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

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!