Date: 25th March 2009 at 10:19am
Written by:

Where do we go from here?

Before I deliver my assessment of the situation Aston Villa football club is in, I want to make three things clear immediately. The first is that I am not anti-Martin O’Neill. He has, in many ways, done a very good job in the two and a half years he’s been at Villa. He has produced a competitive, and at times exciting team, who have shown a year on year improvement.

He has galvanised the team and the club as a whole, and this achievement should not be underestimated given the mess we were in when O’Leary was rightly given the sack. I also happen to have a warm regard for the man on a personal level, not that I’ve ever met him of course. But he is demonstrably a charming, likeable man who, more importantly, is a man of strong ethical principles (by which I mean that his teams conduct themselves in the right way, unlike the so-called big four clubs for example, and he won’t throw money at players because he appreciates the damaging effect wealth can have on a young footballer’s character and career). He also has a great passion for football, which has translated into a great passion for our club. For all this he deserves our respect.

That all said, I expect you will understand that these positive feelings haven’t prejudiced my judgement of his tenure. He is, like anyone, far from perfect. But this idea will be developed further in due course.

The second point I wish to make is this; although our recent run of results has been wretched, and although we’ve gone from – rightly – being odds-on favourites to finish in the top four, to outsiders, I still believe it possible for us to finish above Arsenal. Admittedly, I am less confident of this now than I was before the Liverpool game, and nowhere near as confident as I was, strange to say, after the Chelsea defeat. But I don’t believe the top four challenge is over, I sincerely hope O’Neill shares my belief, and I pray that he doesn’t allow the players to lose hope and settle for a ‘creditable’ top six finish.

And thirdly, I want to be up-front and confess that I am an optimist. Remembering this fact will be crucial in understanding all of what I’m about to state, with regards to my analysis of the competition we’re up against, and our prospects both in the coming two months, but also the coming years, should we finish in the top four this season, or should we fail to do so. But before I go any further, I should first explain what I mean when I say I’m an optimist. I’m defining an optimist as one who is a realist with a keen sense of the possible. This means that I am not satisfied with a level of success that is greater (and perhaps arguably far greater) than what has been witnessed in the last decade. Steady progress is usually laudable, and too rapid an expansion – invariably coupled with the absence of a firm foundation – will usually lead to medium- and long-term disaster. But when circumstances are right, rapid expansion can lead to medium- and long-term success…

Leaving aside the future (or at least the medium- and long-term future), I want to begin by focusing on the here and now, which I’ll put into context by revisiting our recent results and performances. I’ve already said that our recent run of results has been wretched, in all competitions, but for now I will concentrate on the league form – though I will address the cup competition results later. As tempting as it would be to begin with our win over Portsmouth (scene of Heskey’s debut), I’ll instead start with the 0-0 with Wigan. The performance was excellent, and nine times out of ten Wigan would have been embarrassed.

Instead, Wigan knew embarrassment of a rarer kind; embarrassment at escaping with a point. We followed this minor setback with a comprehensive defeat of Blackburn, suffering their first reversal under Allardyce. At this point, Arsenal were seven points behind us, and the gap only looked like widening. Then we played a reinvigorated Chelsea side. Again, we put in a strong performance, but Chelsea on the day were too good, suggesting that had their players been playing for the manager all season long, the early season predictions that they would win the league at a canter would have seemed perfectly reasonable. We weren’t far away from claiming a point – a point any side would have been happy with against the Chelsea we played that day.

Incidentally, a point was all Arsenal could manage against Sunderland. Next up were Stoke, our first fixture after the Moscow trip, and somehow we contrived to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory. It was an inexplicable, freak result, and not what our performance warranted. Yes, we were lax in the last five minutes, but nine times out of ten Stoke wouldn’t even have got a consolation goal, let alone an equaliser. Again, no luck at home, and we had gained just two points from a possible nine at Villa Park, a wretched return, despite the high standard of performance.

And then we played Man City. Or rather, we didn’t. That first half non-performance was worse even than the Liverpool performance. We caught a break for the first time since Hull away, and were ‘only’ 1-0 down at half time. Second half we improved, but in truth 2-0 didn’t flatter Man City. The darkest day of our league campaign up to that point. Surely we would turn it round against a brittle Spurs side with no kind of away form (4 points out of a possible 18, including defeats against West Brom and Newcastle). Again, we dominated the visitors, and it was scandalous that we went in at half time 1-0 down. Except it wasn’t. Despite our domination, something was missing, and we just weren’t convincing.

Then Spurs went 2-0 up early in the second half, again scoring a little fortunately, and we were beaten. And then Anfield. A debacle to be sure, but even then, in the first half, aside from the three ridiculously soft goals we conceded, we looked the more likely team to score. The less said about the second half the better, but as Brad Friedel’s promptly rescinded red card suggests, again we were luckless.

To summarise, the form actually hasn’t been that bad (and I’m talking about the team’s form rather than individual’s form). We’ve actually played well, but have not had the run of the ball (I don’t say we’ve run out of luck, because this would imply that we’ve been lucky this season, which simply isn’t true. Yes, we’ve rode our luck when we’ve had it, but we’ve been no more lucky than any other side near the top of the table. Luck is a crucial factor in football, and everyone needs a little (or in some cases a lot!) to win games.

However, there has been a difference since the Stoke game. We have continued to play quite well in parts, but we just haven’t looked convincing. There are all kinds of possible reasons why this is so, but I don’t intend to go into them here. The salient point is that, psychologically, if not physically, the team are on the floor. The last four results, coupled with Arsenal’s upturn, have constituted four severe hammer blows. And our next fixture is Man Utd away…

Leaving aside the detail of the coming two months, I want to talk about what happens when this season finally finishes. We will either finish in the top four, or we won’t, and I believe that the European competition we’re competing in next season will determine the course of our club’s fortunes in the short- and medium-term. I will look at the two courses before us – the Champions League course and the Europa League course, the first briefly, and the second in a little more detail.

Should we finish in the top four – and we still have a tremendous opportunity to do so – it will make all the difference in the world, in the sense that Aston Villa can continue on its current course of sure and steady progress. Firstly, Gareth Barry will stay (and just how important he is to us will only become clear should he leave). Secondly, the squad will be strengthened again, and one would assume with a higher calibre of player than previous seasons, because we will have a bigger budget, and more importantly, we’ll be able to compete for the best players because of the Champions League football we’ll have.

Thirdly, Arsenal will be in an uncomfortable position. Make no mistake, a significant proportion of their fan base would be disillusioned with their team (and perhaps rightly so), to such an extent that a lot of the money Arsenal are relying on to fund their stadium will disappear. That, coupled with the loss of Champions League money they would have budgeted with, would mean that assets would have to be sold, although the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie and Adebayor would probably want out even if Arsenal could afford to hang onto them. Taken together, these three factors spell consolidation for Villa in the top four, access to Champions League money, and therefore a platform from which to launch title challenges, and compete to win the Champions League. In short, an extremely bright, exciting future.

But what will happen if we don’t finish in the top four? Well, Gareth Barry will leave. Everyone knows this, and reasonable people (such as Martin O’Neill) understand it. It would be a footballing tragedy to see him leave, not only for the Villa fans and the club, but also for him. Anyone who underestimates his passion for the club hasn’t been watching these past eleven years. He would certainly leave with my blessing, as disappointed as I would be to see him at Liverpool, or anywhere else (mainly because he deserves better; he deserves to be with a Villa competing in the Champions League, season in, season out). But enough about Barry.

What would be the impact of his departure on Villa? We’d have lost our best player, with zero prospect of replacing him with a player of remotely comparable ability, let alone the intangible strengths arising from a player being at Villa as long as Barry. Straight away, we’d have been stripped of our ability to challenge the top four (with Arsenal unlikely to be anywhere near as vulnerable as they are this season), and would almost certainly struggle to compete with Everton. This would leave us battling it out for fifth and sixth only, except you’d think Man City and Spurs would have something to say about that, both of whom are guaranteed to invest heavily in the summer.

Suddenly, Aston Villa are a club struggling to qualify for European competition, rather than a club preparing for a long stint in the Champions League. Where will that leave the likes of Ashley Young? I think he’d be mad to move anywhere if we finished top four this year. But if we don’t, and Barry leaves, and Man Utd come looking for a replacement for Ronaldo, given he’s not a Villa fan, and given he’s been at the club just two and a half years, wouldn’t he be mad not to leave? Of course, we would be reimbursed handsomely for Barry and Young, but how are we going to replace them? Certainly not with comparable quality, and shorn of our two best players, the future suddenly looks very bleak.

These are, broadly speaking, the two possible futures that await us. Suddenly, the significance of this season becomes clear, and correspondingly, the decisions that Martin O’Neill has made, and the mistakes he has undoubtedly made, take on greater significance. Satisfactorily justifying his decisions and mistakes, should we fail to finish in the top four, would in my opinion be Martin O’Neill’s first, and perhaps last, task as Villa manager. I sincerely hope that his first task at season’s end is to offer Gareth Barry a new contract instead.

Simeon Hartwell


22 Replies to “So Where Do Villa Go From Here?”

  • Phoo! Interesting read. I’m going to take a positive spin on Barry leaving and suggest that perhaps we think he’s more important than he actually is. Villa have lost good players in the past and have gone on to win things, we’ll do the same if GB leaves. ___ Make no mistake, the season isn’t over yet. We’ll probably lose to Man U, but then starting with Everton we have a good run in. Arsenal don’t!

  • Rafa must have taken note of how he got *****ed all over by Gerrard, Alonso and Mascherano.

    I could still see him going to Arsenal though.

  • We need to stick by the team at all times and stop expecting so much. It is what it is. Im sure by now we have all got over the fact that Barrys PROBABLY gonna leave, so get someone young and fast in???? I think MONs realised by now we need a bit more creativity after other teams have twigged on to Ash. Remember Laursens on his way back so things can only get better.

  • Good article.

    With regards to Arsenal, they may appear to have hit form, but let’s face it. They have beaten WBA (bottom of the league), Blackburn (2nd from bottom at the time), a championship side, Hull who are also on a poor run, lost to Roma in 90 minutes and beat Newcastle (who are now in the bottom three). Hardly testing times for them. We will get a better view of how ‘in form’ they are when they play the top three sides.

    A point for us at OT would start to instill the confidence again for us to build on. Then we could do with a run like last season (15 goals in 3 games). The challenge for fourth spot would well and truly be on.

    UTV o/

  • If Liverpool lost Gerraard, then that would be the end for them, losing Gareth Barry will be bad but nowhere near that. We have a squad of 95% English players so there is the rest of the world to look around for a replacement. We must get some international quality in the summer for our national profile along with some flair to go with our team of grafters. Merson would’ve had a field day playing in midfield for us now but is MON capable of managing someone of that quality????

  • DoLpHiNaToR, its funny how you mention Arsenal’s opponents are not evidence of them being in form, yet you mention our 15 goals in 3 games from last season, remind me who were those goals against and where are those 3 sides now?

  • As for the article above, very well written, and sums things up nicely too, I am an optimist too (not that many would agree with that), but this season for me has been poor, I have not enjoyed the ride of some, and I am not convinced by O’Neill. I am really struggling to be optimistic for the first time in my life supporting the club. I want to be but unfortunately I am subjected to watch the shower every week!!!

  • great article. fair assesment especially on Barry and Young. see what happens come final whistle at home to newcastle, last game of the season.

  • I made it through the rain
    I kept my world protected
    I made it throught the rain
    I kept my point of view
    I made it through the rain
    And found myself respected
    By the others who
    Got rained on too
    And made it through

    There you go, a bit of Barry for you! Been through the bad times, LOVE the owners of the club, think on that basis we’ve never had it so good. On the manager, I’m not convinced. Others aren’t convinced. I think that is fair. I’m not sure anyone is calling for his head, just some aren’t digging the scene (blimey, I could quote the Blow Monkey’s now…!) as much as others. I don’t see that makes them bad or anti what is going on. I am yet to be convinced, I want to be convinced, I want to see what some see with the manager but frankly a lot of it is a shambles, the players in and then not played, the formations, the substitutions, the throwing away a good chance of European success (that honestly made me feel repulsed, that isn’t the spirit of Villa, don’t care who the manager is) etc. Can’t argue with the results and league position and on that basis (and the fact some of us did fight the good fight and had to be seen as constant moaners/whingers for years, remember it well Naz?!?!) I’ve enjoyed the ride. But even when we are winning, I’m just not convinced yet. Now that isn’t anti Villa, that isn’t asking for the managers head, I agree the manager-merry-go-round of the previous regime was THE major fault of their tenure. BUT I do wonder how many transfer windows we are going to be saying (as I always seem to!) ‘this is THE one’ only to see substandard (NOT ALL) arrivals who then warm the bench of get sold cheap/loaned out.

    For me Randy et al. BIG thumbs up and a yes. Manager – thumbs in the middle, slightly straining towards downward and hoping and praying said thumb (wtf am I going on about thumbs for) will end up right and totally happy.

    For that to happen, he need to play players in their position (not radical) not throw away games / cups (not radical) start bringing in realistic but better quality players (not radical) and to stop kicking his poor lucazade bottle on the touchline!

    All hail those with 100% faith in MON, seriously wish I was one. So do my mates and others I pm with on this site. I REALLY REALLY REALLY do hope you are proven right. At the moment I’m along for the ride, fairly bored of much of our home performances this season (and the fact he does the same thing over and over and expects different outcomes from it – as per someones excellent quote now in ‘random quotes’ in the forum) and still sick at what he did v CSKA. So basically, I’m waiting to see the light, lets hope this summer brings the right players in (lets face it we have one of only 2 world class players on their way out) to push on. Happy days.

  • yes mate – I remember them days (I miss ’em sometimes – at a loose end not being able to moan at the Villa Board – typical Brummie me – always whinging). I remember when Taylor was given the job the 2nd time and the interviewer on Five Live asked if I was gonna whinge and I said YES – I am Brummie after all! being told at that time to lay off and thing’s ain’t bad. I agree with what you say – and I don’t have blind faith in MON – but when people say they have no optimism for the future then surely they have never witnessed the real lows. Everyone has a right to opinions. I just wish people would remember where we have come from and how far we have come. Things are NOT that bad but some make it feel as though we are going backwards!. By the say didn’t know you were a Barry (Big Hooter) Manilow fan – knowing the words to his songs – kept that quiet didn’t you?

  • Barry leaving to go to Liverpool would be a big footballing mistake for him in my opinion. Having seen what happened to Robbie Keane and how Capello drops out of form players he would be taking a massive risk of getting into the World Cup finals squad let alone making the start line-up. I’m not sure Barry is the type of player who would maintain such high levels of form if he does not play almost every game. Also can you see Liverpool selling Alonso after the season he has had? If Liverpool are spending money in the summer they need 2 CFs 1 of which is world class (££££) and 2 wingers 1 of which is world class). 4 Players £60m. Surely a CM is not going to improve them!

  • the writter of the article contradicts his own points. Firstly you say that you are a optimist but you are pesimistic throughout the article by writting of your chances next season. you also state that Villa are not there in this position by luck but instead because they are good enough and they have played well but then you suggest that if you dont make the champions leagure this season then you will be overtaken by Mancity,Spurs and everton next season indicating that you do not have any confidence in your squad and you do think you are lucky to be in contention for the champions league spot.

  • Probably (no definitely) don’t get this sort of high quality article or realistic debate on Spuz sites. Its normally blind optimism from everyone. In this case its optimism over a very dark period of this year and I can’t see many disagreeing.

  • Both the name and the petulance. We need more players for us to feel confident, quality ones at that if (when) Barry leaves. Its alright for you yid fans because you guys spend money like its going out of fashion, something MON refuses to do.

  • 100% faith in anyone, except perhaps Sir Chewalot, is daft. Yet i think ol MON isnt too far, sure there have been odd transfers – Zat, Marlon etc. but given the weakness of our squad they’re understandable. Meanwhile some transfers were genius, Carew remains a nearly 1 in 2 striker, and a formidable centre forward, Milner, L. Young, Nige, Petrov etc. have been very good, and Ash has repaid his initially eyebrow raising transfer how many times? The meek collapse in the UEFA cup was lamentable, but had we recovered it might’ve been ‘genius’.

    How far have we come since DOL ‘n Doug? Im pleased with progress.

  • To be honest Naz, I had to google as I had the ‘made it through the rain’ in my head but couldn’t place it! I think we’ve never had it so good OFF the field and am just delighted that now the talk, positive or negative is aimed where it always should be for footie fans, on the team, the players, the manager and on the pitch stuff. So happy about that!

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