Far From The Madding Crowd
Far From The Madding Crowd
History matters. When Tottenham Hotspur beat Leicester City in the 1999 League Cup final they not only won a trophy but also qualified for Europe. Most would see this as being indicative of success. There was just one problem. The man at the helm was George Graham. Despite lifting a trophy in his first five months and playing some good football some of the fans were not convinced. They could not accept, in principle, a man who had won two league titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup with Arsenal. History was in the DNA; in the bones and the fabric of Tottenham Hotspur and part of that history was a bitter rivalry with Arsenal. Should such things be forgotten?
Birmingham City and Aston Villa first met on the 27th September in 1879 when Blues, known then as Small Heath Alliance, entertained Aston Villa at their Muntz Street ground. The Villa players are recorded to have objected to the state of the pitch and a disputed goal in a tie they lost 1-0. (Matthews, Tony October 2000. 'Aston Villa'. The Encyclopedia of Birmingham City Football Club 1875-2000. p.17) Famous games against the blues include a 1925 reserve game featuring Villa legend signing Tom 'Pongo' Waring' which drew a crowd of 23,000 and the final of the 1963 League Cup which Blues won 3-1 on aggregate. (Matthews, Tony 1995. Birmingham City: A Complete Record. Derby: Breedon Books. p.31.) If a reserve game in 1925 against the Blues can attract 23,000 fans then an ex-Birmingham City Manager who leaves us 6th from bottom in 2012 is probably not going to fare to well.
The media though can be a beast. At times they have portrayed us, for the purposes of good copy, as being simply hostile to McLeish because he managed Birmingham City: an irrational opposition based in sporting hatred, fuelled by an alcohol lashed mob of Villa boo boys would never give let up once he was appointed. To our credit, we did not immediately unfurl home made banners or stomp around the ground demanding his managerial head. We begrudgingly sat and watched, feeling perhaps that history had been worryingly ignored.
History, though, was not the only problem. Alex McLeish was not out first choice manager. Roberto Martinez, who was second choice to McLaren, was preferable but he chose to honour his contract with Wigan and his working relationship with Wigan and its magnificent owner, Dave Whelan so we turned instead to the former Birmingham manager. Straight away their was a feeling that we hadn't got the manager that we wanted; that we had turned to McLeish, paying no heed to his previous affiliation. Thus, before a ball had been kicked a fan inquest began and the knives slowly came out. McLeish, after all, had failed to keep Blues in the top flight. He had managed our deadliest rivals and they had got relegated under his tenure. Though, how much should be read into this?
Some commentators have argued that keeping the Blues in it to the last game of the season was a good achievement given the financial restrictions and the merry-go-round in the boardroom; that the style of football played reflected the playing resources available. There is of course the small issue of the League Cup win as well. Villa fans state that it was an Arsenal mistake that led to the goal though to take a team to the League Cup Final; to keep them in it to take that chance was an achievement. I have no issue with any of these points or the debate that naturally follows as fans argue this way and that. My issue is that in hiring such a manager, who was not our first choice, our position would be uncertain; that given his previous record as Blues manager the fans would be quick to pounce should the team slide and that in turn would create a cycle of pressure that would effect matters on the pitch. It was, in essence, an accident waiting to happen.
On Saturday afternoon at Wigan, Alex McLeish called Emile Heskey back from his warm up. He was about to replace Albrighton with the Villa utility man, dropping him onto the right wing as though he was born to play there. Emile, model pro that he is, entered the fray, prepared to give his all on a pitch soft to heavy, though he could have been excused from been distracted.
To his left a few thousand Villa fans had erupted into a wave of hostility toward his manager. A cannon of abuse duly fired down at McLeish. After some sustained barracking, the fans then pledged their undying support for the team. Had not the players though already been effected by what they had heard? After all, they could hardly have been oblivious to it. This for me is part of the danger: that the cycle of pressure will effect a team hit by injuries finding themselves 16th in the table. It is hardly an ideal situation for confidence and belief to grow is it? What effect must it have on morale to look up and see many of your supporters attempting to hound the man giving you instructions out of the club? I am not a professional footballer but I imagine it can't be good.
McLeish is under huge pressure and has, until now, mainly been faced with opposition at home (which perhaps explains our relative success away from Villa Park.) However, when the away fans began to turn so passionately on him one could sense that the tide had dramatically turned. Though, unhappy as we all are, how does such internal woe help us, 16th in the table, approaching the final third of the season? Some may feel it justified though to those outside the club there must be something fascinatingly macabre about the spectacle of it: about watching a club implode.
I am desperately concerned and I confess to being worried as to the effect of such vitriolic opposition on the team as we head into a crucial period of games. Recall that there are some young talented players at this club who need our constant encouragement and belief. We must, I believe, turn all our energy into vocal support for the players who wear our historic shirt; to attend our next set of games in full voice driving Aston Villa toward to the safety of 40 points. Justified as you may feel, empty seats and a mass spat with the manager during the game are not going to change anything at such a late stage in the season. Like a heavy pitch, it will just sap energy. Thus, to ensure relegation does not to rear its ugly head at B6 we must become the 12th man, energising and inspiring the team before April's gruelling schedule begins.
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