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.

Neymar makes history in PSG’s 8-0 thrashing of Dijon

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A pair of statements which are both true, and not at all mutually exclusive, if you allow logic and balance to prevail: 1) Neymar and his friends at Paris Saint-Germain are quite good at the soccer; 2) they aren’t challenged enough in Ligue 1.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Of course, they’ll be challenged plenty during the latter stages of the Champions League (they drew Real Madrid in the round of 16), but on a weekly basis, the level of competition in their domestic league isn’t of a high standard to indicate just how good they are. That’s the new debate with regard to PSG — it’s no longer, “Are they good? Maybe they’re just a big fish in a small pond.”

On Wednesday, led by Neymar, the most expensive transfer signing of all-time, Unai Emery’s side thrashed 10th-place Dijon to the tune of 8-0. As mentioned, Neymar did slightly more than just pull his own weight — four goals to go with a pair of assists; he lent a direct hand in six of the eight goals.

[ MORE: Chelsea survive Norwich in PKs, reach FA Cup 4th round ]

Even the statistical whizzes at Opta appear somewhat stumped by such an abundance of goals.

Anytime the keepers of stats toss out a “since we started collecting data,” be proud of your achievement. Be very, very proud.

FA Cup: Chelsea, Swansea into 4th rd; B’mouth ousted by Wigan

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Two more Premier League sides booked their place in the fourth round of the FA Cup, courtesy of third-round replays, on Wednesday, bringing the PL’s total representation to 14 clubs…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea 1-1 (5-3 PKs) Norwich City

Chelsea’s scoreless streak — for both themselves and opponents (three straight 0-0 draws across all competitions) — came to a merciful end on Wednesday, but not before surpassing the 300-minute mark. Michy Batshuayi — who, it must be said, struggled mightily in making just his third start (all in cup competitions) since mid-October — broke yet another scoreless deadlock in the 55th minute, ending the Blues’ scoreless run at 331 minutes.

With barely 30 seconds remaining in second-half stoppage time, 19-year-old left back Jamal Lewis brought the Canaries level with a thunderous header off the post.

Extra-time saw Chelsea reduced to 10, and then nine, men. Pedro was booked for diving just after the hour mark, and the Spaniard earned a second yellow card for a wild challenge in the 117th minute. Four minutes later, in second-half extra-time stoppage time, Alvaro Morata was booked for diving and proceeded to shout and gesticulate in the referee’s face. A second yellow was shown immediately.

Willy Caballero denied Nelson Oliveira on Norwich’s first attempt of the ensuing penalty shootout, giving the Blues the only cushion they’d need as Willian, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard all converted.

Chelsea will host Newcastle United in the fourth round on Sunday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Swansea City 2-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

Swansea faced the greatest threat of a Cupset on Wednesday but managed to come out on top, knocking off runaway Championship leaders and champions-elect Wolves. The Swans went ahead through Jordan Ayew in the 11th minute before the prolific Diogo Jota, who’ll be in the PL one way or another next season, brought Wolves back to 1-1 in the 66th. Three minutes later, Wilfried Bony bagged the winner to see Carlos Carvalhal’s side through to the next round.

Swansea will visit League Two side Notts County, who knocked off Championship playoff hopefuls Brentford in the third round, on Saturday, Jan. 27.

Wigan Athletic 3-0 Bournemouth

Bournemouth sat 32 places above Wigan in the English football pyramid when Wednesday’s replay kicked off, and it matter not a single iota, as Paul Cook’s side hammered the Cherries at the DW Stadium. Sam Morsy, Dan Burn and Callum Elder bagged the goals for the League One leaders (three points clear after 26 of 46 rounds played). Wigan have alternated each of the last four seasons, finishing 23rd in the Championship and leading/winning League One. It’s been five years since the Latics were relegated from the PL, in the 2012-13 season.

Wigan will host West Ham United in the fourth round on Saturday, Jan. 27.

Sir Alex’s son in trouble for saying he’d “shoot” refs

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LONDON (AP) It clearly runs in the family.

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was known for having an explosive temper during his nearly 27 years at Old Trafford, and it seems he has passed it down to his son.

Darren Ferguson, who is the manager of third-tier English team Doncaster, is in trouble for saying he would “shoot” referees because of what he perceived as their poor standards.

Ferguson was charged by the English Football Association on Wednesday for remarks that “were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute.”

The 45-year-old coach has already apologized, saying it was a “tongue-in-cheek comment” and that “I do not advocate violence against officials.”

Ferguson was unhappy his team was denied a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Plymouth on Saturday.

“The referees are part-time and the standard is appalling, their fitness levels are a disgrace, I’ve had enough of it,” Ferguson said after the match.

“What can I do? Shoot them, it would be a good idea.”

Follow Live: Chelsea, Swans, Cherries in FA Cup replays

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Chelsea, Swansea City, and Bournemouth look to avoid upsets in replays of their third round FA Cup matches.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

All three matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET

The Blues tangle with former Premier League peers Norwich City, this time at Stamford Bridge, in a bid to host a fourth round match with Newcastle United.

Antonio Conte‘s not messing around (too much) with the XI.

Swansea City and Wolves, meanwhile, are arguably battling for a bid in the fourth round, as a trip to Notts County is on the docket for the winner of Wednesday’s replay at the Liberty Stadium.

Bournemouth is at Wigan Athletic for a replay with the third-tier Latics, with the victor hosting West Ham United on Jan. 27.