Date: 5th October 2009 at 12:22pm
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Keen observers of Sheriff Kimbo`s Monthly Musings will be aware that there was no issue in September. What, no-one noticed? Right, okay… Fine…

I return in October on the day we play Manchester City. A team that last summer were supposed to be a much bigger danger than us to the top 4. The same was said this summer, but unfortunately it seems quite a bit more credible this season. Obviously, the media aspect to the game tonight is Gareth Barry.

It would be futile of me to suggest that Barry had not crossed my mind; he`s a good player, and he was here for 12 years. I have to be honest and say that in the big scheme of things I just REALLY want us to beat Manchester City because I want Aston Villa to be top 4 material and while there is an outside – and it is only an outside – chance that one of them may be dislodged this season, it would be a minor miracle to see two of them go. Of course, Arsenal are seen as the team that are most vulnerable, and Liverpool rely VERY heavily on Gerrard and Torres so if both of them got injured for a long period… but I digress. The point is that, to me, tonight is one of our biggest games of the season. The fact that Gareth Barry plays for them will just turn out to be the icing on the cake or the salt in the wound.

I don`t want to talk about Barry much more. So I will just say what I said in my latest ‘Week in Villa` column; I will not clap him tonight because, apart from the fact that his relationship with Villa fans is still a tad tarnished from the Liverpool saga, some of the comments he made after leaving, like he left to ‘guarantee his England place` – yeah, because he was having such a hard time keeping it under the employment of Aston Villa! – were quite offensive. But at the same time there is no way I am willing to boo him because for twelve years he was a great servant and, to his credit, he at least tried to be respectable (by a modern day footballers standard anyway) when he left.

But that`s enough about Gareth Barry. There are bigger issues for us as followers of Aston Villa. For example, the manager…

Ah, Martin O`Neill.

I genuinely like Martin O`Neill. I think he`s funny. I also feel sorry for him in some ways, as some of the criticisms I read of him are bang out of order from people whose opinion I have minimal respect for anyway i.e. Tony Cascarino! I also have sympathy when people criticise him for how he speaks, mostly because I have a tendency to be quite similar in as much as I can sound quite unsure of what I am saying with my occasional hesitations etc, which is probably one of the reasons that I found writing an absolute enjoyment at such a young age. Basically, I like MON and was delighted when he was appointed Villa manager.

You know, I don`t ask for a lot from a Villa manager. All I really want is the team to play as well as they are able to, as consistently as they can. This essentially means that all I want from MON, in the big scheme of things, is that he assembles a squad that has enough quantity and quality to deal with all that is thrown at them during the season, and that they are organised and motivated enough to perform as consistently well as possible.

Towards the end of last season, the ‘MON factor` that had been evident from his first game away at Arsenal in 2006 through to early 2009 disappeared. The tactics that had brought us a superb unbeaten run and a magnificent amount of away victories were tossed aside to allow Emile Heskey into the team and return to 4-4-2.. The ability to come back from behind no longer seemed to be strong. The confidence and motivation seemed to be waning. This all seemed to come together in the opening day debacle that was Wigan at home; clueless tactics, players not playing like a trademark MON team and a real concern for the season ahead. As much as we had a decent pre-season, all that went away in 90 minutes as the bad memories of majority of the last dozen or so games from last season came flooding back.

That was a new low for me. See, I`m an optimistic person by nature. Hell, every time I buy a lottery ticket I am already spending my millions in the back of my mind! I`m also realistic enough to know that I shouldn`t be disappointed when inevitably I`m not a millionaire. As a football fan, for many years I believed Villa could mount a title challenge and a couple of times we did come close, but when we didn`t win the league I knew it wasn`t something I should EXPECT, just something I could hope for. In recent years the ‘Sky 4` nonsense has changed that and the same ambitions are now limited to finishing fourth – a sad indictment on football today but that is a different conversation for a different time. I believe we are capable of putting up a fight for fourth, but the record books show how difficult that is so I know not to get too disappointed if we don`t do it. As long as we put up a good fight and I am entertained on the way, I will generally be happy enough, providing I think we`re making the right kind of progress that means we will give it a real genuine fight to get back up there. That doesn`t mean I don`t want the club to show big ambition, but I understand these things don`t happen overnight – although Manchester City are trying to destroy that theory! – and as long as I have enough hope that we will get there, I`m fairly easy to please.

Somewhere, I recently lost faith we could do that. The bad run towards the end of last season, the debacle against Wigan and the stubborn insistence on playing 4-4-2 meant I couldn`t see us improving again this season. In fact all I could see was us going backwards. While I have never been of the blind faith of MON (I cringe when people call him ‘The Messiah`), having openly criticised some of his tactics and signings, I had always had a belief that, given what was available in the market and with the ultimate end product on the pitch, he was the right man for the job. That belief left me recently, and I`d even started to think about whom else could do a good job as Villa manager. Rapid Vienna followed and while I was pleased to see the 4-4-2 left alone, I saw nothing in the performance that made me change my mind.

Then Liverpool happened. It`s almost cheesy to say this, but how typically Martin O`Neill that was.

It wasn`t that all my faith was restored that night, nor was it with the subsequent winning run. After all, the Vienna win was seriously tarnished by the fact that we ‘crashed` out of Europe. But somewhere in the recent wins, I saw the belief again. Was it simply down to the change of formation? I hope so. If it goes deeper than that, then whatever problems there were in the dressing room may just have been sorted. I don`t know. I don`t even know if this was a genuine return to form or just a false dawn.

What I do know is that, after returning to the 4-5-1 formation that I and many others have been asking him to do since February, we looked like that Villa side that had ‘the MON factor` – whatever that means!

We then followed that up with a win against Pompey in a 4-4-2 formation. This was not a decision I had an issue with because Pompey would no doubt have been delighted with a point and we needed to attack them. I was disappointed to see us stay 4-4-2 for the Blackburn game, though. Our midfield was very stretched, and the most annoying thing is it is not even like that personnel can`t play 4-5-1, as if you look at the way we lined up at the end against Fulham, we had Carew in the middle with Gabby and Young either side. Milner was inside with Petrov and Sidwell. Swap the latter for Delph and that, for me, is how we should have started against Blackburn.

Tonight, whatever three it is from Petrov/Sidwell/NRC/Delph/Milner and whatever three it is from Milner/Agbonlahor/Young/Carew – well, as long as Milner isn`t selected twice, cause that`ll leave us with ten men! ;o) – I want to see that formation. This is a big game, against a team that will play in such a way with the likes of Tevez/Ireland that the midfield battle will be crucial; if we play 4-4-2, I can not see us winning. Of course, if we play 4-4-2 and win, feel free to ram them words down my throat! (Not literally. That will hurt).

On the subject of MON, people will talk about his biggest challenges in terms of getting Villa into the Champions League, winning silverware, attracting the best players to Villa and so on… Not so. His biggest challenge is winning a game in March! I am sure we are already working on a strategy to get our March games postponed…

I see the League Cup drew us away at Sunderland. That could have gone better for us, as Sunderland are a Premiership side taking the competition seriously. I think if we get through this, we have a great chance of winning it. The day out at Wembley against Leeds in 1996 was one of my favourite days as a Villa fan. It was my second trip to Wembley, but it was only the first time I was able to take in the match build-up… You see, in 1994, my first trip to Wembley was again a great day. We were the underdogs, we stopped ManUre getting the domestic treble, and I loved it. Unfortunately, we were late for kick off because our bus – supplied by Aston Villa! – broke down on the way to the ground! So we got in just after it kicked off. I remember it well… mostly because my first thought was, “Graham Fenton? Where the hell is Ray Houghton?”, but at least it all worked out. Given our last Wembley final in the FA Cup against Chelsea was a horrible performance and back in 2000, I really want us to get to the new Wembley in one of (or both, what the hell!) the domestic Cup Finals – oh, and to go win the darn thing!

I was please to see the Randy Lerner rumours being rubbished, by the way. Not that I would have an issue if we had Man City style money. But their board has even come out and said this is the only window they will have like this. I`m sure they will not be short of a few bob in the future but I like the way our club is run. There are frustrations, of course there are. But that is true of every club. No, seriously!

Well that`s your lot. I`ll be back with another issue in November. Probably!