Date: 7th April 2006 at 6:49pm
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Villa’s future seems to hang by a very slender thread

By Steve Wade

Back in the days when I had rather too much hair than was good for me, it was quite the thing, that whenever I was in town, I used to like to wander up to the top end of New Street, to take a look at the pine forest, which the moss and lichen, constantly watered by rainwater, had painted on the wall of the Post Office. It wasn’t instantly apparent you understand and it was really a test of the ability to go from one mental state to another, with the emphasis on the mental. These days its the wallpaper in my bedroom, which in the right light and in the right state of mind, starts to look like ranks of Mark Bolans blowing trumpets and there are still plenty of faces in the carpets and curtains, in odd moments of reverie. The psychologists tell us that the mind loves order and is in a constant flux, as it tries to impose its own desire for such, on a random world. Everything, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. But knowing this, does not rule out the tendency to see clouds which look like Morris Minors or the fall of a dynasty in the entrails of a goat. Or, a disaster in a single lousy football result.

I heard somewhere that the first time Richard Burton met Elizabeth Taylor, he found her so absurdly and stunningly beautiful, that he burst out laughing. I was reminded of this last week, when I finally plucked up the courage to watch the highlights of Villa’s trouncing at Highbury, in which some of the goals were so exquisite, that they had me guffawing with sheer amazement; or was that the nitrous-oxide I had medicated myself with, as a precaution. Yes, Villa were rank and perhaps Thomas Sorensen has had better games and has made better decisions but the sheer quality of Arsenal’s goals, at least afforded me the consolation, that even Villa’s best eleven would have lost, let alone one with a makeshift defence of gallant and hearty youngsters.

After the game, O’Leary had the distinct look of a bloke who’d just been caught out on a date with an ugly woman and if his detachment looked like a wise and intelligent response to the inevitability of the result, there was a sense that the cock crew, as he offered no empathy for the disconsolate Villa fans. History seems to suggest that when things are not going well on the pitch, a manager needs to pick his words carefully, as the fans seek consolation for the inconsolable and at the very least, a bit of face-saving spin.

Meanwhile, Psycho Pearce seems to be erring a little too much on the side of empathy and outrage on behalf of City’s long-suffering fans. He even called his players ‘a bunch of honest lads’ this week, which is considered by many to be one of O’Leary’s more irritating pet phrases. I like Pearce but his theatrical expressions of passion can look a bit contrived. He reminds me of Trevor Francis, who amusingly bought himself an expensive identikit overcoat when he became a manager, which was the sartorial choice of the top European bosses at the time. It really was a comical reminder that he was rather desperate for a convincing authoritative image. Pearce seems to be struggling too and the biggest mystery to me, is how he can go from screaming passion, to cool, calm and collected ambassador, in the time it takes him to walk from the dugout to the post-match interview. Where in my case, it takes me at least four hours to see reason after a defeat and perhaps a decade, or so, to accept a lousy refereeing decision, if ever. So, I don’t take all his guff at face value. He’s obviously playing to the gallery. But once he has been pilloried for his sincerity in the press, which is inevitable, I am sure he will become as inscrutable as the rest them.

But when all is said and done, it is easy to overreact to a five-nil drubbing. And, taking the wrong message from such a result, whether being on the right end or the wrong end, is the real danger, and I seem to remember that England’s five goals against Germany, tended to paper over the cracks, of a less than totally convincing defensive performance by Eriksson’s boys. On subsequent viewing and without my ‘let’s bomb Dresden’ head on, the Germans didn’t actually play that badly apart from their central two of Nowotny and Linke, and Kahn was uncharacteristically poor, while the talented Deisler had a nightmare, as he missed a sitter and then gave away the freekick, which led to England’s equalizer. Campbell and Ferdinand were all over the place but were lucky enough to get away with it. Germany, I seem to remember, did slightly better in the subsequent World Cup, as they treated the drubbing as a diagnosis of their problems rather than an excuse to go off with the fairies.

O’Leary was right, when he said that had Villa taken one of the two chances they carved out, early in the game, it would have been a different contest. But without the quality, or the physical power of Bolton, say, it was always going to be a big ask for Villa. And, while most fans are numb to all thoughts of the future, due to the grave doubts which surround it, O’Leary was not slow in acknowledging the glaring contrast between the prospects of the two clubs. This was only one result but it almost seems that Villa’s history is the actual inverse of Arsenal’s. Villa dominated the era up to the First World War, while Arsenal were in financial chaos and were just about bankrupt by 1910, and it seems that from that time onwards, Villa have been in decline, while Arsenal have been the model of consistency and forward-thinking. While the Arsenal legacy of Norris and Herbert Chapman, seems to be echoed in their bold new stadium, the dynasty of McGregor has been pissed into the wind by countless pusillanimous custodians of Aston Villa.

Villa’s future seems to hang by a very slender thread, in these last few weeks of an increasingly disastrous season and it requires a team of players, some of whom have rather convenient get-out clauses which will insulate them from the ultimate consequences of failure, to play their hearts out and prove that they are worthy of considering themselves the best in the Midlands. When it comes to the battle at the bottom, I have no doubt that Villa have the edge when it comes to the quality but whether they have enough passion and love for the club, remains to be seen. Come midday Sunday, it will need a few of the older players to puff out theirs chests, stand tall and prove that they are the players, they like to flatter themselves they are, and simultaneously do the fans proud, while putting the nightmare of relegation firmly behind them. Alas, Albion’s last minute equalizer last season suggests the hoodoo is with them these days and so I far from expect, a Collymore-inspired type of thrashing, of not so long ago.

But I can’t help noticing that it is Grand National day tomorrow and it is exactly 50 years since the disaster of Devon Loch – will the faller, within touching distance of the winning-post, be Villa or Chelsea?