29th December 2012. Villa Park. 56 minutes. Arouna Kone rounds Brad Guzan and slots home into anunguarded net. Aston Villa 0 Wigan Athletic 3. Thus concluding the Christmas from hell. The heaviest defeat in their history at Stamford Bridge followed by a home drubbing by Spurs. 3 games. No goals. 15 conceded. This is not just any run of the mill relegation candidate. This is Aston Villa. The side once destined to the break the exclusive membership of the Top Four. The team who provided a major core of our national team. But suddenly the Championship looks a whole lot clearer on the horizon than the Champions League. Obviously something has gone dreadfully, dramatically wrong. But what? What factors contributed to the rapid fall of one of English footballs’ most ambitious clubs?
Aston Villa in the Champions League? Title underdogs? It just doesn’t sound right. Aston Villa the underachieving relegation dark horses? Much more familiar. The transition has almost occurred overnight. Their plight really has been that rapid. Flash back to 2006 and the man who led Celtic to the UEFA Cup final grabbed the reins at Villa Park. Martin O’Neil. A proven winner in the SPL. A man with the drive, the determination to take Villa back to where they belong. A sixth place finish in 2006/07. Not bad. But this was only the beginning.
2009/10 was the year everything changed. People began to sit up and take notice. For the first time since 2005, the “Big Four” were no longer safe. With one of the strongest squads in the league, Villa were perfectly equipped for battle. An army of England squad regulars. Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, Emile Heskey, James Milner and a young forward, Gabriel Agbonlahor. The man fated to lead to England frontline for years to come. A 3-1 win at Anfield was just a sign of things to come, foreshadowing the success certain to follow, an indication of the quality Martin O’Neil had assembled at his club. An incredible, inconceivable victory at Old Trafford soon followed. The first time they had triumphed over Sir Alex on his own hallowed turf. The term “Theatre of Dreams” had never been more apt. A winner from Agbonlahor, whose duo poly with John Carew was one of the most feared in the league.
The workmanlike, dependable midfield roused by inspirational captain, Stilyan Petrov. And in Brad Friedel, Carlos Cuellar, Richard Dunne, James Collins and Steven Warnock they had one of the tightest, toughest defences in all of Britain. 8 clean sheets in 10 games from December to February. Just 39 goals conceded all season. After three years of building, of constructing a team ready to challenge for the top spot, Villa were getting closer. Six points off the top four and a Wayne Rooney winner away from a League Cup trophy at Wembley, everything pointed to 2010/11. The title was beckoning. And with United, Liverpool and Arsenal weak and vulnerable, Villa were ready to pounce.
But then, it all went horribly, horribly wrong. Villa fell as quickly as they had risen. In the week preceding the season, Martin O’Neil, the man who had lead Villa to just a second ever Wembley appearance, announced his resignation with immediate effect. A week later, PFA Young Player of the Year, James Milner hopped aboard the blue moon bandwagon. Manager and star player gone. Disaster. Those, albeit optimistic, title dreams faded into delusion. The season couldn’t have started any worse, right? Wrong. Matchday Two. Newcastle 6 Aston Villa 0. Catastrophe. The board reacted quickly. Gerard Houllier was reigned in to fill a gaping O’Neil shaped hole. But the Frenchman couldn’t stop the rot. The ambitious yet heroic Villa team of the previous season was now a distant memory. The desire remained, as the club record signing of Darren Bent proved, but the quality had gone. Agbonlahor was a mere shadow of his former self, contributing just three goals all season. Houllier departed after just nine months and Villa slumped to ninth in the table. It may have been a poor season, but these days the top half looks like a distant dream.
2011/12. A nightmare from start to finish. With Houllier following O’Neil’s footsteps, Villa needed a new man at the helm of what was quickly becoming a sinking ship. The England stars came to their senses and jumped into the lifeboats. The £36million generated from the sales of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing was wasted hideously on Alan Hutton and Charles N’Zogbia. A proposed appointment of the “wally with a brolly” Steve McLaren prompted a “strongly worded” letter from Villa fans. If that was “strongly worded” imagine the letter sent when Alex McLeish, the man who twice took arch-rivals Birmingham down, was put in the hot seat. Cue a campaign that can best be described as “forgettable” from a neutral point of view. The Villa fans’ view is probably not printable. The sight of McLeish’s bus, parked directly in front of the Villa goalmouth was enough to alienate the masses. 16th place and fewer goals than games, you didn’t need a crystal ball to see his sacking coming.
And so, the challenge rests squarely on the shoulders of one Paul Lambert. A double promotion winner with Norwich. Regarded as one of the finest young managers in Britain. The man to rejuvenate, revitalise Aston Villa. But the problems are mounting. They are looking uncomfortably, uneasily up at rivals West Brom in the footballing pyramid. Stricken star Stilyan Petrov’s footballing future uncertain, Richard Dunne injured, James Collins sold, Darren Bent frozen out. Only the consistently inconsistent Christian Benteke can be considered a relative success. The dearth of experience is visibly an issue. The team hammered so cruelly, so ruthlessly at Stamford Bridge had an average age of just 23.
How can you dig yourself out of an increasingly deep hole when you don’t have the experience to figure out how? Usually a youthful team would look to their manager to motivate them but, in reality, Paul Lambert has about the same sum of top tier experience of many of his players. That Aston Villa side of 2009, who looked so destined for voyages to the San Siro, the Allianz Arena and the Camp Nou is gone forever, a cruel memory of what might have been. Villa are in freefall. They need something, or someone to come to their rescue. You can’t get away from it; they are well and truly mired in a relegation dogfight. Fighting tooth and claw may not be enough. They need a miracle. And that’s a lot of pressure on a young, inexperienced team. Football is rarely certain, but we can rely on this; the Championship is a lot closer than the Champions League for Aston Villa.
Written By Daniel Owen