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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.

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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.

Pogba’s agent pumps brakes hard on imminent Manchester United move

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Paul Pogba of France wins the ball from Joao Mario of Portugal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Super agent Mino Raiola has injected a ray of light into the hopes of both Juventus and Real Madrid fans when it comes to Paul Pogba.

The terrific midfielder has been widely reported as an imminent arrival at Manchester United, but Raiola has taken to Twitter to blast journalists who’ve reported the move and medical as done.

[ RANIERI: Mahrez will stay at LCFC ]

Pogba was photographed in Los Angeles amid claims he was undergoing a physical at United. Multiple reports have said he passed the medical and that Juventus has agreed to sell Pogba to United for a world record fee.

Raiola says different, though taken with the grain of salt that he’s set to make as much as $30 million on the deal and his job is to squeeze every possibly penny from suitors.

Ranieri says “intelligent man” Mahrez will stay at Leicester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 07:  Claudio Ranieri Manager of Leicester City instructs Riyad Mahrez during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Everton at The King Power Stadium on May 7, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri seems to be genuine and honest in his evaluations, as we’ve seen in his dealings with Jamie Vardy and N'Golo Kante amongst others.

And the manager is making no bones about what he thinks is best for another Leicester City star in Riyad Mahrez.

[ MORE: Gameiro joins new club ]

Ranieri says the Algerian will face far more pressure at a new club then he will face still competing in the UEFA Champions League with the Foxes.

In other words, the 25-year-old should stick around. From Sky Sports:

“I speak often with him and say stay with us, it’s much better for your future, I think he is an intelligent man and he will stay,” Ranieri told Sky Sports News HQ.

“We support him very well, this is important, when you change teams maybe you don’t find team-mates who help you at the same level.

“He improves more if he stays with us for another year, maybe next year he can think about another solution. If he goes for a lot of money, everybody will be expecting something special. He can do something special, but with us.”

We tend to agree. Whereas N’Golo Kante was prepared to use Leicester as a stepping stone — and it seems Ranieri knew it — Mahrez has been with the Foxes since 2014 and seen his stature skyrocket.

Let’s see what happens, Riyad. Cool?

Atletico signs striker Kevin Gameiro from Sevilla

BASEL, SWITZERLAND - MAY 18:  Kevin Gameiro of Sevilla celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Final match between Liverpool and Sevilla at St. Jakob-Park on May 18, 2016 in Basel, Switzerland.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid says it has acquired French striker Kevin Gameiro from rival Spanish club Sevilla.

In exchange, Atletico has agreed to loan Argentine striker Luciano Vietto to Sevilla for one season.

Atletico says Gameiro will sign a four-year contract after undergoing a standard medical exam.

[ MORE: NYCFC, Rapids meet in Bronx on Saturday ]

The 29-year-old Gameiro scored 67 goals during three seasons with Sevilla, helping it win three Europa League titles.

Gameiro will join countryman Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres to form the attack of an Atletico side that reached the final of the Champions League last season.

Atletico did not reveal the financial details of Gameiro’s transfer.

Ex-Guatemalan soccer chief pleads guilty in FIFA bribe case

PRATO, ITALY - APRIL 13: General view during the FIFA Futsal playoff match between Italy and Hungary on April 13, 2016 in Prato, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) A former Guatemalan soccer federation president has pleaded guilty in New York to charges related to a sprawling corruption investigation of world soccer.

[ MORE: Christian Vieri ready for return, pursuing Chinese Super League ]

Brayan Jimenez pleaded guilty Friday to federal racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges, each carrying up to 20 years in prison. It’s unclear when he’ll be sentenced.

The 62-year-old Jimenez is among 40 people from around the world charged in a FIFA bribery scandal over lucrative broadcasting rights.

Prosecutors say Jimenez accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a Florida-based sports marketing company. They say in exchange for the money Jimenez awarded the company media marketing rights to the Guatemalan soccer team’s World Cup qualifying matches in 2018 and 2022.

Jimenez’s attorneys haven’t returned a message seeking comment on his guilty plea.