While the country remains in a state of drought (officially at least) the rain continues to pour over Villa Park. Defeat at home to Bolton on Wednesday night signified the moment that Aston Villa’s arid form culminated in officially being a member of the relegation dogfight club.
Unlike Tyler Durden’s famous underground gild the first rule of this club is you do talk about relegation, a lot. It is a prospect that is now undoubtedly the focus of every Villa fan’s thoughts and conversations with West Midland’s biggest club lying just three points above the drop zone with only three games remaining. Villa have one just one of their last ten league games drawing five scoring just eight goals. The last ten games represent Villa’s season in a nutshell.
The appointment of Alex McLeish in the summer was both a controversial and curious one. Appointing the manager of your fiercest rivals is guard for fans to digest at the best of times but when it follows a season where the man in question led his team to relegation it becomes a pill all the more toxic to swallow. Of course McLeish delivered the blue half of Birmingham with the Carling Cup but knockout football is a peculiar beast where lesser outfits can prosper either through a fortunate passage or just through plain defying of the odds in one-off games. For these reasons it must be treated with caution when judging a manager’s ability whereas league standings provide a much more reliable source of information.
The curious nature of McLeish’s appointment suggests he may simply have been the only manager willing to work with such barren resources. The Villains have had an extensive injury list this season and have had to turn to youth, in some cases not yet ready for full throttle Premiership action in order to plug gaps in the team. Despite Gerard Houllier somehow convincing Randy Lerner to part with £24million for Darren Bent in January 2011 the summer of 2010 appears to be a watershed moment in Villa’s recent history.
After three seasons of significant investment and subsequent flirting with Champions League qualification only to be found wanting it appeared Randy Lerner no longer viewed such ambitions as financially viable or indeed sustainable. O’Neill resigned over this admission of defeat and a talented squad was subsequently cherry picked by the leagues bigger clubs. It is a lesson that Newcastle and Spurs may learn this summer; fail to get Champions League football and the talented squad of nearly men will be easy pickings for top four vultures. The ease with which allowed this process play out smacked of an almost blatant admission that Villa now saw mid-table stability as the total of their ambitions and ones they felt Alex McLeish was able to sustain.
Nevertheless, McLeish’s links with the Birmingham meant that before a ball was even kicked fans wanted him out regardless of budgetary constraints out of his control. This was arguably exacerbated by an inevitably uninspiring summer transfer folly which saw Charles N’Zogbia as the only notable addition. The Frenchman has not helped McLeish’s cause producing a string of under-whelming performances as he cements his place in the category of players frustratingly incapable of capitalising on abundant natural talent. McLeish was disliked, distrusted and by some even hated purely based on his previous employers. Yet, worryingly such anger at this affiliation with their second city rivals has been heightened and even superseded by the football he has fostered on the pitch.
McLeish’s employs a brutally negative brand of football varying this season from the turgid to downright inept. Villa operate with an incredibly solitary one up front relying on unashamedly direct and long balls to feed him rather than any form of progressive passing play. A fact highlighted by an almost embarrassing 53% pass completion rate against relegation threatened Bolton. To his credit Darren Bent performed this isolated role admirably and his injury along with the loss of skipper Stylian Petrov through illness have sparked Villa’s fall from morose mid-table mediocrity into the three fixture shoot-out for survival.
With the loss of their most experienced midfielder and only established striker Villa have been foolish to continue with such a negative approach. Furthermore, for some fans such an approach sits uneasy even when producing moderately successful results and is deemed downright unforgivable when results are poor. When once asked about how to silence disgruntled fans, Brian Clough simply replied “win.” There is no greater truism in football. Deliver success an fans will almost conveniently forget their various gripes (including rival affiliations), but lose and the supporters memory is all too sharp and groans of discontent become ever more amplified. It is a fact Alex McLeish is learning with every defeat with every position slipped in the table.
As the rain continues to pour, Villa fans will be hoping they are not washed away from a league in which they have occupied residency since it’s formation in 1992. For Alex McLeish however the tide looks to be too strong and even Premier League survival may not be enough to save him.