Something For The Weekend (383)
It was certainly a tight squeak in the end but if you ignore the propaganda, the hype and the histrionics, it really was a good season for Villa. And nobody could say it wasn't interesting. No boring mid-table finish for Villa after a season of too few heroes and too many villains.
Savings and survival was what they demanded and savings and survival we got.
Have no doubt about it, Lerner and Faulkner's plan worked out fine and they both have a lot to be pleased about. Even manager McLeish has to take a lot of credit for doing the job which was asked of him, and only some really rotten luck robbed him of the few points he needed to claim a respectable finish.
Obviously, Big 'eck failed because he didn't quite manage to disguise Villa's second season of enervation well enough to make it look anything but glaring, and so obviously he had to go, while he was still ripe for the role of scapegoat.
But Alex will walk away with a nice wedge on his hip, and will have lost very little respect from those fellow-professionals whose opinions he really cares about.
Its certain that Randy and his blue-eyed-boy will be very satisfied that they have shifted a substantial number of big wage-earners off the Villa books, and without really losing too much by way of ticket-sales. Even paying off their manager will be easily compensated for by the overall improvement in the business.
The amazing thing was that the protests from the fans made almost no difference to the size of the crowds at Villa Park. Neither McLeish's Bluenose connection or the sort of football he played, seem to have made much difference at all, when you look at the numbers. Any losses would have been easily made up by the savings made by reducing the size of the club's wage bill.
It would seem that the biggest factor in determining the size of Villa Park crowds, is not how good Villa are, or the sort of football on offer, but the quality of the opposition. Villa's biggest crowd (40k) was for the visit of Man United and the lowest (30k) was Stoke. Villa Park crowds were consistent throughout the season and there is absolutely no sign that they were affected by the protests at all. Even Villa's courtship with relegation after they lost important players through injury and sickness, didn't make any difference. Or, as Zep fans might say - the throng remained the same.
There are lessons to be learned.
There seems little point in Lerner throwing zillions at the team in the hope that he might fill Villa Park. The law of diminishing returns ensures that the losses always out-weigh the gains. Capacity crowds are only likely for four or five games a season, when the better clubs turn up.
If, as many fans keep saying, the football at Villa Park has been the worst in living-memory, it is remarkable that the crowds have held up so well, and the fact that they have, probably indicates that the reasons people go to a football game have more to do with game's increasing importance in the nation's conscious, rather than anything else. It just cannot be about tactics, style of play, who the manager is, or even success.
For example. Ron Atkinson's team played some of the most stylish football ever seen at Villa Park. In the season 1993-94, Big Ron's Villa thrashed reigning champions Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley to win the League Cup. Yet, when the next season started (1994-95), for the first home games of the new season, Villa Park only attracted crowds of 24000 and 23000. So it shows that more people were willing to pay much higher prices to watch Alex McLeish's so-called anti-football, than there were to watch Big Ron's legendary stylemeisters.
Why the hell that should be, I have no idea, but the BFR era were great times for that happy few.
So the fans deserve a pat on the back too. No matter how bad it got and no matter how loud the protests became, the fans just couldn't keep away from Villa Park. Which sort of runs counter to the protestors' preferred orthodoxy.
I've lost count of the number of players who have left Villa since the retrenchment began and we can only hope, Villa are not far off getting their new pay-structure in place. As Dunne and Collins were the last to arrive under O'Neill's reign, we must assume that they will be the last to depart, when the new thrifty Villa era can begin in earnest.
In the meantime Lerner is attempting to beguile the Villa faithful by trying to find a manager they might find acceptable.
Hopefully, while the fans discuss the arcane and mystic qualities their new manager should have, they won't be thinking too critically about the quality of Villa's present squad and the quality and lack of ambition in the boardroom.
Obviously, the fans are willing and knowing participants in this act of distracting delusion, but they do need all the help they can get by the appointment of the right guy, who will promise to transmute the present tin into the longed-for gold.
There are three schools of thought. Those who want the tried and trusted, those who want someone young and up and coming, and those bonkers enough to think Pep Guardiola might fancy the job.
Villa seem to have a more attractive rival in Liverpool, for anyone with any kind of track-record, and candidates like Lambert are too easily compared with the departing McLeish, if he's only judged by his first season in the Premiership (McLeish finished higher after promotion and with more points). Roberto Martinez has already been traduced on Vital Villa, and Mick McCarthy has far too much in common with McLeish, to be seriously considered.
But the truth is that no one knows who will be a good manager and it is substantially a matter of luck and timing. Big Ron was great for the Villa but he arrived just at the right time, when the TV money was first being handed out and Villa had just sold David Platt for the then record £5.5m plus add-ons. This made it possible to sign a great number of excellent players. Had Ron arrived when Graham Turner did, during a period of retrenchment, he might not have been quite so successful. There was even money available when Brian Little arrived, which allowed him to rejuvenate the Villa squad and at a time when Dwight Yorke was emerging as one of the best strikers in the country.
Luck and timing are everything.
We only have to look at who got the management nominations and awards this year to see how important luck is. Pardew was lucky enough to arrive at a time when Newcastle had a £35m asset to sell on, which provided him with the necessary funds. Harry Redknapp at Spurs arrived after the club had built up the squad by investing the £30m they received for Dimitar Berbatov, which allowed them to buy players like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. Redknapp even tried to off-load Bale because he did not rate him. So what we find is Redknapp being touted as the England's finest based on the performance of
players signed by Ramos.
We are being told that Roberto Di Matteo is a great manager and that André Villas-Boas failed, and yet Di Matteo has been allowed to drop all the things, which made André Villas-Boas's job so difficult: making a transition from the present aging squad, to a situation where the club is not run by the senior players.
While it seemed that Chelsea retreated from their plans for reform, Villa have not, and although Houllier and McLeish might have looked like the wrong choice to the fans, they were probably the right men for the job Lerner and Faulkner had in mind.
Looking closely at the last two managers' modus operandi, we can guess what their job descriptions had been. When we get to see Villa's new manager, we will have a good idea what sort of job is expected from him in the near future and the direction the club is to take.
Not until then, will we be able to judge whether the Villa spirit is rising.
Keep the faith!