Villa and the World Cup – what might have been
These are tough times to be a Villa fan. Perhaps the worst of times, in fact. The hangover following the play-off final defeat had barely begun to ease when we were left reeling by a new round of unwelcome revelations. The suspension and departure of the CEO, Keith Wyness, the overdue, unpaid tax bill, and the threat of administration. A series of horror stories. Who knows what lurks in the future for Villa, over the coming weeks and beyond?
Still, at least the World Cup is here. A few blissful weeks of football that we can simply enjoy, without the gut-wrenching, nerve-shredding feeling that chasing a promotion spot in the Championship brings. A welcome distraction. Or is it?
By nature, us Villa fans tend to be glass half empty creatures than the other way around – you can’t blame us, given our recent history – and there’s a temptation to look at things slightly differently. You might look at the England squad and see a talented group of players who are starting to gel quite nicely, and who might – just might – do a lot better than expected. Okay, England won’t win the World Cup (it’s been a rule for the last 50-odd years) and a sneaky look at the odds here for reaching the final shows they’re not even really in the running. But even so, a place in the last eight looks achievable and, all things considered, that really wouldn’t be bad at all.
But no; I look at the England team and think what might have been for Villa. While we toil away in the Championship, bracing ourselves for what looks a campaign with a bang average squad, I look at the former Villa players who’ll be competing in the World Cup this summer. They used to be at Villa. They could still – perhaps should still – be at Villa. And who’s knows where we’d be now if they were?
This one infuriates more than any of the others, perhaps. Why? Because his departure was so avoidable. Cahill as highly rated at Villa. He’d already scored an absolute worldie against the Blues and could have been our first choice centre-back and captain for a decade. But Martin O’Neill preferred to sign journeymen like Zat Knight and James Collins, Cahill was deemed surplus to requirements, and we sold him to Bolton – Bolton! – for £5m. A footballing crime.
Young was brilliant for Villa, for several years. We knew he was going to go – his contract was winding down and unlike a certain someone else, who we’ll get to shortly, he didn’t make any public declarations of staying. He joined Manchester United and despite that, we felt pleased for him in a way because he was at least taking a step up. The only ‘what if’ about it was this: what if Martin O’Neill had stayed? Because if he had, Young may have been tempted to stay, too. As it was, it became clear during Gerard Houllier’s solitary season at Villa that the club was beginning its decline – who could blame Young for looking elsewhere?
Here he is, Delph. His nickname of ‘The Snake’ may seem bitter and churlish, but we need to remember the circumstances of his departure. He was key – absolutely key – to the Villa. We depended on him, massively. When Man City showed an interest in the summer of 2015, a move seemed on. Then he suddenly, magnificently, declared his loyalty to Villa. Brilliant! And then, just as suddenly and a whole lot less magnificently, he changed his mind and signed for City anyway. Villa dropped like a stone without him, and Delph won the title with City. So, things worked out pretty well FOR HIM.
It’s largely been forgotten that Villa had a small, yet significant, part to play in the rise of Walker. He was barely getting a game for Spurs when we took him on loan in January 2011. He scored on his Villa debut, played out of his skin for the next few months, and got an England call-up. That, in hindsight, might have been the worst possible outcome for Villa because suddenly, everyone else realised what a player Walker was. Villa’s chances of securing a permanent transfer melted away; he signed a new five-year deal with Spurs that summer. Villa signed another right-back from Spurs instead: Alan Hutton. Gah.
Oh, yes – don’t forget the coach. Southgate spent six pretty successful seasons at Villa, winning the 1996 League Cup, reaching the 2000 FA Cup Final and playing regular European football. In short, he’s closely linked to better times. Given our recent struggles to hire a decent manager, we can’t help but look at Southgate’s calm, reasoned, clear-thinking focus – all qualities he’s shown so far during his time with England – and wonder whether he’s someone we should have reached out to a few years ago.
Of course, there are some current Villans playing at the World Cup – Mile Jedinak (Australia), Birkir Bjarnason (Iceland) and Ahmed Elmohamady (Egypt), so when we’re not watching England, we can cheer them on from our TVs. Whether they’ll all be Villa players come August remains to be seen…