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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.

Jurgen Klopp on Liverpool title talk: “I don’t care”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool applauds the fans following their team's 2-1 victory during the Premier League match between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at Anfield on October 22, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp isn’t having any of your title talk.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or shortlist ]

After Liverpool beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 on Saturday at Anfield and Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United all dropped points this weekend, plenty of people are talking up Liverpool’s chances of winning the Premier League title this season.

With nine games of the season gone, Liverpool sit joint-top with Arsenal and Man City on 20 points with Chelsea and Tottenham just behind them on 19 points.

It is tight at the top but whatever people are saying, Klop isn’t bothered.

“I don’t care. It is normal in football that when you are in a good position people start talking a little more positive. I don’t recognize so much what everyone is saying about us but of course I recognize the mood, I said it already, around LFC it is good. But we are still in October… unfortunately. There is a long way to go,” Klopp said. “Nothing to say about this. Hopefully you can ask these questions through the whole season and everything is good but at the moment I have no answer for it. It is good up until now. Not more but good. Let’s carry on.”

Liverpool’s attack has been mightily impressive this season with the fluid movement of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino ripping teams apart. Klopp’s side are the highest scorers with 20 goals thus far but the one issues many have about them being genuine title contender is their defensive play. Klopp’s side have kept just one clean sheet in their nine PL games so far this season and they’ve conceded the most goals in the top six.

Klopp’s right, there’s a long way to go. But plenty are also correct to be positive about this Liverpool team.

Challenging for the PL title this season may just be beyond them but securing a top four finish certainly isn’t. Klopp is pushing Liverpool in the right direction. Any of us can see that, even if he doesn’t want to admit it.

Moussa Sissoko handed FA charge over elbow incident

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This was always likely to happen.

On Monday the FA charged Tottenham Hotspur’s Moussa Sissoko with violent conduct after he caught Bournemouth’s midfielder Harry Arter in the face with his elbow during the 0-0 draw at the Vitality stadium on Saturday.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or shortlist ]

Sissoko, 27, was a second half sub for Mauricio Pochettino‘s side but he will now miss the EFL Cup game against Liverpool and the Premier League games against Leicester City and Arsenal after Tottenham accepted the charge.

In a brief statement on their website the FA said the following about Sissoko’s charge:

Moussa Sissoko has been charged for an alleged act of violent conduct which was not seen by the match officials but caught on video. The Tottenham Hotspur forward was involved in an incident with AFC Bournemouth’s Harry Arter in the 79th minute of the game on Saturday [22 October 2016].

He has until 6pm on Tuesday 25 October to reply. Off the ball incidents which are not seen at the time by the match officials are referred to a panel of three former elite match officials. Each panel member will review the video footage independently of one another to determine whether they consider it a sending-off offence.

For retrospective action to be taken, and an FA charge to follow, the decision of the panel must be unanimous.

Speaking on Monday, Spurs boss Pochettino revealed that the club had accepted charge and must now move on for the next three games without Sissoko.

“We accept that as a club after viewing the video. We accept the charge and now we move forward,” Pochettino said. “After the game it was difficult. When you asked me, it was difficult for me to appreciate the situation on what happened on the action. Then when it was on TV, I need to say that it wasn’t the intention, but the elbow was in the face of [Harry] Arter. It was clear. We accept the charge and now we are set to move forward and he has to miss three games.”

Sissoko’s actions were played down my Arter after the game but the French international who joined on Transfer Deadline Day from Newcastle United will now have to sit out some huge games in the next 10 days.

With the referees not spotting the incident, the TV footage was always going to be used and it was pretty damning as Sissoko drove his elbow into Arter’s face off the ball.

Renato Sanches beats Rashford to win prestigious Golden Boy award

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Renato Sanches (top) and Portugal players celebrate their team's first goal scored by Eder (obscured) during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Renato Sanches has been named the top player in Europe under the age of 21, picking up the prestigious Golden Boy award from Italian outlet Tuttosport.

Sanches, 19, moved to Bayern Munich from Benfica this summer and shone for Portugal as they won EURO 2016 and he was named the best young player at the tournament.

[ MORE: Conte the new Mourinho?

The central midfielder finished ahead of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford who was second, while Juventus’ Kinglsey Coman was in third. 

In total there were four Premier League players in the top 10 as Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli and Manchester City’s duo of Leroy Sane and Kelechi Iheanacho also got plenty of votes.

Below are the top 10 players under the age of 21 in Europe, according to the Golden Boy award.

1 – Renato Sanches (19, Bayern Munich)
2 – Marcus Rashford (18, Manchester United)
3 – Kingsley Coman (20, Juventus)
4 – Dele Alli (20, Tottenham)
5 – Ousmane Dembele (19, Borussia Dortmund)
6 – Gianluigi Donnarumma (17, AC Milan)
7 – Leroy Sane (20, Manchester City)
8 – Marco Asensio (20, Real Madrid)
9 – Mahmoud Dahoud (20, Borussia Monchengladbach)
10 – Kelechi Iheanacho (20, Manchester City)

VIDEO: Harsh to book Kei Kamara for twerk goal celebration?

Kei Kamara
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Kei Kamara scored a beauty for the New England Revolution in their 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Sunday.

[ MORE: Who wins MLS Cup 2016? ]

Of course, the victory wasn’t enough to see New England through to the 2016 MLS Cup playoffs, but Kamara had a pretty unique way to celebrate his goal.

The former Sporting Kansas City and Columbus Crew star twerked in celebration.

Yep. You read that correctly.

Kamra has seven goals in 21 MLS games for the Revs this season but he has also had some bizarre yellow cards as he was recently booked for changing his shorts on the field of play.

Take a look at the video below to see if he deserved a yellow for a twerk. Personally, I think it’s harsh. What’s wrong with having a bit of fun with a goal celebration?