Great Expectations? by Andrew Robins of Heroes And Villains
It may seem a fanciful claim, given the litany of broken managerial careers it has produced, but these days the Aston Villa manager job should be one of the easiest in football.
Think of the cumulative effect of seven years of hopeless, abject under-performance and horrific football. The season after season of circling the plug hole trying desperately not to go down the sink. The repeated smashing of unwanted record after unwanted record – longest losing streak, most goals conceded, time without a win – all of this culminating in the achievement of not just a relegation, but one of those ‘comedy` ones people remember for years. Not quite bad as Derby County`s eleven point season, but only five points better.
You want literary – we give you literary
By now we should really be amongst the easiest to please fans in the country. All we want to see is a bit of entertainment, just a little bit of quality. Perhaps a few wins, or at the very least a team prepared to have a go at winning.
These are all the basics in the unwritten contract between fan and club which have been missing at Villa Park for far too long now.
With the benefit of hindsight, the not-too-bad ninth place achieved in the Gerard Houllier year makes that season look like a strange interregnum between the happy times of Martin O`Neill and his sixth place finishes and the darkest days of the McLeish, Lambert, Garde, Di Matteo era.
These have been truly terrible times for us. Not the worst ever, admittedly – we are not in the third division, for example – but bad times nonetheless.
How many times in that period have we come away from Villa Park feeling energised by what we have seen? How many times have the side excited us? How many decent performances have we seen? In how many of those games did we look like anything other than a side on death row?
We`ve had our false prophets, too – when we`ve allowed our hopes to rise over that period, we`ve ultimately watched them get crushed. Think, for example, of the FA Cup excitement under Tim Sherwood.
We take Liverpool apart at Wembley in the semi-final. Yet again we allow our hopes to rise that maybe this can be our year in the Cup at long last. And then what happens? We combine a truly embarrassing final performance and a season`s run-in of abysmal quality.
Sherwood wasn`t the only one, though.
Put aside the lingering memory of Paul Lambert sitting next to Roy Keane on our bench looking like a haggard pair of smelly-bearded rough sleepers, and think back to his first season, back when he was still the fresh-faced young manager with new ideas in his first big job.
On paper, it was a dreadful season, as we finished fifteenth. There were some truly awful results that year, too. Our 8-0 reverse to Chelsea (biggest defeat in league football, another unwanted record) stands out. In case that result alone wasn`t bad enough, we followed it up by losing 4-0 to Spurs and 3-0 to Wigan.
What the record books do not show, however, is that at the end of that season, Lambert held on to a significant amount of support from the fanbase, a very strange situation indeed in modern football.
The reason for this was that we could at least see what he was trying to do. Yes, we`d bought a load of cheap youngsters, crossed our fingers and hope it magically turned out well (on reflection, a truly stupid thing to do). No, the results weren`t appreciably better than in the darkest days of the McLeish year. We`d even managed to throw in a cup-related embarrassment, by getting to the semi-finals of the League Cup only to screw up in horrible, tragi-comic circumstances and lose to Bradford City.
But Lambert was trying to get us to play football, and at the time, we`d seen enough miniscule glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel to persist with him in the role, particularly at the end of the season, when he`d got us from what seemed an impossible position by attacking our way out. Of course, the aforementioned light turned out to be that of a fast approaching train, which ploughed right through us and shattered our naïve hope, but it had been a chance we were willing to take.
All we had wanted was to be able to hope that one day, it might be fun to watch Villa play again, or that there might be another time where we`d start matches with a realistic hope we might emerge with three points.
And that is why, in 2017, we should be the easiest fans to please.
Steve Bruce has certainly done enough to lift the spirits thus far. It hasn`t been a magnificent season, but at the same time, there have been more moments of happiness thus far than in the entirety of last season, or indeed in any of the previous seven.
As I write, we are in second place in the current form league. We`ve lost one of our last ten league games, winning seven of them. We are in the play-off positions. We very rarely play football which is pleasing to watch, but we are cranking out enough results for us to be in the promotion mix. We are putting together a credible case to be in with a shout to go up come the later part of the season.
In short, we are doing exactly what a Steve Bruce side does. This is how he operates, and this is precisely how he has got himself a reputation as a manager who knows how to get sides out of this league. Before the season started, a Hull City supporting friend of mine tipped me off that under Bruce it will “never be much fun to watch, but it`ll be effective” – a little like a slightly more palatable Sam Allardyce, and it is hard to disagree with that assessment.
The first, immediate challenge for the club is to get back where we belong, which is of course in the top flight. Getting out of this league before the parachute money runs out, before time catches up with us and before we, like Forest and a few other clubs who also thought they were dropping in to this division for a holiday, become a fixture and find ourselves spending over a decade here, this is what is vital.
With the strength of squad we have, for the money we have spent, that challenge should not be an insurmountable one, and we are showing plenty of signs we`ll be there or thereabouts come May.
That would make this a season to be pleased with, one which would give us plenty of reasons to smile. A year of real success after the grim austerity of the previous seven.
Once back, though, the question will be how the club reacts to it, given the chance to ‘reset` and begin to build again, this is obviously going to require money (what doesn`t in football?), but it is also going to require the sort of guile, acumen and joined-up thinking, all qualities utterly lacking under Randy Lerner.
Making a success of it and getting this club back to where it should be – which means not just staying in the top flight but also not looking like a spangly version of Wigan, fighting the drop year after year – is where we will really get the chance to see what Messrs Xia and Wyness are made of.
Here`s hoping we end up with greater expectations.
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