Something For The Weekend (226)
Okay, so we didn't actually march to the top of the hill but we certainly marched down again. And, to multiply my analogies unnecessarily, I feel rather like Charlie Brown from the Peanuts cartoon, who every year, without fail, would be invited by Lucy van Pelt to kick the football, while she held it in place, and every year she would take it away at the last moment, so he would end up humiliated and sitting on his backside. The tragedy always was, that he would never learn from his experience and every year he would believe old Lucy and every year he'd end up on his arse.
So we dreamed of glory and ended up with Peanuts.
Having put in sufficient Villa years, I can't really stake a claim to the innocence and naiveté of Charlie Brown but from Saturday to Thursday night, I gradually moved from feeling mildly lachrymose, after Chelsea proved Villa deficient, to deeply morose, after witnessing Villa's strategic withdrawal, a frame at a time, on what is technically known as streaming misery. The only consolation is that I hadn't spent a thousand pounds, for nothing more than frostbite and a furry Russian hat, to remind me what a proper Charlie I had been.
Since the Lerner and O'Neill regime took over at Villa, there have been very few false steps or PR clangers but this seemed like a whopper. After pulling out the stops and the flags for the home leg, in an effort to make it an extra-special European football night, pulling the rug from under the away leg, definitely looked like a big and damaging mistake. It certainly suggested that momentarily, Villa were guilty of a bit unjoined-up management, as one move raised expectations while the other took them away.
Managing the fans' expectations has been a hallmark of Villa's professionalism, under O'Neill.
It can only be assumed that Martin had come to the conclusion, that his team were just not capable of winning the UEFA cup and the price of almost certain failure would be too damaging to Villa's Premiership ambitions to be contemplated. He must have looked at the performance against Everton and Chelsea, and saw something more than a couple of off-days. Even the Match of The Day pundits were saying Villa looked tired.
Certainly, against Chelsea, Villa's midfield didn't do enough to create for the forwards and once Bosingwa had nullified Ashley's usual contribution, Villa were never likely to score. O'Neill got his reality-check and Villa fans were left to reconstruct their hopes and delusions.
Confronted with such evidence, O'Neill was left to ponder the prospect of his trip to Russia, for a game on a plastic pitch, with the very strong possibility of playing extra-time. It seemed unlikely that Villa would prevent CSK from scoring and it could be reasonably expected that Villa would not really come onto the game, until the last third, when Villa's match-fitness would begin to tell against the technically superior Moscow side. Obviously, the idea of his small squad arriving home in the early hours of Friday morning and then trying to get them fit and focused for Sunday's must-win tie with Stoke just did not appeal.
Or, just as likely, Martin O'Neill never saw the UEFA cup as anything other than an opportunity to assess his bench-warmers and develop the club's fringe players in serious competition, from the very beginning.
What seems to emerge from the guesses and surmises which rather vague impressions allow, is a determination to build Villa's status as a club and not get distracted or sidetracked into trying to win minor competitions, which although they could bring deep joy and momentary satisfaction, might actually disrupt the main aims of the club for rather trivial gains.
This is probably not how the fans see it and rightly so: any sort of trophy puts the yearned-for jam, on the bread and marge of league competition. Disappointment is inevitable and no one can blame any fan for expressing themselves loud and clear, when the last chance of winning a trophy disappears, especially when it seems to have been done deliberately and to many fans, rather too meekly, for them to save face.
Its different for managers and they have to take the flak, listen to the chorus of moans and groans, but ultimately have the courage to stick with their vision and long-term plan for their club.
No one can be more aware than Martin O'Neill that Glasgow Rangers, gambled everything on winning the UEFA cup, last season, while trying to do it via a long gruelling route, similar to Villa's, and despite getting to the final, where they looked knackered, they not only lost in Manchester but went on to blow their lead at the top of the SPL and hand it to their fiercest rivals Celtic; ensuring Strachan's boys enjoyed a hattrick of SPL titles.
A price many Rangers fans, thought too much.
You only have to look at Man United who play Tottenham this weekend in the Carling Cup final. United look like they will cruise to the EPL title and have a seven point cushion but no one is really expecting them to field a full strength side. Tottenham have every chance of winning their second Carling Cup in a row. But even if Tottenham win handsomely and carry the cup home again, it will not alter their status one iota; they will still be a team which is one defeat away from a relegation battle.
No matter what the result on Sunday, it will not alter the status of either club and that is the reality of the modern game in the top flight. Where a club finishes in the toughest league in the world, is now the measure of all things. For Liverpool it even eclipses winning the Champions League.
Which says it all.
You might ask, if I believe what I say, why am I still so miserable?
Only Charlie Brown knows the answer to that.