Something For The Weekend (399)
Yes folks, it's that time of year again when we must hunt down every time-piece, gadget and gizmo in our possession and attempt, should the instructions still be at hand, to put their clocks back an hour, as we kiss our memories of summer goodbye and prepare ourselves for the bleak miseries of chilly lightless winter.
Or is it?
The question haunting most Villa fans these days, except those who can still manage their poker-face of denial, is whether, come this Saturday night we will be not just required to put back our clocks an hour, but all the way back to 1986: the season all subsequent bad seasons are always compared with.
Just as the title of Orwell's famous book, 1984, has become the shorthand and byword for totalitarian tyranny, the year 1986 stands out in Aston Villa lore, as the byword for parsimony, tinkering and betrayal, on the lips of all Villa fans of a certain age. 1986 was the culmination of the club's decision to step back from the brink of possible transformation into one of the big boys, and embrace mediocrity with malice aforethought.
No Villa fan in their right mind can deny that these days, Villa actually aspire to the relative comforts of mediocrity, and should they lose to Norwich on Saturday lunchtime, mediocrity will seem like the sort of fantasy the fans used to reserve for qualification to the Champions League. Young fans will have to brace themselves for a future of being reminded by every old scrote and wrinkly, about the days when playing Bournemouth was the biggest game of the season, and other such dreary recollections. Wrinklies will have to maintain a patient silence as they listen to stupid youth, talk of being too good to go down.
Back in 1986, Villa managed a single win and a draw from their first eight games. In 2012, Villa have one win and two draws from eight games. Under a three-points-for-a-win system, Villa in 1986 would have 4 points and in 2012 they have 5 points. In 1986 Villa had a Scottish manager who had a reputation for doing a good job on a limited budget at Celtic. In 1986 Villa had sold proven players like Mortimer and Gibson, the previous season, and replaced them with cheaper alternatives. In 1986-7 Villa lost three-nil away to relegation favourites Charlton. In 2012 Villa lost 4-1 away to relegation favourites Southampton.
In 1986 Villa beat Coventry 1-0 at home in their ninth game. The question is whether Villa can beat Norwich this Saturday and either prove themselves better than the class of '86, or lose and prove themselves worse.
No pressure there then!
Of course, the irony that it is Norwich who are the visitors on the day when Villa must face the old grey whistle test, is inescapable. Norwich - the house that Lambert built.
There is little doubt that Paul Lambert did a magnificent job at Norwich, and his defiance of the predictive capacity of the market, was nothing short of miraculous last season, and the season before, for that matter.
As explained in boring detail during the closing weeks of last season, Norwich were the only club to significantly defy the points tally the value of their typical starting-eleven predicted. Clubs like Swansea and Wigan managed to defy the financial predictors but when it came to bang per buck, Norwich were miles ahead.
Villa only managed a par finish, while clubs like Wolves finishing with a below par performance. The numbers predicted the relegation of Blackburn, but Norwich with the lowest value team in the division most weeks, were the only truly remarkable club when it came to defying financial predictors. All too often fielding starting-elevens valued at less than £25m.
So even if, come Saturday afternoon, the Villa fans have to face up to the fact that 2012 is indeed a worse start than 1986, there will be no point in blaming the manager.
No other manager is likely to achieve much with the same budget and even if Randy Lerner is in the enviable position of being one of the few people in a position to demonstrate empirically how long it takes to count $1bn in cash, he reassures us that no improvement in the Villa budget is envisaged, any time soon. So it looks like we will have to hope that Paul Lambert's success at Norwich wasn't just luck, and that we have enough patience to wait for him to get it right.
Its impossible to tell whether Lambert's face betrays the thousand-mile stare of a guy with battle-fatigue, or his is the vacant expression of a detached guru who knows exactly what he is doing, and is just waiting for all his well-laid plans to fall into place, and his players he has so much faith in, to suddenly click and escape their self-imposed performance limits.
No one can be sure either way but it is certain that it is going to take time, before we find out.
Keep the faith!
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