Aston Villa v Cardiff City - Premier League

Aston Villa supporters finally have hope again – Part I

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BIRMINGHAM, England — If you’re new to English soccer, you might not be aware of the fact that Aston Villa are one of the biggest clubs in the country. After all, they’re currently sitting 12th in the table, and are having difficulty stringing together a series of decent results. The last few seasons brought relegation battles, not pushes for Champions League football. But Villa were one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888 and have since spent 107 seasons in the top flight — that’s more than any club save Everton. They’ve won the title seven times, the FA Cup seven times, and captured the European Cup in 1981-1982, one of only five English clubs to have done so.

But it’s been a miserable few seasons for the Villa. After three straight seasons of finishing in sixth place in the Premier League — and even challenging for that elusive fourth Champions League position — manager Martin O’Neill abruptly left the club, resigning less than a week before the first match of 2010. Since August 2010, the club have had four different managers at the helm, with the squad’s style swinging abruptly from attempts at smooth continental possession-style to lock-em-down-and-hope-for-a-point. As a result, Villa’s fortunes took a nosedive, and the fans have had to deal with the hand-twisting, stomach-jangling fear of relegation in each of the past three seasons. But now, a few months in to Paul Lambert’s second season with Aston Villa, the supporters are finally able to starting to think optimistically.

In general, Villa fans aren’t known for being all that hopeful. They’ll complain about the team’s style of play, about the manager’s squad selection, about a lack of money — things supporters of almost every club do on a weekly basis. But in recent years, many Villa fans have sounded even more pessimistic, asserting that their once-proud history is being eclipsed by a dismal future. When I last paid a visit, just as the 2011-2012 season was about to kick off, talk was about how to prepare for a spell in the Championship. This time around, fans remained realistic about the club’s chances, and its dismal away record, but spoke warmly about the current leadership and were happy to demonstrate the quality of the traveling support.

Aston Villa’s iconic club crest has been synonymous with underachievement for quite a few years now. But the massive club is ready to get back amongst the trophies.

Of course, this may have had to do with the fact that I paid a visit prior to the away game against West Bromwich Albion. The ties against West Brom are Villa’s biggest derbies this season. And, with just a few miles between the two grounds, an away day at The Hawthorns is no real hardship for most Villa fans. Thus, by Monday lunchtime, much of Birmingham had a festive air about it, with supporters booking off work to be sure to get a few pints in before kickoff. Supporters groups like the Kiddminster Lions and the Bromsgrove Villa Lions were in town early, making pubs like the Briar Rose in the city center rather crowded before 5 p.m. even rolled around. The bars were bustling and, every so often, an Aston Villa chant would ring through the throng. While police “spotters” were on hand to ensure no trouble broke out between rival fan bases, the ones I spoke with were quick to reassure me they had’t spotted any troublemakers, nor were they expecting any.

Part of the reason for the party-like feel hanging over much of Birmingham prior to the match against Albion is that the Villa now have a greater rival to focus their attentions upon. Despite West Brom and Villa having been the bigger clash for the majority of the clubs’ history, for most supporters, hatred of Birmingham City now eclipses that rivalry. In fact, many stated that, should the two sides play in the same division in the near future, they would not attend the match — that’s how noxious the atmosphere has become between the two sets of supporters.

But that’s not how it is for Villa against West Brom. Sure, you don’t speak to your Albion mates for a week before the match, and most likely for the week after. And those Albion supporters do their best to wind up the Villa fans, mocking their accents with a high pitched chant and flashing “We know who we are,” on the Jumbotron before kickoff. For Villa supporters, however, Albion fans trying to stir the pot are viewed as rather silly. It doesn’t matter that WBA have finished higher than Villa over the past few seasons, or that they’re currently higher in the table. Villa are a big club, Albion are not. Simple as that.

(READ MORE: And why should I become a Villa supporter? – Part II)

Of course, that feeling of superiority almost ended in disaster for the Villa support on Monday night. Before fifteen minutes were out, Shane Long had put the hosts up 2-0. The visiting fans were silent while the rest of the stadium rang out with chants of “Who are ya? Who are ya?” Did Villa supporters really have a reason to keep boasting? Or did Baggies fans have a point, that maybe a new era was shaping up in the Midlands?

But by the end of the match, Aston Villa had turned it around, with two second half goals by Karim El Ahmadi and Ashley Westwood. And that, in a nutshell, is why Villa fans are finally finding themselves able to hope once more. Their club isn’t perfect. It’s still in a rebuilding process. But going down 2-0 doesn’t necessarily mean defeat (remember Manchester City?). And there’s no longer reason to get bogged down in the mud of despair.

Why the change? Most of it stems from the appointment of Paul Lambert as manager at the start of the 2012-2013 season. Lambert took over from Alex McLeish, a managerial appointment that most supporters failed to understand and never gave full backing. Why owner Randy Lerner ever chose the man who’d just been at the helm for Birmingham City’s relegation — and led the Blues past Villa in a humiliating League Cup semi-final — will likely never be understood. A fairly young supporter named Jonathan asserted that the McLeish season was Villa’s lowest point. While older fans might argue with that point, the fact remains that almost everyone I spoke to had a sneer on their face at the mention of the man who Lambert replaced. Perhaps McLeish’s history could’ve been overcome had he produced results, or even decent football. But under McLeish, Villa were dreadful. Boring. Painful to watch. They won just 7 times, drawing 17 times, and scoring just 37 goals. They recorded 7 goalless draws, including two in derbies. At the least, to say 2011-2012 was Villa’s worst season in the past two decades would certainly be correct.source: Getty Images

So Paul Lambert already had one important distinguishing characteristic: He was not Alex McLeish. For this reason, Villa supporters were willing to give him a chance (although bringing newly promoted Norwich to a 12th place finish couldn’t have hurt). And they still are. While there was a bit of grumbling from certain sectors a few weeks ago, fretting over whether Lambert’s time was up, most seem willing to keep giving the manager the benefit of the doubt — although they’d sure like him to start winning at home.

Most Villa fans remain realistic. After O’Neill left, Lerner and CEO Paul Faulkner made it clear that cost cutting measures would go into effect: there would be no more pricey players; wages would no longer account for 85% of annual turnover. This is not a club that is owned by a multi-billionaire and as such, it is not a club that can afford marquee signings, pointed out Gary, a supporter old enough to remember the days when Lerner’s millions would have been enough. But Paul Lambert and his team have done well to scout out affordable players from England’s lower leagues, and have snapped up under-the-radar signings from throughout Europe. Out of necessity, Lambert’s Lions are a young squad, and that’s one of the reasons fans are willing to be patient.

When speaking about the manager, more than one fan mentioned that the club, and the supporters, need to give the gaffer more time, that making Villa great again would take a manager more than just a few months. “This season is massive to determine where we are,” stated Andrew, who was having a pint with Gary, Jonathan and his girlfriend, Yasmin, a Villa fan since birth. Andrew is one that believes the club has improved since Lerner took over at the helm, and that Lambert is a fine man for to manage the Villa. 

More than that, though, Paul Lambert has passion. Paul Lambert loves the Villa. This is what a pair of supporters, James and Phil, were quick to point out. James and Phil are of different generations, but that’s of little import when discussing matters connected to the club. Both agree that those connected with Villa should love the club, particularly because the clubs’ fans are themselves so passionate. Perhaps that’s why fans never really connected to Gerard Houllier, who rarely betrayed emotion. Or to McLeish, because how could a man who’d coached the Bluenoses truly want the best for Villa? But Lambert, jumping on the sidelines, defending his squad, hugging his players on the touchline…Villa fans see themselves in their manager, and that creates a connection.

A manager they can identify with. A club that, for the most part, fans believe is being run correctly. And a squad of exciting young players often playing in a fun and attacking style. When you realize Villa are 12th place in the table, and there remains a lingering uncertainty as to whether the squad can pull off results against lower-level sides, it seems strange that supporters are in boisterous spirits. But when you flash back to two seasons ago, as Villa supporters watched Emile Heskey desperately searching for a goal or viewed a 0-0 draw against newly promoted Swansea, it’s much easier to understand why optimism is prevailing amidst the claret-and-blue faithful.

“Normal one” Klopp dazzles on Liverpool unveiling

Jurgen Klopp at Anfield is unveiled as the new manager of Liverpool FC during a press conference at Anfield on October 9, 2015 in Liverpool, England.
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LIVERPOOL – Jurgen Klopp strode into the room with the confidence of a man who believes he can turn this great club into something special again.

[ MORE: Klopp’s arrival announced ]

The German coach, 48, was unveiled as Liverpool’s new manager at a packed out “Reds Lounge” deep in the Centenary Stand at Anfield on Friday, as the former Borussia Dortmund coach signed a three-year deal reportedly making him the richest manager in Liverpool’s illustrious history with a salary of over $10 million per season.

His appointment is more than just a soccer-related decision. It’s about uniting everyone at the club and Klopp’s arrival is key to slotting everything together. The German manager is under no illusion as to how difficult this job will be, but is relishing the challenge.

“I am back in the race, it is the biggest honor I can imagine to be here,” Klopp said. “One of the biggest clubs in the world. I will try to help in a situation that is not as difficult as people in this room feel. It is a good moment here and I feel proud. The intensity of the football, of how the people live football in Liverpool, all Liverpool fans around the world. It is not a usual club, it is a special club. I had two very, very special clubs with Mainz and Dortmund. It is the perfect next step for me to be here and try and help.”

[ MORE: Klopp’s 10 best quotes ]

Holding court for almost half an hour with over 100 members of the British, German and worldwide media, Klopp was asked by a journalist if he could perhaps compare himself to Jose Mourinho, who announced himself as “The Special One” when he arrived in English soccer. Klopp paused and then delivered the following.

“I don’t want to describe myself. Does anyone in this room think I can do wonders? No. I am a normal guy. I come from Black Forest. I am the normal one maybe,” Klopp said. “I was a very average player, became a manager in Germany at a special club, Mainz, then I had a great opportunity to take Dortmund, a special club for seven years. For both parties it was best to leave and now I am here. I hope to enjoy my work. All the people tell me about the British press so it is up to you to show me they are all liars.”

Cue roars of laughter from the media, as Klopp’s first box office moment in England had arrived.

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Not since 2004, when Rafael Benitez arrived from La Liga champions Valencia to lead Liverpool to UEFA Champions League glory in 2006, has the arrival of a Liverpool manager been as heralded as Herr Klopp’s. The German realizes the pressure on his shoulders after 25 years without a league title for, but has called for a new era.

“Twenty-five years ago [since the last league title] is a long time,” Klopp said. “History is only the base for us, [we shouldn’t] keep the history in our backpack all day. I want to see the first step next week and not always compare with other times. This is a great club with big potential. Everything is there. Let’s try to start a new way. Everything is different – I don’t know it all but I’m a pretty good listener.”

Even though he says he doesn’t know it all, Klopp did say that he hopes to deliver the title in the next four years at Anfield.

“When I left Dortmund, my last sentence was it was not so important what people think when you come in, it is more important what they think what you leave. Please give us time to work on it. If we want, this could be a really special day,” Klopp said. “We could start in a very difficult league but in a special Liverpool way we can be successful. We can’t wait for it, I don’t want to say we can wait 20 years. If we sit here in four years, I think we win one title. I’m pretty sure. If not the next one, maybe in Switzerland.”

Cue laughter again, as Klopp impressed with his forthright nature and ability to bring humor to what was a hugely important moment as he announced himself to the world as Liverpool’s manager for the first time. In his seven years at Dortmund, Klopp took a beleaguered powerhouse of German soccer to new levels. He won back-to-back Bundesliga titles. He reached a Champions League final. He worked miracles on a shoe-string budget compared to Dortmund’s illustrious neighbors at home and abroad.

Plus, perhaps most importantly, he became a man of the people, a coach who helped bring the fans closer to the club. Dortmund’s famous Westfalenstadion was full to the brim for every home game. Much of that was also to due to the style of play Klopp instrumented, with the two-time German manager of the year admitting he likes “heavy metal” and believes his team play in such a manner compared to the “silent song” and “orchestra” of an Arsenal or a Barcelona who prefer to stroke the ball around.

“I am not here to today to speak too much about our football. First I want to talk to my team about the football. Everyone knows me, I don’t change in four months,” Klopp said. “It is emotion inside, it is speed, it is transition game so you will see this. All the things make football interesting for me, I want to see on the pitch. We have to see how much time we need. In this time we have to win, to make points, that is true but it is not the day to promise a style of football.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Klopp stepped away from Dortmund in the summer. He left on his own terms and was revered by fans, players and officials at the German club. It has always been expected he would go on to bigger things. The truth is, had there been a vacancy at a big club across Europe over the past three months, at Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona or either of the Manchester clubs, Klopp would have been one of the first names on the list. Liverpool landing him is a coup and the euphoria of fans upon his arrival on Merseyside is palpable. Excitement levels are on the rise with a $165 million redevelopment of the Main Stand underway to help take Liverpool into a new era with more fans, revenue and a charismatic manager leading the way.

In the crowded press conference we asked Klopp if he can compare the situation he found himself in at Dortmund, to the job he has on his hands at Liverpool.

“We did in Dortmund what we had to do, to improve the players, to work for a common idea of play. That is what we did and its the same thing we want to do here. They are not the same players of course,” Klopp told NBC Sports ProSocerTalk. “These players from Liverpool are better, more experienced in some ways and younger in other cases. Everything is okay, I am here. I am not here only because LFC was calling. I believe in the potential of this team. Four or five strikers you can work with when they are not injured, midfielders is really good, defenders experienced and very young, goalkeeper is really good. Everything is there.

“Now we have to work. The problem in football is that you can be as good as you want but you always have to play against other teams. You have no influence on how good they are before the game. But in the game, if they are better, you have to bring them to your level. On your level you can kill every team. If they are not so good, you have to win. That is football.”

Liverpool’s much-maligned American owners, the Fenway Sports Group (FGS), have finally got their marquee manager as they approach their fifth anniversary at the club on Oct. 15, 2015. The decision to fire Brendan Rodgers last Sunday seemed inevitable, as they gambled on a young manager who was unproven at the elite level and failed to deliver trophies but came agonizingly close to winning the Premier League title in the 2013-14 season. Now, they have a man who can help transform their talented, yet drastically under-performing squad which was assembled by Rodgers and Liverpool’s much talked about transfer committee, into contenders for at least a top four spot going forward.

That transfer committee which many blamed for the demise of Rodgers is not an issue, as some had anticipated, for Klopp.

“This is a really crazy discussion because it was not a problem for (even) 10 seconds,” Klopp said. “We talked about it before. It’s enough for me to have the first and last word. We only want to discuss about very good players and discussing on the highest level and I hope that’s what we do. I’m not a genius, I don’t know more than the rest of the world. I need these people.”

Klopp’s first media appearance on UK soil as Liverpool’s boss ticked all the boxes fans could hope for, as the “Normal One” showed signs he is capable of being far from a normal personality, or manager, in the Premier League.

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.