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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.

American takeover of Everton edging closer

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19:  A general view during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Leicester City at Goodison Park on December 19, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Soon there could be an American flag fluttering at Goodison Park.

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Following reports in December stating that former San Diego Padres owner John Jay Moores and his associate Charles Noell were in talks to buy Premier League club Everton, a new report from the Liverpool Echo states the $300 million takeover could be completed in the next two weeks.

Long-time Everton chairman Bill Kenwright has come under increasing scrutiny from fans of the Toffees this season about their lack of spending in the transfer market and the businessman has reportedly been in talks with many interested parties over the years to try and sell the Merseyside club.

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The report from the Echo says Moores and Noell have spent the last six weeks carrying out due diligence and have been in talks with the biggest shareholders, chairman Kenwright, plus Robert Earl and Jon Woods, about buying them out.

If Moores and Noell do become the majority shareholders of Everton and the controlling owners would mean the Toffees would be the seventh current PL club to be owned by Americans.

Manchester United, Sunderland, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Aston Villa all have majority owners who are from the U.S.

West Ham confirm talks underway to give Payet new contract

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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West Ham United have announced they are in talks with star man Dimitri Payet about a new contract.

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Just over halfway into his first season in the Premier League the Frenchman, 28, has become a cult hero at Upton Park with his dazzling skills delighting the West Ham faithful.

However, reports in the UK on Tuesday had stated that Payet and his representatives were demanding a huge raise amid reported interest from other suitors but the club has moved swiftly to deny those claims.

Here’s the statement in full from West Ham:

Following reports in today’s media, West Ham United would like to clarify that at no time have Dimitri Payet or his agent made any demands to the Club over a new contract. However, the Club can confirm that due to Dimitri’s outstanding impact since his arrival at the Boleyn Ground, they have initiated amicable and productive talks about an improvement and extension to his contract.

Those talks are progressing well and it is hoped they can be concluded shortly. Dimitri would like to make clear that he is very proud to play for West Ham United and he appreciates the support he has received from the Board, manager and fans since he joined the Club in the summer.

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Payet has been a revelation since arriving from Marsielle in the summer for $15 million. He leads West Ham in PL goals (6), assists (4) and chances created (67). His mercurial flicks and tricks has seen admiration from around the league as the Hammers chase a top six finish under Slaven Bilic during his debut season in charge. Ahead of their move to London’s Olympic Stadium in the 2016-17 season, it’s likely Payet will lead this new-look West Ham side into an exciting new era.

He has a strong connection with fans of the east London club who sing his name loud and proud.

Payet released the following message via Twitter to calm any fears about him leaving.

Report: Man United hold talks with Pochettino’s reps

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A report from the Sun newspaper in the UK claims that the representatives of Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino have been approached by Manchester United.

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Pochetino, 43, has led Tottenham to second place in the Premier League in just his second season in charge at White Hart Lane and the Argentine coach is seen as one of the brightest young minds in the game. He will likely battle with his good friend Jose Mourinho to take charge of United.

With Louis Van Gaal‘s future at Old Trafford beyond this season still uncertain — he snapped at a journalist when being pushed about his potential exit after the 1-1 draw at Chelsea on Sunday — it seems as though the Red Devils are feeling out the possibility of replacing the veteran Dutch coach at the end of this season.

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Pochettino arrived in England in January 2013 and took Southampton from a newly-promoted club who were battling relegation to a top-eight team who produced several superb youngsters during his time at St Mary’s. Pochettino has replicated, and perhaps bettered, that success at Spurs with the likes of Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Dele Alli flourishing under his stewardship and Spurs have a real chance of winning the PL title this campaign as they currently sit five points behind leaders Leicester with 13 games to go.

Having been around Pochettino for a few years now both during his time at Saints and Spurs, he seems like an ambitious and driven character. If they chance to manage United came around, you get the sense it’s something he’d seriously consider. Who wouldn’t want to be THE man who turned around the fortunes of one of the world’s biggest teams and be lauded for returning them to glory?

That said, why would Poch leave Spurs?

He’s nurtured a hugely talented group of young players, the fans love him, he has a long-term contract until 2019 and there’s a bright future for the north London club as a new 60,000 stadium will be built on the White Hart Lane site in the next few years. Although that new stadium would provide Spurs with plenty of extra revenue in the future, Pochettino has urged caution for the upcoming years as he recently claimed a “tough period” would be ahead financially as the new stadium is financed. Talking about finances, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy wouldn’t let Pochettino leave without a fight and according to the report he’d likely demand $30 million in compensation for his manager. United may see that as a price worth paying.

Van Gaal, 64, still has a contract through the end of the 2016-17 season but with United currently six points off the top four, it seems increasingly unlikely he will remain in charge after this summer. Ryan Giggs — LVG’s assistant and a legend at United — is too inexperienced in the eyes of many to take charge, while Mourinho continues to be linked with United. After going with David Moyes and Van Gaal since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and neither of the experienced coaches able to return United to the top, maybe hiring a young, hungry manager is the way to go for the Red Devils?

Poch fits the bill.

VIDEO, PHOTOS: Premier League unveils new logo

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The Premier League will have a fresh new look for the 2016-17 season.

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Unveiled on Tuesday, a new logo and color scheme has been selected and for the first-time in league history there will be no corporate sponsor of the league.

The change still sees the iconic lion of the league used and it is now more prominent than ever in a simple yet striking design.

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In a statement on the PL’s website Premier League Managing Director, Richard Masters, explained the thought process behind the new look.

“From next season we will move away from title sponsorship and the competition will be known simply as the Premier League, a decision which provided the opportunity to consider how we wanted to present ourselves as an organisation and competition,” Masters said.

Below is a video unveiling the new logo, while you can also see some images of the new color schemes and the different ways the logo will be used.