So Where Do Villa Go From Here?
Where do we go from here?
Before I deliver my assessment of the situation Aston Villa football club is in, I want to make three things clear immediately. The first is that I am not anti-Martin O'Neill. He has, in many ways, done a very good job in the two and a half years he's been at Villa. He has produced a competitive, and at times exciting team, who have shown a year on year improvement.
He has galvanised the team and the club as a whole, and this achievement should not be underestimated given the mess we were in when O'Leary was rightly given the sack. I also happen to have a warm regard for the man on a personal level, not that I've ever met him of course. But he is demonstrably a charming, likeable man who, more importantly, is a man of strong ethical principles (by which I mean that his teams conduct themselves in the right way, unlike the so-called big four clubs for example, and he won't throw money at players because he appreciates the damaging effect wealth can have on a young footballer's character and career). He also has a great passion for football, which has translated into a great passion for our club. For all this he deserves our respect.
That all said, I expect you will understand that these positive feelings haven't prejudiced my judgement of his tenure. He is, like anyone, far from perfect. But this idea will be developed further in due course.
The second point I wish to make is this; although our recent run of results has been wretched, and although we’ve gone from - rightly - being odds-on favourites to finish in the top four, to outsiders, I still believe it possible for us to finish above Arsenal. Admittedly, I am less confident of this now than I was before the Liverpool game, and nowhere near as confident as I was, strange to say, after the Chelsea defeat. But I don’t believe the top four challenge is over, I sincerely hope O’Neill shares my belief, and I pray that he doesn’t allow the players to lose hope and settle for a ‘creditable’ top six finish.
And thirdly, I want to be up-front and confess that I am an optimist. Remembering this fact will be crucial in understanding all of what I’m about to state, with regards to my analysis of the competition we’re up against, and our prospects both in the coming two months, but also the coming years, should we finish in the top four this season, or should we fail to do so. But before I go any further, I should first explain what I mean when I say I’m an optimist. I’m defining an optimist as one who is a realist with a keen sense of the possible. This means that I am not satisfied with a level of success that is greater (and perhaps arguably far greater) than what has been witnessed in the last decade. Steady progress is usually laudable, and too rapid an expansion - invariably coupled with the absence of a firm foundation - will usually lead to medium- and long-term disaster. But when circumstances are right, rapid expansion can lead to medium- and long-term success…
Leaving aside the future (or at least the medium- and long-term future), I want to begin by focusing on the here and now, which I’ll put into context by revisiting our recent results and performances. I’ve already said that our recent run of results has been wretched, in all competitions, but for now I will concentrate on the league form - though I will address the cup competition results later. As tempting as it would be to begin with our win over Portsmouth (scene of Heskey’s debut), I’ll instead start with the 0-0 with Wigan. The performance was excellent, and nine times out of ten Wigan would have been embarrassed.
Instead, Wigan knew embarrassment of a rarer kind; embarrassment at escaping with a point. We followed this minor setback with a comprehensive defeat of Blackburn, suffering their first reversal under Allardyce. At this point, Arsenal were seven points behind us, and the gap only looked like widening. Then we played a reinvigorated Chelsea side. Again, we put in a strong performance, but Chelsea on the day were too good, suggesting that had their players been playing for the manager all season long, the early season predictions that they would win the league at a canter would have seemed perfectly reasonable. We weren’t far away from claiming a point - a point any side would have been happy with against the Chelsea we played that day.
Incidentally, a point was all Arsenal could manage against Sunderland. Next up were Stoke, our first fixture after the Moscow trip, and somehow we contrived to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory. It was an inexplicable, freak result, and not what our performance warranted. Yes, we were lax in the last five minutes, but nine times out of ten Stoke wouldn’t even have got a consolation goal, let alone an equaliser. Again, no luck at home, and we had gained just two points from a possible nine at Villa Park, a wretched return, despite the high standard of performance.
And then we played Man City. Or rather, we didn’t. That first half non-performance was worse even than the Liverpool performance. We caught a break for the first time since Hull away, and were ‘only’ 1-0 down at half time. Second half we improved, but in truth 2-0 didn’t flatter Man City. The darkest day of our league campaign up to that point. Surely we would turn it round against a brittle Spurs side with no kind of away form (4 points out of a possible 18, including defeats against West Brom and Newcastle). Again, we dominated the visitors, and it was scandalous that we went in at half time 1-0 down. Except it wasn’t. Despite our domination, something was missing, and we just weren’t convincing.
Then Spurs went 2-0 up early in the second half, again scoring a little fortunately, and we were beaten. And then Anfield. A debacle to be sure, but even then, in the first half, aside from the three ridiculously soft goals we conceded, we looked the more likely team to score. The less said about the second half the better, but as Brad Friedel’s promptly rescinded red card suggests, again we were luckless.
To summarise, the form actually hasn’t been that bad (and I’m talking about the team’s form rather than individual’s form). We’ve actually played well, but have not had the run of the ball (I don’t say we’ve run out of luck, because this would imply that we’ve been lucky this season, which simply isn’t true. Yes, we’ve rode our luck when we’ve had it, but we’ve been no more lucky than any other side near the top of the table. Luck is a crucial factor in football, and everyone needs a little (or in some cases a lot!) to win games.
However, there has been a difference since the Stoke game. We have continued to play quite well in parts, but we just haven’t looked convincing. There are all kinds of possible reasons why this is so, but I don’t intend to go into them here. The salient point is that, psychologically, if not physically, the team are on the floor. The last four results, coupled with Arsenal’s upturn, have constituted four severe hammer blows. And our next fixture is Man Utd away…
Leaving aside the detail of the coming two months, I want to talk about what happens when this season finally finishes. We will either finish in the top four, or we won’t, and I believe that the European competition we’re competing in next season will determine the course of our club’s fortunes in the short- and medium-term. I will look at the two courses before us - the Champions League course and the Europa League course, the first briefly, and the second in a little more detail.
Should we finish in the top four - and we still have a tremendous opportunity to do so - it will make all the difference in the world, in the sense that Aston Villa can continue on its current course of sure and steady progress. Firstly, Gareth Barry will stay (and just how important he is to us will only become clear should he leave). Secondly, the squad will be strengthened again, and one would assume with a higher calibre of player than previous seasons, because we will have a bigger budget, and more importantly, we’ll be able to compete for the best players because of the Champions League football we’ll have.
Thirdly, Arsenal will be in an uncomfortable position. Make no mistake, a significant proportion of their fan base would be disillusioned with their team (and perhaps rightly so), to such an extent that a lot of the money Arsenal are relying on to fund their stadium will disappear. That, coupled with the loss of Champions League money they would have budgeted with, would mean that assets would have to be sold, although the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie and Adebayor would probably want out even if Arsenal could afford to hang onto them. Taken together, these three factors spell consolidation for Villa in the top four, access to Champions League money, and therefore a platform from which to launch title challenges, and compete to win the Champions League. In short, an extremely bright, exciting future.
But what will happen if we don’t finish in the top four? Well, Gareth Barry will leave. Everyone knows this, and reasonable people (such as Martin O’Neill) understand it. It would be a footballing tragedy to see him leave, not only for the Villa fans and the club, but also for him. Anyone who underestimates his passion for the club hasn’t been watching these past eleven years. He would certainly leave with my blessing, as disappointed as I would be to see him at Liverpool, or anywhere else (mainly because he deserves better; he deserves to be with a Villa competing in the Champions League, season in, season out). But enough about Barry.
What would be the impact of his departure on Villa? We’d have lost our best player, with zero prospect of replacing him with a player of remotely comparable ability, let alone the intangible strengths arising from a player being at Villa as long as Barry. Straight away, we’d have been stripped of our ability to challenge the top four (with Arsenal unlikely to be anywhere near as vulnerable as they are this season), and would almost certainly struggle to compete with Everton. This would leave us battling it out for fifth and sixth only, except you’d think Man City and Spurs would have something to say about that, both of whom are guaranteed to invest heavily in the summer.
Suddenly, Aston Villa are a club struggling to qualify for European competition, rather than a club preparing for a long stint in the Champions League. Where will that leave the likes of Ashley Young? I think he’d be mad to move anywhere if we finished top four this year. But if we don’t, and Barry leaves, and Man Utd come looking for a replacement for Ronaldo, given he’s not a Villa fan, and given he’s been at the club just two and a half years, wouldn’t he be mad not to leave? Of course, we would be reimbursed handsomely for Barry and Young, but how are we going to replace them? Certainly not with comparable quality, and shorn of our two best players, the future suddenly looks very bleak.
These are, broadly speaking, the two possible futures that await us. Suddenly, the significance of this season becomes clear, and correspondingly, the decisions that Martin O’Neill has made, and the mistakes he has undoubtedly made, take on greater significance. Satisfactorily justifying his decisions and mistakes, should we fail to finish in the top four, would in my opinion be Martin O’Neill’s first, and perhaps last, task as Villa manager. I sincerely hope that his first task at season’s end is to offer Gareth Barry a new contract instead.