw in the four matches since that home defeat.are certainly promotion-winning statistics and with Albert taking up the striker's role (ten goals in only thirteen starts) Villa are certainly now no pushovers to anyone.

But at Leeds, Albert's weaker left foot failed on two occasions to spark Villa. It was left to substitute Lansbury to show alacrity and determination to drive through and score the important equaliser. But how Lansbury scored that goal is interesting. Grealish had skilfully got the ball under control and had turned with it, but Lansbury decided drive was necessary and saw the chance, literally pinched the ball off Jack's toes, and went on to show how goals should be scored.

That moment of taking the ball off Jack seems to highlight Jack's shortcoming: his lack of drive. Skill he has and when he came on (with Lansbury) there was definitely a change in Villa's step. But so often, just when Jack needs to propel his way through the opposition like a Courtinho, he fails. But that's not to say that Jack doesn't have a place: I believe he does and I have been surprised that Bruce has not used him more after his comments about Jack at the start of the season.

If Villa do not have more major injury problems then I expect them to continue their upward climb, but with no alternative target man available for Davis other than Gabby, Villa are playing close to their limits.

I'm opti about this season and getting promotion. And with the chairman's plans for the development of Villa Park and all things considered, the future does look bright! Up the Villa!

How about reading about Villa's proud past? Read about The Villa Way.

Friday, 10 November 2017

How Do We Play It Next Week?

Well, one week since that home defeat against Wednesday, and one week away from the continuation of league hostilities following the international break. Just how will Bruce treat that home defeat? Wholesale changes to the team or more-or-less no change?

It must be said that last week's match was extraordinary: going one-down to a shot like that after just 18 seconds and then losing the skipper within the first half-hour. And while the defence is sorting itself out, they pop another into the net. And we started one of our players with cracked ribs and soon had to change him as well. 

But let's face it, Wednesday played with consummate skill and self-belief, a commodity we didn't seem to have too much of, and we really never looked like getting back into the match despite Chester's clear chance a few minutes before the end.

People have said that we didn't play to Hogan's and O'Hare's strengths, and there may well be some truth in that. But I have yet to see Hogan play a good game in any of Villa's serious matches. How he notched the number of goals he did seems curious to me. Perhaps he just can't hack playing for a big club? I think he's had enough opportunities to have put away more goals than he has and thereby gain confidence, but I can't see him progressing. Another expensive mistake, it would seem.

As for O'Hare, it looks as though we shall see plenty of him in the future as, indeed, we should see a lot of the likes of Davis and Green as well. But perhaps not yet as far as O'Hare is concerned. In Jack Grealish's 15 minute cameo last week I saw signs that perhaps he has learnt a lesson or two and that he's able to step up a gear. So that brings us back to next week, for I see Grealish as being the immediate future and O'Hare one to savour later.

Assuming Jack is now able to get his mojo working then I see Villa bouncing back with a vengeance. If he doesn't - for surely he will start next week - then anything may happen. We might even go backwards; but I think not. Despite Terry's absence on the pitch he'll still be a presence on the sidelines to influence the team's performance.

Dare I use that phrase? I do see a bright future!

How about reading about Villa's proud past? Read about The Villa Way.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Tactically Correct Move?

An oldie like me usually looks at the importance given to tactics with some disdain. After all, back in "the old days" footie was just footie wasn't it? You learnt your own part of the game as a defender or midfielder or forward and then somehow slotted in with the other specialists to form a team. To win or not win depended on (1) the skill in individuals (2) understanding between the players and (3) the desire and effort to win.

That was all that was needed really but now we've inculcated the belief that it's much more serious than that and we have to look at it more scientifically. Once-upon-a-time the older players coached the younger ones during the actual course of the game, but now coaching is a big-time profession. 

So I'm thinking I must be a dinosaur not to agree with and follow that line of thinking, and, hey, I never came near to being a professional footballer anyway, so what do I know.

Then, in the Daily Mail of Saturday October 21, Graeme Souness told us that he believes that the old approach towards games was the best. "There is little that is new", he says, "just a lot of spoofing and bluffing". He thinks tactics are over-used. Well, well, well; is there room for the non-expert after all, I wondered! And I have a lot of time for Souness: for me he was a fine player; he could be brilliant in his play and tough, too, if the occasion demanded it.

Graeme elaborated on his thinking. "There's one thing I don't get", he said. "I don't know how Jose Mourinho gets that message across to his players. You know the one I mean. At the final against Ajax at Anfield last week. 'We're not good enough to take them on in a game of football. So we're going to go long and stay behind the ball'". Graeme continued. "I don't know how you say that to players - because when I played at Liverpool, it was the opposite. We were made to feel unbeatable."

He had more to say: a lot more. Particularly about interpretation of the stats that pundits love so much. "A couple of years back we had figures on who had completed the highest rate of passes of any Premier League player. It turned out to be Per Mertesacker. Five yards this way, five yards that way. So what?"

Graeme also referred to the hero-worship of the blade-runners; those players that cover every inch of grass and are hailed for it. Graeme said: "I got injured with Liverpool once. I was returning from a bad back. Joe Fagan said to me: 'Today, son, obviously your fitness won't be where it should be. Try just standing still occasionally.' I don't think I ever got so many touches. How did he know that? Years and years of experience."

He said of Ronnie Moran: "He always left the feeling there was room for improvement, that every game was vital, that you showed no mercy, but stayed humble when you won. He was ruthless, but he had a way of making you strive to be better."

Interesting, isn't it, that since the old guard departed from Anfield that the club has never won the championship. And when I saw Liverpool play back then I always wondered about the look they had about them, a sort of "we've won this game" look before they'd hardly started. It didn't always work, of course, with that thrashing by Villa of 5-1 in 1976 as proof. But it was Liverpool that won the title that year, not Villa.

There were some lovely anecdotes in that article of Graeme's; click here to read it.

So, in reality, is football really what I always thought it was? More to do with love for the game, common sense and character than anything else. Perhaps it would be except someone invented the idea of money.

He summed up the main part of his article with this statement: "There are so many myths of what is important these days. We've got to go back to the strengths of being British. Instead, we look at Spain, we look at Germany. We're like the Chinese. We're trying to make copies of Louis Vuitton handbags."

Yep, it was the Villa that invented modern football and led the world. Wasn't it?


P.S. - A 'Call For Help'. Sorry to state this, but apart from my love of Villa history, one of the reasons for writing my book 'The Villa Way - 1874-1944' was because my wife and I are in a rather bad situation, financially. Our central heating doesn't work as the gas supply has been condemned (electric heaters are hugely expensive to run), and my wife cannot get back to work because of long-term health problems. And she needs a certain level of care. In any case, I have found it difficult to get work that pays enough having not been employed for several years. I'm 73 years young.

Frankly, I need to sell my latest book in some numbers to help make ends meet.

I know you will enjoy my book. One happy purchaser (David) has written: "I must say you have completely upset my schedule today as once I started glancing through I couldn't put it down! You clearly have invested a lot of time and effort in this book and it is worth every penny."

In addition, 'Mick' has informed me that the book is "beautifully written".

Please click here for the bookshop. 

And you will also find that the blind Villa fan John Flanner MBE has his highly enjoyable book, "Beautiful Game, Beautiful Memories", available at the same bookshop. John's wife is bed-ridden so you might understand that he also (as a blind person) is finding it difficult to cope, though in his case his children are at hand.

I am sure you will find both books a great Christmas stocking filler and well worth the investment!

Thank you for reading this. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Torn Apart By The Wolves, But Was It A One-off?

Yes, we lost against a good-looking Wolves attack on Saturday, without a doubt. And we may well have been looking at the eventual champions. But, to look at it from another angle, it was Villa's first defeat in nine starts, and nine starts in which we have scored four goals in two of the matches and three in another. If we can continue having runs like that with just the intermittent defeat then the Doc's target of promotion will be achieved, especially that such undefeated runs should see us finish in second place at least. There are 34 matches to go, so assuming four defeats and 22 wins from those, we would finish with 93 points, the same as Brighton last season.

Optimistic? Yes, perhaps, but I do not see too many teams in the Championship able to beat us. Would such a season and the current approach help us to provide a basis for life in the Premiership? Probably not as things are; but I do see things getting better, not worse.

And for those who wonder why smaller clubs appear (on the surface) to have had their problems sorted relatively quickly - including Wolves - let's not forget that Villa is one heck of a club to get right. In my view, Villa's historical background demands that the Club be looked at with a special pair of glasses, with a view to bringing the Club back to where it really belongs, at or near the very top.

These are the main historical issues I am referring to:

1. The fact that Villa led the world into the modern game in the 1893-1915 period and created records at that time that took other clubs decades to catch up with. Even in 1981 Villa had won more domestic trophies than any other club.
2. The fact that Villa won the European Cup in 1982, followed by the Supercup against Barcelona later that year.
3. The fact that until recently Villa had provided more players to the England team than any other club.
4. The fact that Villa still resides in 4th or 5th place (depending on how you look at the numbers) in a league of domestic trophy winners.

The Club is also the main representative of the UK's second city. Yet Aston Villa, with that history, now (sadly) sits in the Championship. And we expect quick fixes after the Club had been run down over five years and had become a laughing stock? I grimace when I think back to those matches of 2015-16.

Back in 1959, when the Club had been relegated for only the second time in its history, there was shock that it had happened. But, as in Villa's recent history, it could be said that "it was coming". Villa at that time had played it close too often and Lady Luck finally went through the door.

In the second tier in 1959-60, and after a promising 8-game start (just losing one and drawing one including a 5-2 home win against Portsmouth), the following results transpired:

A Huddersfield 1-0 
H Leyton Orient 1-0 
A Stoke 3-3 
A Lincoln 0-0 
A Sheffield U 1-1 
H Middlesbrough 1-0 
A Derby 2-2 
H Plymouth 2-0 

Four not-too-convincing wins and four draws. Then Villa went to Liverpool - themselves strong promotion contenders at that time and playing the kind of football that Wolves displayed on Saturday - and lost 2-1. Manager Joe Mercer was angry even though it was only Villa's second defeat of the season. He told his strikers: "Get scoring or I'll bring in the reserves", and there were some good youngsters waiting their chance.

That was the attitude then. "Hey, we've actually been beaten, let's get up off our rears and do something about it!" But what followed was not expected by anyone: 

H Charlton 11-1 
A Bristol C 5-0 
H Scunthorpe 5-0 

Twenty-one goals in three matches, with Gerry Hitchens scoring 10 of them. The 11-1 result was slightly flattered by the fact that their keeper broke his hand in trying to keep out the sixth two-thirds of the way through the match and was replaced in goal by an outfielder in the days of no subs. But any thought of the big result being a fluke was cast aside after those two following results.

But this article is not so much about those three results in retaliation to the Liverpool defeat; it is about the next match after that: a 2-1 defeat at lowly Rotherham! "How" - we asked - "could a football team be so devastating over three matches and then lose this one?". But Villa then won a fantastic match against fellow promotion candidates Cardiff, and proceeded to get promotion that season despite all the misgivings.

In fact, back in 1898 something similar happened when Villa won four home games in succession, 6-1, 7-1, 5-0 and 9-0 (27 goals in 4). The next week along came the Albion and everyone said they would be treated in similar fashion, especially as they had been beaten 7-1 in their previous encounter. Albion instead won 2-0!

And in 1961-62 when Villa won their Easter home games 8-3 and 5-1, yet lost their next two.

The moral of the story is that football is still not a predictable game; it is not a precise science either. The result of a game is a lot to do with how the players of both sides face up to the match. Anything can happen, and, yes, I can be wrong in my prediction of Villa getting promotion. And with regard to the Wolves result just gone, it was not entirely unexpected, but it's how the Villa will respond in the next match that should reveal the better side of the team's character.

It's great being a Villa fan, isn't it?!



I know you will enjoy my latest book, "The Villa Way - 1874-1944". Please look in to my bookshop (click here) and purchase a copy. And you will also find that the blind John Flanner's highly enjoyable book about his time as a Villa fan, "Beautiful Game, Beautiful Memories", is also available at the same bookshop. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

New Book : The Villa Way, 1874~1944

"The Story of What Made Villa Special"

From the very words of George Ramsay, Fred Rinder and other early architects and supporters of the great Club, published in newspapers of long ago, this book brings to light the character of those early leaders and the methods they used to keep the Villa ahead of the pack. The book also provides more light on the person of Jimmy Hogan, a famous coach who came to the Villa in 1936 with the order to get the Villa back on the map! He went on to serve the Villa for a total of 9 years, in two periods spanning 23 years, and left a blueprint for football that the world has since followed.

Moreover, John tells the tale of the Villa's first ground at Perry Barr and, drawing on the research of those that have looked into the origins of the Aston Lower Grounds, conveys the story of how Villa Park emerged from what was once part of Aston Hall's grounds.

Embedded into those accounts he records the main footballing triumphs of the Club in its first (mainly glorious) 70 years' history.

The book is well illustrated, and includes some images not seen for many years.

In fact, John has not only included much new material, but also has managed to condense the essence of his 2-volume Aston Villa Chronicles (1874-1924, and after) into 216 A5 pages.

There's a lot packed into this book that will be of deep interest to avid followers of the Villa's history. John hopes that "The Villa Way 1874~1944" will prove to be a lasting testament to a great football club.

216 black and white glossy pages. Softback.
Price £8.50 £7.90 (UK postage free)

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

One Year After...

On October 12, Steve Bruce will celebrate his first year in managerial charge at Aston Villa. But it has not been an easy year for him nor the fans, and the team has been changed a good deal. Of di Matteo's last team, only Hutton, Chester, Jedinak, Adomah and Grealish are survivors, and only two of those were at Villa before di Matteo arrived. Clearly, Bruce was not happy with what he found to be in place, though he had no option but to continue with the same squad until the next transfer window, the following January.

To say that Bruce has done a magnificent job would be an over-the-top statement, but, being the very experienced English player and manager that he has been, he did not take long to determine that attitudes at the club were not right and, one way or another, sought to change matters. There have been many arguments amongst fans as to whether the club should have taken the opportunity to rebuild from the club's academy, and we will never know now whether that would have been the better way, but even if Bruce's instinct is not to overly rely on youth, it may well have been that circumstances in the club were not at their best for that approach to work well, particularly given the Chairman's requirement for promotion to be attained within two seasons of his takeover. Clearly, the Chairman decided (based on scrupulously derived evidence) that Bruce was the best available person to manage the team in order to satisfy that target.

Despite the occasional good 'runs' during the remainder of the 2016-17 season, and another heavy round of expenditure in January, the jury was still very much 'out' (from the fans' viewpoint) on Bruce's suitability. But, after a stuttering start to the season, some rhythm has been established.

How Bruce's actions are to be viewed is, of course, open to be read by every individual, but I read it that Bruce has been disappointed by the lack of commitment from players in certain quarters. Among those would even appear to be Hutton and Adomah, who, when re-introduced, have clearly tried to raise their game. By the sheer expediency of bringing in fresh hard-working players, the existing staff have seen that they have to raise their bar to get attention.

And that's how I see Bruce's main achievement. The reintroduction of an honest work ethic that I have felt was disappearing before Bruce appeared on the scene. And so long as that ethic can be maintained then the target of promotion for this season becomes more likely.

To those who fear something may be being lost in this process, I share the reservation, but perhaps the proverbial kick in the pants was, in fact, the necessary thing to blow away the cobwebs before anything else could be attempted. We will see.

Meanwhile, may the club's collection of points continue apace.

Onwards and upwards!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Plus Points To Consider

It’s a curious thing that over 100 years ago if there was one criticism due to the formidable Villa sides of those days, it was that they failed to convert enough chances into goals.

And to me, there lies the key issue of today’s players: that they are creating enough chances but are not putting them away. We have just witnessed two 0-0 results, but I’ve also seen that we had at least 8 chances (perhaps 10 or 12) over those matches that should have been converted. And if one of them had gone in then the rest of the match may have been quite different.

As to the quality of the players? In the middle and up front we have good enough players in my opinion. In Hourihane, Snodgrass, Adomah, Onomah, Kodjia and Davis (not forgetting Green and Lansbury) I see plenty of ability, and (importantly) a willingness to work. Importantly, I saw (against Boro) full-backs helping too, especially Taylor who played a couple of clever balls.

Once they get on the pitch it’s the players that mostly determine the outcome, and if they are in a profligate or tense mood, then that’s what we will see. But as long as the chances are being manufactured, surely there’s reason for plenty of hope. Another manager is surely not going to be able to make the same players put the ball in the net?

The existing manager? Possibly not our ideal choice. In our frustration, we may find fault in what he says in pre and post match statements, but what he says is not the important issue. The players are probably as frustrated as the supporters in not getting the result they want, but so long as the willingness to work and the ability to create is there, the results will surely come. Furthermore, injuries have seen some more be sidelined while others are coming back. Once we get a settled team working then the cohesion should come.

If by some cruel irony the results fail to materialise, then the inevitable ‘chop’ will take place, but let’s give this promising squad our backing. Let’s transcend the disappointments and frustration of 6 years and start propelling the team upwards.

Isn’t that what supporters are for?!


Thursday, 17 August 2017

Family Stability Is Needed

We seem to spend all our time in blaming the manager, but are we thus saying that we have confidence in the players to do their job properly? I feel we are expecting too much from players who are these days cossetted and made to feel as though they are worth the money they're paid, and nothing else. For me, the character of footballers generally has declined in quality, and they seem not to understand that the badge they're playing for has to be upheld as though the defence of the country is at stake. That's how it once was: a pride that once existed of playing for 'the Villa'.

Trevor Ford - a fearless striker of 70 years ago - said that when he entered the gates of Villa Park it made him feel great. And taller too: just to enter Villa Park had such an uplifting effect on him. More recently, you could sense that a similar pride and commitment existed for Ian Taylor, Dion Dublin, Olof Mellberg, Martin Laursen and Stan Petrov. Strangely, with Gareth Barry, I always felt that he would leave when the time was ripe. That his heart was never quite fully for the club, though he was a good player for us, no doubt.

Over the last 20 years, many Villa youngsters have passed on, some of whom had great talent, but lost in the search for self-glorification, and myopia in management.

So maybe I'm talking about an attitude that has now passed us by. Maybe the transition to money-consciousness has overtaken all players. And maybe that where once Aston Villa was 'a family' - and people openly said that was so - that attitude has gone; that players simply became commercial entries in the ledger. A two-sided coin that has lost its sense of real worth. All we have seen this past seven years is players coming and going, like confetti. In fact, O'Neill was shipping players in and out in numbers before seven years ago. A situation this past 10 years or more that I don't think ever existed before

To bring out the best in the player at Villa Park I believe there needs to develop a sense that the entity they're playing for has a great standard to be restored. It's not a question of simply knowing how to play footie but a developed loyalty that brings out that extra dimension in a player, just as it did for Frank Barson all those years ago who, when his team was down to eight players, played the game of three players in one. And John 'Slogger' Sleeuwenhoek, who, in the declining days of the mid '60s, defended his penalty area as though it belonged to him. And back in the 70s, players like Rioch, Lochhead, Graydon and Nicholl could always be counted on to give 100%, an attitude that the likes of Brian Little grew into. Followed by Ron Saunders and his team of captains.

How do we achieve that attitude on the field?

When today's chairman talks of the need for 'stability' in my view he must transcend that thought to take on board the view that Aston Villa is an entity that is more than simply a football club. It should be a home to players who are committed to the highest standards, in the full tradition of the club going back to George Ramsay, and a tradition that is made to grow to carry on and be absorbed by future generations of players.

In the attempt to bring about that sense of 'family' and commitment, it makes sense to me that the club has purchased the services of the likes of Terry and Whelan. But in my view, they really do have to step up and show a higher authority and example.

How else is Aston Villa to be restored to the top? After seven years of constant change, in my view, it will take more time for that plan to percolate through. Sacking the manager is an attractive option, but on reflection (and given the state of the club these last seven or more years) is it really the way forward? Would another manager be able to get over the hurdles just outlined? Not by simply changing playing tactics he won't.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

From A Jack To A King?

While pre-season matches are nothing much to get excited about (especially the early ones) the fans are eager to take a look at what the current set of players can do. This is especially in the light of the fact that few new signings are expected to arrive this summer: although Johnstone has been announced as a ‘signing’, he was of course with us last season, so nothing new for us there. Terry is the only one who is actually ‘new’ to us, but while he is of interest, the fact that his role is defensive does not take away our concerns about the team’s creativity and scoring ability.

So I was very interested to see how the players from last season’s January ‘window’ were shaping up in readiness for the new season. But – sorry to say – I saw nothing in the Shrewsbury match that made me feel that extra bonding and understanding had developed amongst the players. Sadly, I continued to see the two strikers looking somewhat adrift, combined with rather stodgy and ineffective play from Hourihane, the one player who I thought might spark some life into the team. However, in common with a number of others, I do sense that he may be more effective further forward. Should he be the ‘missing link’, sitting just behind both Kodjia and Hogan?

The midfielders Bjornason, Lansbury and Jedi I’m willing to accept as workaholic midfielders who will rarely be originally creative, but we do need that extra dimension, I feel, to create chances for the strikers. A player with that ‘bit extra’, who can turn a defence and perhaps score a few himself. I’ve been hoping that would be Hourihane, but a doubt persists. But if not him, then who else? Gardner – though clearly having a useful shot on him – doesn’t quite cut it for me. And his shots usually just hit the woodwork.

We have for some time now looked upon ‘Our Jack’ as signalling the birth of a new era at Villa Park. I for one thought he’d step up to the challenge following Villa’s relegation season, but I’d say he mostly disappointed, apart from a couple of wonderful strikes and gaining a couple of penalties. He’s coming up to age 22, and really, if he doesn’t step up to the mark this season then I doubt that he will at all. If he’s not careful he’ll be just another of those great hopefuls that emerged from the youth ranks and then fizzled away.

But there’s the half-glass-full in me that says he can and will make the grade. Whether he’ll ever reach his potential only time will tell, but I am sure that he will now be taking his career seriously and striving to get his beloved Aston Villa to where they truly belong – at the top. If he doesn’t, I’m still not sure about Hourihane, so where will that leave Villa?

So Jack … reflect on this old tune and please try to win our hearts!

From a Jack to a King 
From loneliness to a wedding ring 
I played an Ace and I won a Queen 
And walked away with your heart.

Monday, 1 May 2017

A Remarkable Villa Fan's Story

Peter McParland MBE, who scored the two goals in Villa's memorable 2-1 triumph over Manchester United in the 1957 FA Cup Final, will be joining blind super-supporter John Flanner MBE to celebrate the launch of John’s compelling book about his memories of the game.

In the book, ‘Beautiful Game, Beautiful Memories,’ due to be launched on 4 May, John pays homage to the Club as he shares the magical moments of football heroes past and present, recounting legendary matches and dramatic events over the past 60 years.

Brian Little, legendary player and former Manager of Aston Villa, said: “John’s story is simply incredible…Most of us have been blessed with being able to watch football, rather than having to imagine in our mind’s eye what is happening on the pitch.  So for someone like John to follow Villa as passionately as he has done without being able to see is amazing.”

Peter McParland, who first met John in May 2015, commented: “John is a unique man who has overcome many difficulties as a young boy to become a fantastic supporter of Aston Villa and a fantastic person.  It’s marvellous he’s overcome the difficulties he has to become who he is today, and an outstanding supporter of the Club.”

Former Aston Villa Manager Ron Atkinson added: “John’s recollections of players and matches stirred up so many wonderful memories for myself.  This book is a fantastic read for all of those who genuinely love ‘the Beautiful Game’ and I thoroughly recommend it as an inspirational read.”

Recalling precious memories of ‘Going to the Villa’ with his Dad and son, John said, “I have so many truly great memories and one of the sweetest of all, after several years of heartache, was when the Villa boys turned in a performance that shocked the football world when they beat Liverpool in the 2015 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium.  That memory will live with me forever because it was so unexpected and therefore all the more sweet.

“Being a football supporter is a strange thing because it takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride.  It is very similar to a marriage and, in my case, the love of Aston Villa as a football club is clearly engrained in me. In my 60 years following the Club there have been countless highs and lows but, as with all true supporters, you stick with the Villa no matter what.” 

Copies of the book will be available on Amazon and Kindle from 4 May and you can find out more about John by visiting his website at:

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Return Of The Cult Hero?

Where once alchemy was regarded as the means towards the creation of gold, the invention of football generated a new means of obtaining gold: the football hero!

Yes, for one game at least, Gabby has achieved cult status with his near-cameo appearance and the destruction of the auld 'enemy'. In a game where mediocre was the operative description of the faire until his appearance on the pitch, Gabby's clear sense of the occasion blew all negativity away as he came on to apply his interpretation of 'Veni, Vidi, Vici'.

I wonder just how many players have achieved such a hero's welcome and responded so well, sweeping the ball home in deft style - though it has to be admitted he could hardly have missed.

I can recall only one other player who came on for Villa as a substitute and had a near equal effect. That player was Bruce Rioch, who came on way back in 1973-74 in a match that was equally mediocre, and one that Villa were losing (at home) by one goal. His appearance also raised the hope of the fans, though possibly in a less demonstrative way back then, just as a free kick had been given on the edge of the opponent's penalty area at the Holte End. And of course, Rioch was assigned to take it, and smashed it home with aplomb for possibly the only worthwhile event of the match. Rioch was immediately made King of Villa Park!

Apart from these two instances, I cannot think of anything exactly comparable, but there were two matches - both in season 1960-61 - when two individual players made a totally unexpected impact. The first was in another derby against Small Heath, when a new boy made his debut: one Alan O'Neill. Just signed from Sunderland as an inside-forward to add more lustre to Villa's attack, he scored inside 60 seconds. And he went on to score another in a 6-2 win over the auld enemy. Even Gerry Hitchens' hat-trick that day was overshadowed by O'Neill's achievement in front of a massive crowd!

The second 'big impact' match that season was the very last match against the Wednesday, who had finished as league runners-up that season with quite a talented side. For this match, Villa brought back the legendary Johnny Dixon for his last first team appearance. Villa won 4-1 that day and the 37-year-old scored a classic goal from a through ball and broke his nose in the process, just as he had in his very first Villa match 16 years before! After his goal, Johnny was cheered back to the centre circle with great feeling by the Villa fans. The Birmingham press hailed that Villa team as being the best on view at Villa Park that season and noted Johnny's huge contribution.

The game of football these days may be nearly all about results and money, but without golden moments such as these, I wonder how long football would last. When I think back, it was the hope of seeing the unexpected that was my main motivation for going to watch the match. Yes, in times gone by with players like Peter McParland and Stan Lynn in the side, you felt sure that something would spark one or the other to do something memorable, as 'SuperMac' did on one occasion. Having done virtually nothing all match, he suddenly got the ball on the halfway line and literally drove through the opposing defence with they not knowing what he was going to do next. They soon realised after the ball had left his foot from 20 yards, and were picking the ball out of the net. Joe Mercer (the manager) had been shouting at Peter to "get rid of it, you twat!" but was left embarrassed once Peter had scored!

And the time when "Stan the Wham" scored a goal by dribbling through the entire opposition defence (including the keeper) before just tapping the ball into the empty net. And Tony Hateley, who scored four goals in a match that had seen Villa pull back a 5-1 half-time deficit to 5-5 at White Hart Lane, with Alan Deakin seeing his shot cleared off the line in the last minute.

There were times such as when Villa were losing 4-0 against Liverpool with 20 minutes to go and brought the match level at 4-4 in the last minutes - with SuperMac even missing the chance of a winner in the last few seconds! Or the match when Villa put eleven (11) goals past Charlton, and also scored ten goals in their next two matches. And the time when Villa put eight past the England keeper - Gordon Banks. And my father told me of that match in 1948 when Villa were losing 5-1 at half-time to Manchester United, then came back to 5-4 before a Villa shot hit the crossbar! But United scored a sixth very late on.

There's always the corollary when Villa were subject to an opponent's hero, such as the time about 15 years ago when van Nistleroy came on for United at a time in the second half when Villa led 2-1 (and should have already made it 3-1). United's player then - almost single-handedly - stole the game away from Villa, who lost 3-2.

Yes, it's times like that, when you leave a match with your heart still pumping hard, that you think that watching footie is worthwhile. Or, if you have seen the flick over the head and the subsequent scoring volley dispatched by Brian Little, or the calm but so timely interception by Paul McGrath, that thrill. That, in fact, is how Villa became so popular because they played a game that entertained, via both teamwork and individuality.

So, c'mon Gabby, you've revived a lost art: please give us some more! And, hopefully, inspire some other Villa players to do the same. Jack Grealish: take note!

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Wanted: This Summer To Arrive

Randy Lerner physically departed less than 12 months ago, but he was spiritually absent well before that. Even though he left so recently we appear to be somewhat impatient that the club is not already showing signs of transforming itself back into the kind of force it was in the mid-70s to early 80s. But recovering from a demise is no easy thing, particularly when the latest downturn was inflicted so harshly.

As a historian (as well as a Villa fan) my feeling is that Villa's demise started with the departure of the people most involved with the growth of the club in its first 50 years - namely George Ramsay (retired 1926) and Fred Rinder (resigned 1925), William McGregor having died in 1911. From that point on, it seems to have been mainly a case of ego dominating the management of the club - people taking over the reins because they felt they were better able to do the job, but usually falling short. Yes, ego was involved from the earliest days as well, but at least it was an enlightened and enterprising ego!

Apart from that time just before the War when Fred Rinder briefly came back onto the board, the only time since that we have had a Villa board that has been truly enterprising in the development of the club was from 1969 onwards (and particularly from 1974) to the return of Doug Ellis in 1982. The problem with the 1974-82 group, however, was that they ran into debt and hence that sealed the return of Ellis and his 'manage with caution' approach as his wily ways beat off the challenge from a rival group.

But that time of resurgence from 1969 (sorry, Christmas, 1968!) happened in such a way for a host of reasons that could not be replicated today. There were still many fans who remembered enough of the great times (some went back to pre-WW1) and the feeling that was in the club during such times. And when the board was re-formed at the start of that revolution it had Harry Parkes as one of its directors, a former player of some 17 years standing as a loyal and valued contributor, and a local man. George Edwards was another former great of Parkes's era who had stood up and said his piece in the effort to have the former board put to graze. Eric Houghton (from 1927-on, a Villa player for near 20 years) later came onto the board. He was possibly even more claret and blue than Parkes and Edwards.

There were people around then who knew from first-hand, or from primary sources, how great the club's contribution had been in the evolution of football and were enthused by that. A tradition and mindset was truly in place and one that conveyed an 'air' about the club. There were so many from the fan-base that were called for and came forward to re-build their club. One ordinary fan (Ted Small) came forward to do some small building repairs and ended up as being the stadium manager.

Until the start of the Premier League at least (1992), the fans' connection with the club and its history was strong. But by that time, the occupancy of the surrounding Aston district had already become much-changed and from 1996 the state of football and its management was to drastically change in this country. Football UK started to lose much of its natural connection with the grass roots, not aided by the digital age. And star footballers no longer connected with the fans as they once did.

It can be argued that it was Doug that helped to breed a new style of club management and that he is to blame for so many things, but the story is much more complex than that. And when he went, another - and foreign - management took over at Villa. Ten years later, that owner departed leaving a shell of a club that once was. The heart had been virtually ripped out of it. And many staff lost their jobs: services that had been run in-house became contracted out to save money. An old Villa fan who knows what goes on there says that the backroom atmosphere at the club is not anywhere near what it was even 10 years ago. Where once fans came in numbers to utilise the various facilities in the ground, there has become a lull. It was once a home-from-home for Villa supporters who also worked at the ground, but no longer - thanks to the running-down of the club up to 2016. And the dissipation in the attitude of too many players, which I believe is still present.

It is virtually 50 years since the previous revolution that helped re-build the club and brought it to a greater level of performance - but then lost its way somewhat. Sadly, the kind of revolution that took place in 1968-69 is hardly possible in the way football is today and the club remains owned by someone without a root connection with the club, although his modus operandi appears to be positively different to that of his predecessor. And he is helped by Brian Little, a further step forward from the attitude of the previous administration who believed they knew all the answers yet failed to apply much of substance that worked.

In 2016, it looked on paper as though a new owner with very substantial amounts of money was coming in to turn things around. And, yes, he did spend, though the situation he found when he first got here was different to what he expected. He got on with the job and appears to have restructured the club's main operations well enough. But the new owner (Dr. Xia) is reported to have recently Tweeted: "we need [to] get the right environment system back first, then build winning mentality, stable performance, and football style." In other words, even now (nearly 12 months later), he hints that there is much work that remains to be done; that re-structuring the club does not mean that everything will suddenly start to work smoothly. He's made a sound start, but to get all the gears properly synchronised does take oil, elbow grease and time.

We - as fans - think that the main issue is what we see on the pitch and look mainly to the team manager as the focal point and the butt of our jibes. In a way that's correct, because it's the success (or not) of the play that brings the needed success of the club. And there are a number of accusations that there is "little or no flair or excitement in the team which is [a] hallmark of Bruce". But for me I believe it's the old mindset that has to be re-found as the higher priority: there was a time (it was said) when the Villa were afraid of no-one and played accordingly. I know of matches of old when Villa finished a match with only 9 or 10 players on the field, and yet won convincingly! There was one match in the 1920s when an 8-man Villa team held Everton to a 1-1 scoreline until 20 minutes from time, but then finally fell to two late goals. I feel that Bruce is the kind of manager that wants to achieve that attitude in his team, and with his record of gaining promotion, he must surely be well qualified for at least that purpose. In other words, what we're seeing just now is not truly reflective of Bruce the manager: he knows he has more work to get through.

A key issue, also, is that a football club is not quite like any other kind of business, particularly in that its main employees (the players) have developed a certain power since the 1990s and can directly influence the way the club operates. The players no longer connect so much with the club they play for, except perhaps those that came through the club's own youth process. Part of the club's (and Bruce's) job is to get the old Villa Way into their skulls, and it can't be done overnight.

Re-formulating a successful system or method at a football club is, of course, not an issue that has affected just Aston Villa. A similar problem has occurred at clubs at all levels up and down the country when a take-over has been necessitated.

One such club was Plymouth Argyle, where the new chairman Paul Stapleton declared (in 2009): "There's a mindset that we used to have in the football club, and we've got to get it back again." For me, he hit the key issue - that the capability of success in the club can only come about from the kind of thinking that exists, and is a rule that is common in all organisations.

For Villa, it's a case of how well and how quickly all its new components and people come together and re-find that 'Villa mindset' of old; particularly the players. The owner is determined it should not take too long; he has set a target of promotion as being no further away than another 12 months, and, being a Chinese businessman of (apparently) some repute, he will do all he has in his power to ensure that target is achieved, with or without flair. And with or without Bruce (if it all starts to go awry), I'm sure.

Yes, 'how' promotion is achieved will be the secondary issue after arriving at the necessary mindset. After all, when the team is 3-1 down you expect them to get off their seats and drive forward in at least an effort to retrieve a point, but we're not seeing that just now, partly because the squad still has some square pegs for round holes. I feel sure the Doc will ensure that the main drive to get that mindset - and promotion - will begin this summer.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

There's Always Tomorrow!

In these days of gnashing of teeth and of wondering when Villa's next triumphs are going to arrive (if ever!), I've been thinking back to days of yore when Villa fans of the time were wondering the same thing. Past times that have been mostly forgotten with the passing of generations, when fans had not gained even a sniff of a major trophy for decades and past times when supporters just couldn't think that things could get better enough to remove the despair - and how they were pleasantly surprised in the following season.

I could go back to a number of instances of fans' frustration in Villa's history, but I will stick to a couple of occasions during my own time as a supporter.

One such situation occurred in season 1955-56, after there had been a huge change-around in the Villa squad as so many old Villa stalwarts had finally succumbed to Old Father Time and retired, and two outstanding Villa players (Blanchflower and Thompson) demanded and got transfers. Villa were basically left with an experienced defence (Jones in goal, Lynn and Aldis at full-back and Con Martin, an ageing but stalwart centre-half) and Johnny Dixon and Vic Crowe. Plus some youngsters - notably attackers Peter McParland and Derek Pace - and a couple of others that were of average ability.

Villa had not done a lot since the end of WW2, apart from season 1951-52 (finishing sixth in a fairly bright season). So the fans had been starved of real successes for quite a long time anyway. Villa had not come close to a big success since 1932-33 (22 years before), when they were league runners-up.

In 1955, having lost the purposeful midfield play of Danny-Boy and Toucher Thompson, Villa (in a rather bizarre way) instead decided that they needed a proven striker. Before the season's start they went out and paid a lot of money for Dave Hickson who was famous on Merseyside, where he played for Everton and, later, Liverpool and Tranmere, scoring lots of goals.

Well, Villa's season started badly and didn't really change in fortune for quite some time. In the first 14 games, Villa won just once but there was a bumper game when Villa drew 4-4 against Busby's Babes, and was the occasion when Hickson scored his one and only goal for Villa. Not long after he was shipped out as a failure, after 12 starts. As in a recent scenario, perhaps it was the lack of midfield capability that had deprived Hickson of scoring chances. A bit like McCormack?

With Christmas approaching, Villa were scrambling at the bottom of the table. Villa then spent another substantial sum on getting Jackie Sewell to Villa, a scoring inside-forward (essentially a midfielder) who only two years before had played for England in that debacle against Hungary at Wembley, and at that time was still the most expensive player in England (due to his previous transfer price tag). That solitary signing did not help too much and in early January a thumping 6-0 defeat at Stan Matthews' Blackpool brought about more change. Out went another oldie - centre-half Con Martin - and in came Jimmy Dugdale from the Albion, a Cup-winner with them in 1954. And with not much being generated from Villa's right-wing, in came Les Smith from Wolves, a player who a few years before had been hailed as a potential world-beater.

Slowly (like today), the wheels started to turn more positively. And, greatly aided by the signing of keeper Nigel Sims in March (who had been Bert Williams' frustrated understudy at Wolves), just enough points were accumulated and Villa avoided the drop by an absolute fraction. A hat-trick by Derek Pace against fellow strugglers Sheffield United was the key turning point and Villa won their final three matches. In fact, Villa lost only two in their last eleven matches.

What happened in 1956-57 - the very next season - was a complete revelation after the previous season's hand-wringing and after decades of being in the trophy wilderness. Villa won the FA Cup (and had a reasonable league season), and almost with the very same team that finished off 1955-56. The major change was at right-half where the name 'Crowe' morphed into 'Crowther' as a result of Crowe's serious injury: Crowther was a 'find' who had only the previous year been playing non-league football. But a big development was the form of Peter McParland, who enjoyed the first of his devastating seasons in 1956-57. One disappointment was Derek Pace, who even lost his Cup Final place. His drop in form (partly due to injury) and that of his alternative (Myerscough) heralded the arrival of Gerry Hitchens the following December.

Villa's play had not been brilliant (fitness and character were their main characteristics), but the trophy success made the fans very happy and released their pent-up emotions in 1957, 37 years since Villa had previously won a major trophy. However, though Villa played in two further semi-finals over the next three years, and won the League Cup in its inaugural year (1961) when few big clubs were contesting it, Villa did not win another trophy of major status for another 18 years after 1957. Trophy wise, the years 1920 to 1975 were very lean times.

So, let's fast-forward to season 1973-74, when Villa were seeking a way out of the second tier after six years removed from the top flight. During that time, Villa had seen two years spent in the third tier, and season 1973-74 was to be the second season since their promotion from that. The fans were expecting promotion back to the top at this point, especially as the previous season Villa had finished just a place short of promotion to the top flight, but conceding that the two promoted sides had been of better quality.

Season 1973-74, however, failed to ignite, not aided by a lengthy injury to Villa's star player, Bruce Rioch. But even with him in the side, Villa did not greatly impress and the club finished below the half-way point in the tier. What was made worse was that Rioch had been loyal to Villa but it came to a point where his career could not remain on hold any longer. By the Spring, Rioch had left for top-tier club Derby, and went on to play for Everton and Scotland with distinction. The fans were not too cheered by the situation.

'Deadly' Doug decided that he also was not going to wait any longer and (admittedly with the consensus of the board) dismissed the loyal management team of Vic Crowe and Ron Wylie. But Doug was also not too happy with the choice of Vic's successor, Ron Saunders, and there was a boardroom debacle about his contract, the result of which Doug stood down from the chairmanship.

Without Rioch, season 1974-75 started with Saunders otherwise using the same squad, bar one new player (Carrodus). But from then until the end of December there were some new signings and flashes of promise, but again the season was not igniting as much as would be hoped. It was only once the new year arrived, and after the changes in personnel had gelled, did an upsurge start to become apparent. For the remainder of the league season (18 matches) Villa incurred only one defeat, and Villa's last eight matches were all wins and produced 26 goals, 10 of them from Brian Litle, the upcoming young star of that time. Promotion had been achieved and there was the added bonus of winning the League Cup that season. Even more so than in 1957, there was a great upsurge of relief amongst Villa's fans in 1975, especially as the previous year the future did not look at all bright. The appointment of Ron Saunders didn't exactly make the fans hopes rise either.

In short, you never know what tomorrow might bring. I'm sure there are those that will argue, "Ah, but that was then; football has since changed a lot." Well, it has changed, but it has changed for everyone. The common denominators between now and then remain: (1) you can rarely be certain of the result of any match between teams of the same league-tier, (2) the players are still not quite robots: they are still subject to human frailties, and (3) a club with a team manager/coach who can motivate will usually obtain progress. And the fact that football is always full of surprises!

If I was a betting man I'd bet (based on the club's previous experiences, two of which are cited above) that season 2017-18 will turn out a bit similar to 1974-75, though I'd expect signs of success to be showing well before Christmas, especially as Bruce will have been around for 12 months by then. Some of you may disagree with my optimism!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Are Villa Getting Onto A Roll?

Well, four wins out of five matches, with the latest win against Wednesday being the most satisfactory, I am just amazed that the game went as it did, Villa having survived two further injuries and a big penalty call, early on.

For me this is a period of Confirmation that the Villa squad now have the character to ward off all-comers at VP; Confirmation that the feebleness of recent years is being put well and truly behind us; and Confirmation that the preparation for a promotion challenge is gathering pace.

Now, though I also confirm I’m not a huge fan of Bruce, I believe that he’s shown a lot of experience and self-belief in transforming what he has from a timid bunch into a team that now look as though they’re there for a purpose. No, it’s not great football, but it would seem to me that what’s happening is pleasing the fans enough to keep ’em coming. The attendance average at VP is just short of 32,000.

I also feel that the results in January and February were inevitable given the Africa Nations Cup interference and the fact that Bruce wanted to overhaul the shysters and bring in hungry players. The new group are showing their mettle and I can only see it getting better.

To gain success you sometimes have to endure pain, and I think that the January and February period was just a necessary pain.

It is to Bruce’s credit we can still win and concede no goals with so many injuries.

So, going by Villa's recent form, I would expect a win out of Villa at strugglers Wigan tomorrow. However, we have expected Villa to win away before this season, with the hope coming to nothing. But with virtually a new Villa side in view I am reasonably hopeful that Villa will find a way through this one. Certainly, if Villa score early then a 2 or 3 goal victory should result. But - there again - I am always the optimist!

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Chances To Gain Two Sets Of Stripes?

They're coming thick and fast, these Championship matches. And to gain three straight wins in these quickly-arising matches has done something to get an on-going sense of positivity and hope that Villa are, indeed, getting into recovery mode.

But these regular matches have cost Villa. Hogan, Green, Bjarnason, Grealish, RHM and Gabby are out of the fray for a few matches, to which number has to be added Bacuna for his inadvisable lunge at the referee's side-kick. But Villa are fortunate in that their main defensive and midfield stalwarts are still in place: we're mainly running short of engine-power in the front-line, though 13-goal Kodjia seems to employ a means of transitioning the boost of each of his goals to keep himself mobile.

The style is not much there - as some regularly point out - but at least some much-needed points have been generated to accumulate in Villa's piggy bank, with no concessions in the goals against column of late. But with the shortage of fire-power, where are the wins going to come from over the next month? Well, I imagine former centre-back Brucie will put more emphasis on the tactic of using dead-ball situations to get his centre-backs up and adding weight. It would be a novel thing for a centre-back to score a hat-trick! I wonder if it has been done?

So, next up is the much-vaunted Terriers; otherwise known as Huddersfield Town. The historian and aged Villa supporter in me can go back to early 1960 when Villa met the same club at Villa Park in the old Second Division when a certain Dennis Law was plying his trade for them. Villa won 4-0 that day (a Bobby Thomson hat-trick) gaining rave reviews for their "continental" play! Well, that accolade is probably on the other foot these days, with our opponents displaying a lot of skill this season. But has their success been mainly because their opponents have let them play?

Huddersfield clearly have their Achilles' Heel, with two heavy defeats in their last two matches, though the first of those was against Liverpool in the FA Cup. Well, the fact is that Villa at least put up stern resistance against Spurs in their FA Cup match, so maybe Villa will display more tenacity than their next opponents, Villa often looking very resilient with the Jedi back in place.

And the Terriers have just been thwacked by Newcastle as well, at home. With Villa as their next opponent within so few days, will their mental equilibrium not yet be in the right state? The question is whether Villa have sufficient fire power available to sting them, and sting them early. If Villa can do that then I feel that Villa will not come away empty-handed.

And then we have Wednesday arriving on Saturday. Their punishment of Norwich this past week-end is again a fair warning, but I still see Villa having the resilience for me to again feel that Villa will not go away empty-handed.

Yes, essentially because of Villa's injury situation I am not at all confident that Villa will obtain more than draws in these next two matches, but if we can at least gain two points from these two tough matches they will, added to the previous three results, combine to give more confidence of the Villa finishing the season on a bright note.

Up the Villa!

Thursday, 23 February 2017

A Derby With Derby

It's been nearly 10 years since Derby last visited Villa Park, and you have to look to 10 years before that to find a Derby success at VP. But derbies are derbies - particularly against Derby! - and we, in our current spate of defeats and fall from grace, cannot assume that we just have to turn up at VP to see Villa win yet again against them. In fact, Derby haven't had a bad season: at least they're in the top half of the table.

One of Derby's team will be our old friend Darren, of course, who I am sure will pose a threat and cause us to ask the question "How on earth did we pay so much for him and then let him go so easily?" In our current plight, he would surely have been an asset to retain. But the Villa's books-based bosses thought better, and so here we are facing someone who knows well what it's like to play at VP and will give our centre-backs a real test. Bent's departure was all the more useless as his near-namesake and replacement - Benteke - threw in the towel and went elsewhere.

But the dire question is, how many strikers will Villa have available against Derby? That question is made more frustrating with Bent there on display. Well, that's where we are: another reminder of 7 years of Villa mismanagement playing in front of us. Therefore how much more do we need a Villa that can get a rub of the green and score two freakish goals (a la Newcastle) to get us back on course!

One positive is that it looks as though Bree will be available for selection, and, with Taylor and Hutton doing pretty well at Newcastle, we suddenly seem to be well-blessed in the full-back department. 

Then, three days later, we have Bristol City as visitors. The week-end after that we are at Rotherham. So - there we have it - three good opportunities to take away the threat of the sword of Damocles. And to take advantage of those matches by gaining at least 7 points will effectively remove further nervousness and let the team get itself together for next season's challenge. However, if we get those points with so little strike-power available, then surely we will have done well.

I'm taking this team to do the necessary:

Bree Chester Elphick Taylor
Lansbury Jedi Hourihan
Adomah Kodjia Green

With Samba to come on as the match-winning dynamo if we get into trouble!

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Watch Out Clark; The Villans Are Coming!

Well, there's a to-do. There was I firm in the belief in January that before we went to Newcastle we'd have some good wins in our pocket. Instead we've had good (bad) defeats! So it’s eight games without a win for Villa and the Magpies are flying high at the top of the table. It does not augur well.

But the half-glass-full philosopher in me says that in this kind of situation you have to be positive, and the positive thoughts are that Villa nicked a point off Newcastle earlier in the season, albeit with a rather different team. Also to consider is the fact that Wolves, QPR and Blackburn have all taken points off Newcastle at St James’s Park this season; so why can't Villa?

The problem, of course, is that having lost two games at home on the trot after previously being unbeaten on home turf, and making mistakes and not taking chances in the process, there must be a severe shortage of confidence in the Villa ranks.

But though reliance should never be put on one player, it would be good if the Jedi can be back to give an example to his team-mates. No, he's not the most skilled passer of the ball, but he makes his presence felt, and at Newcastle that could be a prize asset in a Villa team which does not have many players with a killer instinct.

Although I'm not an advocate of this style of play in general, I don't think it would be wise to attempt to take the game to the Geordies. Instead, I would like a 4-1-4-1 formation (the '1' up front being Kodjia), and to break swiftly through a midfield and use Kodjia's 'try from all angles' approach to score. Or to rest Kodjia on the bench and see what Hogan can do on his own: he seems to have skill that could cause Newcastle some problems. But as Kodjia still finds the net every couple of games, it's unlikely he would be asked to stand down.

But this must be a team without Grealish starting in it. Have him on the bench by all means, but at this stage of affairs he must surely be a liability as we must fight to gain some points, even if it be only one at Newcastle.

I'd also like to see different full-backs in operation, but rather than chopping and changing again, perhaps we'd be better to stick with those that played against Barnsley. So long as Bruce gives them a reminding kick up the pants as they trudge onto the St. James's pitch!

So, my team (are you reading this Steve?):

Johnstone or Bunn; Hutton, Chester, Baker, Amavi; Jedinak (or Gardner); Adomah, Hourihane, Lansbury, Green; Kodjia.

The bench (outfield players): Bacuna, Bree, Taylor, Bjarnason, Gardner/Elphick, Grealish, Hogan.