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.

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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.

Report: Alexis Sanchez growing impatient with Wenger, Arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 21:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal is watched by James Chester of West Bromwich Albion during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium on April 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Alexis Sanchez is frustrated, and that doesn’t bode well for Arsenal or its manager Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Stoke announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

The attacker and his coach have had several spats in the Chilean’s two years at the Emirates Stadium, however, their rift was quite evident over the weekend when Sanchez was substituted off against Norwich City. Sanchez reportedly exited through the tunnel without shaking Wenger’s hand and left the stadium directly after.

[ MORE: Ben Afra being targeted by Barcelona after stellar season with Nice ]

According to the Telegraph, Sanchez is miffed about the inconsistent amount of playing time that he has received this season. In 26 league appearances during the 2015-16 campaign, Sanchez has totaled 12 goals, which is tied for first on the team with Olivier Giroud.

Being that the 27-year-old is arguably Arsenal’s most important attacking player, the feud between Sanchez and Wenger certainly isn’t ideal for the French manager. Gunners supporters protested prior to the team’s match against Norwich due to the club’s lack of success over recent seasons.

Sanchez still has two years remaining on his contract with the London side, and even though it isn’t likely that he’ll move this summer, a few teams have expressed interest in the talented winger. Pep Guardiola could make a swoop at Sanchez as he arrives at Manchester City this summer, while Guardiola’s soon-to-be former side Bayern Munich have also made their wishes known.

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Nadim’s path: From Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to Portland

HALMSTAD, SWEDEN - JULY 13:  Raffaella Manieri (R) of Italy and Nadia Nadim (L) of Denmark battle for the ball during the UEFA Women's Euro 2013 group A match between Italy and Denmark at Orjans Vall on July 13, 2013 in Halmstad, Sweden.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Soccer is the one constant in Nadia Nadim’s life since fleeing the Taliban as a young girl.

[ MORE: Stoke City announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

She first learned the game from her father, an Afghan military general who was tragically killed. Later it gave her a sense of belonging as a refugee, and then national pride when she donned the jersey of her adopted Denmark.

Now it’s a career in Portland, Oregon, thousands of miles from where she started.

“I kind of feel it was meant to be, like destiny,” she said of her current career with the Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Nadim is new to Portland this season after spending the last two in New Jersey with Sky Blue FC. Sitting in the warm sunshine after training at the team’s downtown stadium, Nadim wore a Los Angeles Lakers jersey (she’s a Kobe Bryant fan) as she reflected on her journey.

At 28, she’s at a break in medical school studies back home – a good time to see how far the game she loves can take her.

“When that time came I thought I could go and play in a European League, but that would be still so close and similar to what I was used to back home,” she said. “So I wanted to try something different and away from home. Plus, I wanted to play in a league where some of the best players in the world play.”

Nadim’s love for the game started in Kabul, where she grew up. Her father was a big sports fan and when he wasn’t working he’d take his five daughters to play at the local fields. But the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, and Nadim’s childhood quickly slipped away. Girls were not allowed to go to school, let alone play soccer.

One day when she was about 10, Nadim’s father was summoned to meet with the Taliban leaders. He never returned. The family later learned he was killed.

“Most memories I have are nice ones – until the last year when everything was chaotic,” she said. “Before that, before the stuff that happened with my dad and the Taliban coming to my country, I remember having a really safe childhood where my parents tried to protect us and we had everything we wanted.

“But yeah, that changed really, really drastically after they came to power.”

In an Islamic state, women were not allowed to have jobs or even leave the home without a male relative. That made life untenable for her mother, who faced raising five girls on her own. They fled.

“It happened really quick,” she said. “It’s not like anything you can plan for.”

The family made it to Pakistan, where they paid a smuggler and got to Italy. The group had hoped to make it to England, but a driver dropped them off in “the middle of nowhere.” It turned out to be Denmark.

The family was in a Copenhagen refugee camp for six months before they were granted asylum. Nadia was able to go to school, but more importantly, play soccer. It was there she learned that she actually had talent for the game.

A standout for her club team, Nadim got the attention of Denmark’s national team. She was allowed to train with the team but could not play until she got her citizenship at 18. She was the first naturalized citizen to play for the senior team when she made her debut in the 2009 Algarve Cup against the United States.

Her first task? Mark Abby Wambach.

“I wasn’t even supposed to play but the striker got injured in the first 15 minutes,” she said. “I wasn’t even warmed up when they said, `Nadia! Go!”‘

When not on national team duty, Nadim played in Europe while also going to school. She is currently studying to become a plastic surgeon – not the cosmetic type but the reconstructive type. She has one year left.

Nadim first ventured to the United States in 2014 when she played six games with Sky Blue while on loan from Danish club Fortuna Hjorring, scoring six goals. The next year, she started in all 18 games for Sky Blue.

Nadim was traded to Portland in a draft-day deal before the season. Already she has made an impact off the ball, which is what the Thorns have asked of her, new head coach Mark Parsons said.

“Her game is winning games and scoring goals, but we’ve needed her in different role. I think that sums her up. She’s a winner, she’s a great character and she’s willing to do what it takes for the team,” Parsons said.

Nadim is still getting comfortable with the Thorns and her new, albeit temporary, home. The NWSL streams all her games live so her mother Hamida can watch from Denmark.

“I hope to make some more great memories with the Portland Thorns,” she said. “We have a really, really special team here with a lot of quality players. I feel really fortunate to be here and I enjoy playing, and I love the way we play.”

Stoke City announces partnership with Orlando City

during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Chelsea at Britannia Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Stoke on Trent, England.
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Americans have been heavily involved in Premier League management, including John Henry at Liverpool and the Glazer family who own Manchester United.

[ MORE: LAFC is one step closer to joining MLS, after finding home for stadium ]

Friday marked a dawn of a new relationship between the PL and MLS though, when Stoke City announced a strategic partnership with Orlando City SC.

[ MORE: Rapids-RSL highlights Week 10 action around MLS ]

The goal of the agreement between the two sides is to advance player recruitment and development, as well spark fan engagement in both leagues.

Potters Chief Executive Tony Scholes:

“It’s an opportunity for us to share best practice with Orlando in a variety of areas, primarily in player recruitment, marketing and development, but also to give both clubs chance to grow in each other’s markets,” said Scholes.

“A large number of our fans already regard Orlando as their MLS side and I know that Stoke City are already followed by many Orlando fans.

“As an established Premier League club we are always looking at new ways to develop our profile overseas and our strategic partnership will help us to develop in the United States.”

NBC’s recent coverage of the PL has sparked massive interest in the United States, giving fans various opportunities to watch matches over the course of a weekend. As MLS continues to grow as well, you can surely expect interest abroad, specifically in Europe, to grow too.

Phil Rawlins, Founder and President of Orlando City, is excited with the relationship building between the two clubs.

“It was very clear that we’ve always had a good relationship with Stoke City and it came down to us wanting to reignite that synergy and bring our brands closer together. This will be our only partnership in England, and we hope to ignite passions for both our clubs in each other’s markets.”

The pursuit of MLS to become a top league has a ways to go, but a move like this will surely only benefit commissioner Don Garber and the rest of MLS.

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Gareth Bale, Keylor Navas injuries present challenge for Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 18:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid controls the ball under pressure from Joel Matip of Schalke uring the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, second leg match between Real Madrid and FC Schalke 04 at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 18, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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After narrowly escaping Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal against Manchester City, 1-0, Real Madrid is facing a bit of difficult news.

[ MORE: Ben Afra drawing interest from Barcelona ]

The club has confirmed injuries to both Gareth Bale and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, despite each player going the full 90 minutes midweek. Bale has reportedly sustained a knee problem, while Navas has suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon.

The extent of the injuries is not yet known, although Bale’s appears to be less severe. With Madrid down a goalkeeper, reserve team keeper Kiko Casilla will likely take over in net for Real while Navas recovers.

Madrid will host Valencia on Sunday in La Liga, with both players expected to miss the match. Bale could reportedly return for Real’s match against Deportivo La Coruna on May 14, their final league game. The team can then turn its attention to the Champions League final against rival Atletico Madrid on May 28.

Real currently sits one point behind La Liga leader Barcelona and second place Atleti with two games to play.

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