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2010 Away Match Reports

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blandy

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

New star in the sky (chanson pour Villa)

 
In my last article I looked at how the Club has communicated with us, over the search for a new manager, concluding that there were a number of things that could have been done differently. I said then that I had no complaints over what they'd done, just what they'd said, or not said. So now, given things have progressed on a deal, let's look at what they've done.

Randy and the board have been pretty thorough in searching for and appointing the replacement for Martin O'Neill. Given the appalling set of circumstances in which they had to operate - Martin walking out in a huff with just days to go before the season started, and little time left to act in the transfer window - the club seems to have acted with a great deal of professionalism. The board consulted with respected figures such as Graham Taylor, and also appointed, we believe, professional consultants to help and advise them on the search. It should be remembered that whilst undoubtedly hugely enthusiastic and admirably dedicated to the Club, Randy is not someone steeped in the history of UK football through long involvement.

Initially caught out, I suspect that there was a strong desire to see how Kevin MacDonald got on, perhaps with the hope that he would be the answer in already their lap. Kevin did a good job, but limitations as well as strengths were exposed, and it was clear that a wider search was absolutely necessary. Kevin, too didn't exactly thrust himself into the limelight, declaring "I want it". He betrayed an uncertainty over whether the demands of the job were something he wanted to accept to the detriment of a settled and enjoyable career, spending most of his time using his talents coaching players twice a day for the reserves, and being able to go home and enjoy his family life.

At this point the searching and tentative approaches became the priority. Again, because of the circumstances and timing, this was particularly difficult. Many possible candidates already in a job, would have just made their plans and commitments for the season at their clubs, just told signings that they would be around, just given commitments to boards that they would be staying and operating in a particular way over the season. Whilst players will move at the drop of a hat, good managers tend to be a little more loyal, having thought for the damage to their repuations that walking out on one job for another can do. How can they demand that players stay and play, if they themselves are known to have jumped at the first chance?

How would Mark Hughes have looked had we walked out on Fulham after just committing to a contract to work there for the next few years? What would it do to Everton if David Moyes left for Villa one week into the season? These are fine managers, and no doubt Villa would have been keen to talk to them were they available, but they weren't. Same goes for Martin Jol. It does seem that Villa made efforts to understand where these people and their Clubs stood.

It's also the case that Martin O'Neill had huge freedom to decide transfer fees, wages, to appoint people in all kinds of positions - and not just playing and coaching positions. This meant that when he left, a whole raft of people went with him, leaving a bigger hole than might otherwise have been the case. No doubt some of the advice given to Randy (not that he'd now need it) would be that this level of autonomy shouldn't be something that is repeated with the next appointment. The new man would need to be someone who would be given freedom to operate from a football perspective, free to choose his assistant, but who would accept that a degree of budgetry control from above will be imposed, and that outside his direct role, the coaching structure of the club will remain as it is in most respects. The scouting network could do with improvement, Martin perhaps saw little need for contacts and scouts beyond the UK, due to his preference for players already settled to the unique demands of British football.

Because of the level of finance involved in Premier League football, most appointments of managers to clubs at the upper half of the table tend to be risk averse - the desire for evidence of solid achievement far outweighs the urge to take a chance with someone from the lower leagues. Fear of failure and the consequences is just too large to gamble.

As fans of course we perhaps look for the wildly optimistic fantasy appointments - we want the next (or current) Morinho, Hiddink, Wenger, or maybe yearn for a former favourite to return like the prodigal son - in the way that Brian (blessed be his name, for he walks on water) Little did.

None of these were options.

So that left us looking for someone not currently managing, with experience (Premier league experience was identified as essential) with good contacts, able to work with a set of players that can't be changed until January at he earliest, with a record of achievement and someone wise enough to understand that they will not be the single arbiter of everything that goes on at the Club.

Put like that, of course, the choice of Monsieur Houllier seems like absolutely best one that could be made. Multi trophy winning, experienced and capable, and with something to prove, perhaps, after his latter time at Liverpool.

We don't know who will be his number two, but it should be someone of his choosing. Which brings us to what to do about Kevin MacDonald. He's clearly respected and admired, rightly so, by not just the players, but Randy and Co. Having belatedly, perhaps, decided he'd like the job, it must be difficult to work out what to do, for all concerned. Randy is a man of integrity and honour and he will want to do the best by Kevin. Equally Kevin will need to decide whether he wants to return to his happy life working with the reserves. If Gérard Houllier wants Kev to work as his assistant, then great, but if he would prefer someone else, then his choice must prevail.

In my view the board of our club has yet again done well. Only time will tell as to how things work out, but the choice looks like the best one from the possibilities available, the process undertaken, while lengthy has been thorough and comprehensive, not just a paniced dart to get someone quick, but an appraisal as to what is needed followed by matching those characteristics against candidates.

Our new manager has so far said only

"I could not turn down the opportunity to manage a club whose approach, both on and off the pitch, I have long admired. Villa is one of England’s biggest clubs and has an amazing set of fans. This is a tremendous challenge and one I am very much looking forward to taking on.”

In the way of these things, he's perhaps being slightly generous, given the gap to to Arsenal and Manchester United, the finances of Chelsea and Manchester City, the trophies of Liverpool, but Villa is a big Club, just one starved of success, and one with fans who are desperate for that situation to end. I hope our generosity towards him matches to towards us.

Bienvenue et bonne chance, Gérard.
 

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Don't Tell 'em Your Name Pike! - Villa's Media Strategy?

 
Everyone will know by now that on the 9th of August 2010 Martin O’Neill resigned from his job as manager of Aston Villa. Since that time, how has the club kept us informed (or not) on the search for a new manager?

The first obvious point to make is that the resignation clearly came as a surprise to the club. Indeed on 10 August General Krulak said on this site:
Martin's decision to leave was just that...his decision. He quit 5 days before the start of the season. He was not pushed out. Martin's decision was a surprise to the Club. 

So not an easy point from which to start - caught unawares at the worst possible time and therefore with no pre-prepared plan for announcements, or a strategy for addressing the worries and hopes of the fanbase.

But the early strategy was to get some sort of message across as to why Martin had left - The explanation given was a difference of opinion over the need to cut costs, and that the Club had some concerns at board level that players not being used needed to be moved off the wage bill.
General Krulak said on this site:
There is no question that if ANY Club has players that are on the payroll but not playing on the pitch...it is prudent to sell them if possible.... a Premiership Club must balance wages vs. revenue...cutting the wages must include the sale of some players
He knew full well about the need to bring wages in line with revenue...the same as every Premiership Club.
The reality is that the wage to revenue issue was not addressed and Martin apparently was unwilling to help address it.


no one person is bigger than our Club...not me, not Randy, not Paul, not Martin. What is interesting is that, apparently, only three of those named understand that fact.

So job done there, to an extent. It should also be pointed out that the General also spoke well of the good work MO'N had done for the club. Also apparent was that the ambitions of the Club have been reigned back a tad, sensibly so, perhaps, given new rules and the world financial situtation. “Spend spend spend” is no longer an option. 

The following day, 11 August, Randy Lerner broke his normal silence to tell the press: 
As for explaining why Martin left, I can say only that we no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward.

So line drawn. So far so good. Well handled, by and large, by the Club. What next?

The Club at this point were eager to appoint someone quickly - The General on 10 August told readers of VillaTalk
We recognize this is an important decision and one that needs to be done rather quickly but, equally important, in a manner that gets the right man

More good stuff. Nothing earth shattering, just a recognition of the priorities.

Unfortunately things then went very quiet for 10 days. Far too long. Supporters anxious to know what was going on, and seeing the sale of James Milner and a couple of poor showings on the pitch were becoming exasperated by both events and the silence. Speculation and fears filled the gap.

Aug 20: The General returned to tell our readers
General Krulak here: I think I have answered this question many times but....there is NO deadline on bringing in a Manager. We want to get the "right" person...not "a" person by a certain time. 

Hmmm, Nothing about the type of candidate the Club is looking for, nothing about anything really. Just a sort of "we're in no rush". Unsurprisingly this didn’t calm people down. If anything it made things worse from the fans' perspective. "Sure they say they want the "right" man, but what does that mean?"

Two days later, Aug 22, and The General also starts to become exasperated at the ferment building up on the messageboard: I am not going to answer MON questions...he left and that is that. What I will say is that MON did NOT have funds removed at the end of July....The idea that we must run out and get a Manager just to say we have a Manager does not make sense. 

The thing going wrong here is not just the lack of information, of reassurance, but also that the tone had changed with it. The information from the General was becoming reactive to the storm, rather than feeding us anything new. 12 days after saying the Club recognised an appointment needed to be made “rather quickly” there was now no sense of urgency, and no detail as to why timing was less important than quality. What sort of manager might we be looking for?

It’s harsh to put the blame for this vacuum with General Krulak. He undoubtedly does his best to pass on what he knows and what he can say, as often as his schedule allows. The problem is nearly 2 weeks elapse and the Club has basically said next to nothing about anything in terms of the next man. Sure, maybe we fans should be more trusting, but on the other hand perhaps silence is not the best policy at a time when reassurance is badly needed. With the transfer window close to closing - just a week to go, and clear weaknesses within the squad as well as the stated and widely accepted need to cut the wage bill, fans wanted to hear of progress - even if it wasn’t in the form of a name or shortlist of names, they wanted to know how the process was going, who was involved in deciding the criteria the new man would need to meet and so on.

This message was something the Club maybe seemed to begin to understand
Aug 23 General Krulak
..we are looking for a Manager. Please think about the issue...our previous Manager left us 5 days before the season. MOST talented managers are already employed...they have jobs...they are not sitting at home waiting for us to call. Yes, there are some out there that have great talent but they are currently doing something for someone else. This means digging deeply into the pool that is available...getting feedback and info from advisors on who and where. This is NOT something that is done in two weeks...yet that is what you expect. I am telling you it doesn't work that way but most of you will just gaff me off and say it is all PR.

And then another gap in communications, until, finally on 28th August, the General started to say something with a bit more meat to it - the sort of thing that the Club could and should have trailed 2 weeks earlier.

When MON left, the Club absolutely made up a list of Managers that we would approach. ...a new Manager is not something that happens overnight....we did not, in any way, stop the search/effort to research and talk with potential managers. That effort is ongoing....
Sometimes it would seem that the fans think that nothing is happening... Nothing could be further from the truth. Not a day goes by that we are not working this issue. ...Yes, we could get a Manager in...but we are not interested in "any" Manager, we are interested in the right Manager. It is as simple as that! 


We have spent MANY hours looking for the person....we have traveled and we have talked...JUST because it isn't spread all over the London Times does not mean that we haven't been working. 

How much better would it have been if that had been said well beforehand? - for example something along the lines of:

Immediately MON left, the Club made up a list of Managers that we hope to approach. Obviously a new Manager is not something that happens overnight, but we will not, in any way, stop the search/effort to research and talk with potential managers. That effort will be ongoing. Clearly we can’t make public all that is happening with regard to the process, and at times you may think nothing is happening, but that won’t be the case. Not a day will go by that we won’t be working this issue. Yes, we could get a Manager in tomorrow...but we are not interested in "any" Manager, we are interested in the right Manager. It is as simple as that, so please bear with us and trust that we are doing everything in our power to make the right choice. And remember that we will be traveling and talking and just because it isn't spread all over the London Times does not mean that we aren't working. 

Would that kind of information and reassurance have been helpful? What would have been the harm in it?

Anyway, they didn’t go that way, but by just short of 3 weeks after Martin left we had the following from the General:

I believe that Randy and the Club will be putting out a statement either today or tomorrow re. the efforts ongoing to find a Manager. Please don't misunderstand me, I am not saying he will announce a Manager. He does recognize, obviously, the concern of the Fans and will want the Fans to know essentially what he has done and when. As I indicated, he started taking action as soon as MON turned in his resignation and left 5 days before the beginning of the season. Randy has not stopped working the issue since that date. He has refrained from putting out a statement for many reasons...the two key ones are simply 1) that it is not good business to articulate your plans in the media...it causes too many problems and 2) it is not good for the Club to wake up every morning and read another article about another Manager that the owner is interviewing

Personally, I think the arguments for saying nothing are to an extent nullified by the fact that the press will not stop printing stories and speculation about the vacancy just because the Club says nothing, and that there’s a happy medium between silence and “revealing your plans”. 3 weeks is a long time to wait for a statement on the search for a new manager, isn’t it?

Below is a slightly shortened version of the statement from CEO Paul Faulkner, on the OS

Following the departure of our manager on August 9, the Club was left with very little time to react and to prepare for our opening fixtures.
Our first order of business, looking immediately ahead to our games against West Ham, Rapid Vienna, Newcastle and Everton, was to ask Kevin MacDonald to step in as caretaker manager... 
As such, we felt he would provide a critical degree of stability and continuity in a turbulent period and give the team the best opportunity to succeed in these early games.
We are conscious that we have steered clear of openly communicating our thoughts on the search for a permanent manager until this time, as we felt that to do so would undermine both Kevin's and the players' efforts to focus on preparing for these games.
To date, we have immersed ourselves in the process of appointing a new manager and clearly identifying the key criteria this person must meet.
Two of the traits we believe are of crucial importance are that candidates have experience of managing in the Premier League and a strategy for building on the existing strengths in our current squad.
We have thoroughly researched potential candidates and have reached out to a variety of contacts we have within the game for advice and guidance, as well as keeping key staff at Villa Park informed and focused.
We will now start the process of interviewing candidates we believe meet the key criteria required to manage Aston Villa with a view to making an appointment in the near future.
Kevin MacDonald will continue as caretaker manager until that time...
We would not expect to make any further statements until such time as we are in position to make a definitive announcement on the managerial situation.


That’s a bit better. Again, though, much of this statement could have been said weeks before it was finally made.
In my judgement it would have made little difference to media speculation - they could have left out the part about Prem experience and said all this much earlier, with no ill effects, but with the advantage of looking a lot more in control and professional to the paying supporters, sponsors and media. The explanation for saying nothing as it would undermine Kev MacDonald is both rather peculiar, and perhaps revealing of some naïvity.

Meanwhile the General has kept up his posting on our message-board over the last few days
Aug 30: discussing the Manager and the criteria is NOT something I am going to do. There is NO value in such a debate...for the Fans or for me. Randy has said he will announce the name...and I will just wait for that to happen.

Aug 31
Randy will find the "right" Manager for the Club. He cannot and should not react to every thought of every fan or every thought of every Board Member. At the end of the day, he needs to do what he feels is right. Some will agree with his decision, some will not....but it will be his. I can honestly say that names in the media are just that....names in the media. 

sep 03
...You have no idea who we are looking at other than reading the papers...and those that you have guessed correctly, you have something negative to say about all of them. Suppose we happen to pick one of them...or suppose we are trying to get one to come to the Club...I am sure they enjoy reading the blogs to see how our fans react to their names...and rest assured, anyone we would want is smart enough to do some due diligence on the Club and Fan base. Simply put, there are some Fans who have just turned on Randy like pit vipers... I have done all in my power to keep you all informed as to where we are...and there are some that just discount everything I say....we are continuing to work towards a resolution of this issue. WE didn't quit the team 5 days before the start of the season...WE didn't leave the Club high and dry. If you think that it is easy to go find a Manager, think again. You have mentioned some high visibility Managers...do you really believe we haven't spoken to them? You say we should throw money at them and they will up and quit their current Clubs...you know nothing!! For those who understand the issues we are faced and support us...thank you! For those who don't, I would only ask that you try to fathom the depth of the issues and the effort we have been expending since this all started.

I am not sure what "naming names" will do...now or after the choice has been made. What I will say is that there is not a single name that I have heard that hasn't been the brunt of VERY serious discussion. Simply put, we have discussed every name I have read on this Board and have done more than discussed with the VAST majority of them....We have interviewed and met with a significant number of people...spoken, written, etc. To think that we have only looked at two or three people is simply dead wrong. 


Now those 3 posts are a very mixed bunch, and betray a frustration that fans have become impatient and fractious and in some cases sceptical and distrustful, even. A reluctance to name names, and then confirmation that all those names the fans discussed were or are considered at some point. By now neither the General, nor many fans seem to be posting as rationally as perhaps they might wish.

To be frank much of the frustration and anger, even, has been caused, or at least exacerbated by poor communication from the Club.

It might be different in the real world, but on planet football, at a crucial time of the season, perhaps the most crucial - the transfer window - it is simply not possible to go without a manager, sell your best player, suffer an absolute shoeing to a side just promoted and a home cup defeat and say as little as they have about the search for a new manager, and not get a fair portion of the supporters concerned and angry about the lack of information, lack of squad reshaping and lack of direction and an apparent drift.

My concerns and complaints are not so much about what they have or haven’t done, but what they haven’t said, and the large gaps between when they have(n’t) said it.

In a world where communication surrounds us - internet, TV, radio, press twittering and all rest, people, fans, have become accustomed, for good or bad, to having information readily available. When the people are also your paying customers keeping them so much in the dark is a bad move. 

There’s no need for a blow by blow, daily account of progress, and the point about not revealing too much is taken, but equally some sort of formal weekly progress report from the club would have saved a lot of grief for the General, a lot of anxiety for supporters and would have enhanced, rather than diminished the Club’s good reputation for talking openly and honestly to its fans and customers.
 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rough Trade - What I don't like about the Milner and Ireland deal

 
Warning, this article contains a whole bunch of disgruntlement, but I've been thinking about the soon to be confirmed transfer of James Milner and the incoming of Stephen Ireland and a number of things want saying.

The first point is the most obvious one - James Milner leaving. He's a very, very, good player and has the potential and attitude to get even better. Villa will be weaker without him. He's a player that the Club didn't want to see leaving, one that we'd said we had every intention of trying to keep at the club. But he's gone, or all but gone and although I wish him well there's surely a risk that his career could well suffer from this move. He'll be used as a utility player, or play a lot less games for the mancs than he would have done at Villa, just to keep City's ever growing crop of players happy. Sure the deal is on the face of it not a bad one by any means, and the total value of the deal at around 26 million is a healthy gain on the 12 million we paid for James 2 years ago. But as a fan I'd rather we'd managed to keep hold of him. Another of our best players is lured away by money. He's not gone to Chelsea, Arsenal, or Manchester United, he's gone to the dysfunctional money pit of Eastlands.


The second point is that Milner seemingly wanted to go from the off, but didn't not want to allow this desire to become public. He was apparently miffed when Martin O'Neill let it be known that he wanted to leave. Why? it was the truth. It might, for James Milner, in many ways be the smart, way to behave - to say nothing rather than to come out and say "I want to go, because they pay obscene amounts of cash and have as good a chance as Villa of winning something, maybe a better chance". But we all know that's exactly what any rational player would be thinking and I'd kind of like to hear them say it a bit more often. I think it's the being taken for a fool really that gets me, from players. There's a tick list of things that players are seemingly advised to do to win favour, and it's daft.

1. Say words like "Big Club", "do it for the fans" "great supporters" "Step up in my career"
2. Kiss the badge, or grab hold of the shirt badge and give it a hefty tug. 
3. "Sorry to leave"

I could go on with the list, as could we all, but it's mostly tired old recycled load of tosh from some ancient manual of insincere player-speak and no one really believes it do they?

Thankfully James Milner hasn't done any of that (yet), but I feel that's only because he's a smart cookie, not because he's any different. If he comes out at his Man City preference and says "Look, they are paying me by the bucket load, just look at it all, who wouldn't, eh?, I mean I don't have any affinity with City or the manager, and they'll probably sack me off in 12 months or so, but bloody hell look at all the money. Wahey!" I might forgive the whole sorry mess, but more likely, even with his savvy, he's going to say "thanks to Villa..." and then spout some variation of the "career progression...Big Club going places.." standard spoff. Does anyone really believe this stuff is genuinely meant?

And what about the destination he's going to. Now in many ways City has been an admirable club. Very decent fans (mostly), a sense of grounded reality and attachment to their roots. But this is changing. Sure the fans will be the same good bunch (plus a load of new glory hunters, of course), but the way the club behaves now is devoid of the grounded in the real world type of class they have exhibited in previous times. They have so much money that they don't feel the need to bother with the pleasantries or incovenience of concepts such as decency and integrity. "Want that one"...."Don't want it, get that one" The throw-away society gone mad. Same as Chelsea (though they never had any class to start with, to be fair. Randy was spot on to call them for their attitude. Not that it'll make an iota of difference.

Number four in my personal list of grouches is that it's a player exchange deal. Why, when Aston Villa are operating under a temporary manager are we buying a player in, for a still sizeable sum (£8 million odd) when the next manager is still being sought?
What if the next manager thinks - "no, I don't rate Ireland at all". While Martin O'Neill was here and apparently OK with a part exchange involving Ireland, fine. But MO'N stomped off and we are currently (permanent) manager-less. So who has decided to go for Ireland, rather than straight cash? and why? We've publicly said that the wage bill must be cut, and rightly so, yet we're replacing one well paid player with another, and at the same time losing out on £8 million or so in cash. Something doesn't add up here. I wish I could work out what. And knowing who decided to stay with the player exchange deal, rather than change the deal as circumstances changed, and why they made that decision is the only way this concern can be answered, because for me, only football managers should be deciding who to buy, or at least have a chance to say "no" to someone else's decision. Always. If that changes then the sporting focus is gone from the club.

On what is becoming a monumental fit of grump, my fifth dislike is the background, where (it is said) Stephen Ireland stood his ground over his contract terms. From his point of view he didn't ask to be sold to Villa, or anyone else, we're told. He will get paid less money than at City, and City therefore owe him the difference. If he doesn't get it he won't leave. Fair enough you might answer, and it's hard to argue from one angle, but the other side of the coin is "Great, you can see how keen he is to play for Villa, from that". Is it standing up for yourself and your rights, or is it a very rich young man wanting to get even richer? Probably both. Whatever, it's unedifying. Add in City doing similar last season with Richard Dunne and you just get a picture of the way they do things and treat people again lacking class.

Another concern is that I have doubts about Stephen Ireland as a player. He's a tremendous talent, for sure. But he's got a reputation for a certain degree of flaky behaviour. Again, if we had a manager who was content to deal with, er, "characters" like Stephen, then fine, back his judgement, take the risk. But we haven't got a manager. So we've got a player who was not looking to join Villa, who reportedly would happily have stayed in City's rotting pool of unwanted reserves, rather than miss out on an extra million quid, who has not met the Villa manager, still joining the club. Surely this is not the way things should be? Does it sound like a recipe for success?

We don't know why Martin O'Neill left Villa, but looking at that lot above, I have some sympathy if he was becoming fed up of many aspects of the game and fancied a sanity break. Then again if he hadn't dropped his bundle, maybe some of what looks like a bit of a muddle might be rather less muddled.
 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Employees leave Job

 
After 4 years, Martin, Steve and Robbo have resigned from their jobs at our Club. In the near future other people will be appointed to fill the vacancies, perhaps from within the existing staff, perhaps from outside. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is soon upon us.

What did you make of the last 4 years? Why did they go? What happens next?

Around 4 years ago Martin O’Neill was appointed manager, just before the start of the season. The club was in the process of being passed from Ellis to Lerner, Martin knew this and knew he had some pretty decent players to work with, he knew too that the potential at Villa meant that with a fair wind he could make us much better than we had been in recent seasons. We had after all been run by a numpty and a self-obsessed clown (pin tail on donkey whichever way you wish).

For his first game away at Arsenal barely 2 weeks after he started, Martin had a squad that had a core of very decent players – amongst them Laursen, Mellberg, Barry, Agbonlahor, Bouma, Gary Cahill, Steven Davis, Sorensen and Baros. He also inherited the back up of a truly excellent youth and reserve set-up that continues to provide a good batch of promisingly talented young players.

So the raw ingredients he had to work with were by no means bad, and he had the benefit of the feelgood factor he himself brings, together with the impetus of a long overdue change of ownership, plus the prospect of strong financial backing from Randy Lerner, a man he’d met prior to accepting the managers role as Ellis was on his way out the door.

In that first game at the Emirates, the team’s effort was genuine Ron Saunders 110% stuff, and despite being outplayed by Arsenal for long periods a draw was earnt, where defeat was perhaps expected. It’s fair to say that the Villans, including myself, in the away end that day were pretty euphoric throughout the match. Things were on the up.
Throughout Martin’s 4 years as manager, the away games have been a real joy to go to, by and large. The style of play, the commitment, the resolve and the results have been excellent, for the most part. Over the 4 years, I’d say 8 or 9/10 would be a fair mark. From local derbies to games at Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield and so on, the team and the manager has done the fans proud.

At home things have been less clear cut. Results have been more mixed. Too many draws, some soft defeats and some pretty depressing cup exits to the likes of QPR and Leicester. Of course there have been some highlights, too. Blackburn in the cup last season, beating Chelsea and Morinho – he never won a game at VP, Jose. Whatever happened to him, anyway? A series of high scoring games towards the end of the season before last, culminating in an absolute shoeing of Small Heath. Marvellous.

This failure to really produce top form, consistently at home is something that produced an undercurrent of muttering about the style of play amongst a fair proportion of fans. Predictability (no “plan B”), inflexible selection and substitutions, over-playing players to the point of injury or exhaustion are all comments that have a degree of validity about them. But when all the talking has stopped, it’s undeniable that each season the team did better than the previous one. Villa had returned to the top quarter of English football.

This has been done at a fair old expense, both in terms of outlay on transfer fees and the overall wage bill. Randy has funded transfers to the tune of just short of £100 million, net, in the past 4 years.

With signings such as Ashley Young, James Milner and Richard Dunne, Martin showed an eye for picking players he could work with and improve and gel seamlessly into the side.
Other players, such as Martin Laursen, Gareth Barry, Freddie Bouma and Gabby also benefitted greatly from Martin’s influence.

Then there’s the case of Nigel Reo-Coker. He’s a player who I think has improved a deal under MO’N and his coaches. His passing is far better than in his first season here, the needless bookings eliminated, and the commitment on the pitch maintained…..But…..But he isn’t (or wasn’t) a regular. 8 million quid for a squad player. 

Luke Young an excellent right back, again expensive, but often left on the bench while a centre half plays right back. A quirk that has been apparent throughout MO’N’s time is the curiosity of playing the likes of Olly Mellberg, Craig Gardner and Carlos Cuellar at right back, rather than a “proper” full-back.

And the next category to look at is the one that contains Marlon Harewood, Nicky Shorey, Emille Heskey, Zat knight, Steve Sidwell and Habib Beye – players signed for sizeable fees and wages who bluntly are not good enough for a side challenging, or wanting to challenge for a top 4 place. The jury is out too on a few others – Stewart Downing has yet to show he’s worth 12 million quid, Curtis Davies started well, got injured and hasn’t threatened to recapture that first year’s form ever since.

In terms of “why did he go?” my take on things is that a combination of the real downer of going so close in the cups and to the top 4, but on each occasion falling short, through being outplayed, outspent, out thought or just through poor refereeing has taken a big toll on morale. Combine that with new found ability of Man City to just buy the Moon on a stick if they want, and the continuing presence of Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal in a class above and I think the will to keep going at it has ebbed away. Add in disappointment at not being given yet another 30 million to spend on players and the sensible need to keep wages in check and you have the loss of the vital spark that is a key part of MO’N’s persona.

I make absolutely clear that the past 4 years, for me, have been hugely enjoyable as a Villa fan, and for that definite thanks go to Martin O’Neill, SW and JR, plus of course Randy Lerner. Whatever we write or think about the ins and outs of it all, basically the purpose of football, for me at least is to provide enjoyment. And Martin’s teams did that; they restored a deal of pride to a very badly tarnished club.

So what next? The timing leaves a lot to be desired, to say the least. Kevin McDonald who has done superb work with the reserves will be in charge for the West Ham game, and I’d have no problem with him carrying on for longer, should he wish to do so, though I don’t want to see the reserve and youth pipeline broken to fix the first team.

This is now the first real test for Randy Lerner, though Martin O’Neill wouldn’t have come to Villa without Randy taking over, he was already on a short list of two, pretty much. This time, the choice is all Randy’s. Will he go for Jürgen Klinsmann this time? We’ll see.
 

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Seasons Change - Review of the 09/10 Season

 
It's been our best season for around a decade, the Club has continued to improve its' fortunes on the pitch, more work has been done on the facilities for supporters, the players have given their all, and we've had some trips to Wembley to boot. We've surpassed last season's points tally with a game still to go and yet....

And yet there's still a feeling about, among a wide swathe of supporters that ranges from unease to disappointment. There are of course a lot of happy people, very pleased with the season, but I think it's worth looking at the unease, disappointment and even anger to try and understand if it is justified?

Taking things at face value, from my perspective it's hard to agree, in fact impossible to agree, that anger is in any way justified - It's just a step too far. Disappointment that we came up just short, I do fully accept, but anger could only be valid if we'd failed in a major way to "have a go". At no point did this happen.

There have definitely been (with hindsight, and occasional foresight) a few occasions when mistakes were made. The selection for the first game against Wigan was the prime example - Most supporters I spoke with at and before the game felt the team selection was wrong, particularly in midfield. And so it turned out. Other instances occurred during March (again) when fatigue caught up with a few players - Downing, Warnock and a couple of others, but still they were picked ahead of others who might have done better. That's one of the lessons not fully learnt from last season. When players are either carrying injury, or are out on their legs - rest them. It doesn't mean wholesale rotation, the clamour for which has both baffled and irritated me, but it does mean taking a player out for a game, perhaps two to get their wind back and let the muscles and mind heal.

And there we have pretty much the full scale and scope of what has "gone wrong" that is self inflicted - Perhaps 3 or 4 games where the team clearly was not the right one for the game. Then again, there's not a manager in the country about whom similar accusations could not be made.

The happier side of things is that for every Wigan at home there's been a Man Utd away. We've yet again (walloping at Chelsea notwithstanding) improved our competitiveness against the top 4 sides. Gone are the times when we'd turn up and be thankful for a shoeing from a Sky 4 side, doffing our caps as they kicked our bottoms.

We've had good runs in the domestic cups and made a (thankfully from my angle) early exit from Europa drudgery. The Europa league is worth far less than the hassle it causes. The Cup runs have been a major highlight for me, we'd gone far too .long without so much as a sniff of Wembley.

There's been a season long debate about our style of play - is it too predictable? is it one dimensional? some people even say it's not entertaining. I'd give half a mark to the claim for predicability - but then I know how Arsenal or Stoke or Hull will play, too. The very best sides have the players in every position that can threaten from all angles and directions. We don't, but we do have players that are very good in several positions. As you go down the league, the number of these really good players, per squad, drops. It's players that make the difference, much more so than managers, or tactics, in my view. For me the way Villa play is entertaining when the players have the legs and confidence, but when tiredness sets in we can be not much more than doggedly determined to hang on to whatever we have.

I go to the game for the enjoyment. I can enjoy a game if we lose - as long as we try, and under Martin we always do. It's rare to see the team look like they don't believe, at any point in a game, that they can't get something from it. There's a great deal of mental strength and will and togetherness in the side, and that's down to MO'N.

From a personal perspective I've really enjoyed this season. I've loved it in parts - Blackburn at home, 6-4 was one of the great Villa Park nights, and the Cup win at Ewood was also memorable. I've loved swanning off down to Wembley twice. I loved, after years and years of going there every season, finally winning at Old Trafford, and deserving to, as well. I've loved sitting in the pub, talking things over, before and after games. There's been bery little to complain about in terms of the football - it's been another positive season. If it weren't for some iffy refereeing we might have had a trophy, too.

We're not good enough for the top 4, as it turns out. We draw too many at home. Mind you nor are Liverpool and my least favourite manager, Rafa. Ha ha. Good club, good fans, shame about the board and the manager. Sorry, schadenfreude is not a nice thing. It's the Barry saga that caused it.

Turns out though we haven't missed him. James Milner has been inspired and inspiring in his role in the middle of midfield. The Martin Laursen sized hole has been well filled by Collins and Dunne. 3 masterful pieces of player recruitment and management by MO'N.

Any concerns I have don't centre around players, or managers or the board, they centre around other things - ticket prices, players wages (the two are related) and re-arranged games for TV and Europe. These are the things that need sorting for me. More than 40 quid for a game of football is a scandal, frankly. With money pouring in from TV, the re-arranger of so many games. It's unacceptable to be charging people 43, 45, 48 quid to go to a game. Especially away fans, whether Villans or fans of other sides at VP. Add in travel costs, early or late journeys, a sclerotic road system and sometimes unreliable trains and....words fail me. The issue is one at Premier League level, rather than a Villa specific one - in fact we're one of the better clubs at trying to keep games affordable, though the odd decision on pricing has disappointed - For the Wolves at home, on TV, early on a Sunday, we should not have been charging up to 43 quid for a ticket.

With reasonable ticket pricing all the time, not just most of the time, we've would have one of the best set ups going - A great owner, committed and skilful players, an approach that tries to win every game, a charismatic manager, a good reserve and youth system, a passionate support that yearns for success and will out-sing anyone - the din at Wembley when behind against Chelsea was superb, and the sustained 90 minutes of bedlam in the Darwen end for the cup game was superb. We've also got in the background, people working for the club who genuinely care about giving supporters the best service they can, and they deserve a lot of thanks for their efforts.

In summary, each season we've done better than the last, lessons have been learnt, not every lesson, but most of them. So as much as ultimately ending with no tangible reward is disappointing, it shouldn't overshadow the further progress made all over the club.

A final wish is that while I'm distracted by the cricket and maybe even the world cup, I'd like Villa to act a bit quicker than has been the norm in the transfer market, reshape the squad and get ready to do what they've done every season under Martin and Randy - push on and improve. I've no idea if they'll succeed, but I know they'll try, and that's all you can ask.
 

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Stop and Think it Over - Man City Away Report

 
So, the last away game of the season, and an "eliminator" against Manchester City. The game started really well from Villa's perspective. But then....

It's been a long old season this one. One in which we've had one heck of a lot of "nearly" moments, but for various reasons have just come up short at the close.

Yesterday was another such nearly moment. The result - City winning - was fair. On the balance of the game, they deserved to win. However for the first 30 minutes it looked as though Villa would come through at the last. The ground was full, the sun shone (between clouds) and both sets of players set about their task with gusto. City perhaps the brighter to start with, but Villa looked supremely organised, Cuellar, who was magnificent all game, was keeping Bellamy quiet, and while Johnson looked dangerous, and Tevez mobile, we were coping. For Villa they all looked solid and capable - unfazed by the occasion or the task.

It was Villa who scored first - Downing putting Carew through and Big John slipped the ball under their borrowed keeper. This quietened the crowd, though to be fair unless the whole place is "at it" the Blue Camp isn't great for atmosphere. It's not the fans, it's the acoustics.

Once we'd gone in front, we spent a bit of time counter thrusting dangerously, and looked more likely to score a second, than they did to equalise. But then Warnock seemed magnetically determined to tackle Johnson right on the by-line, for some reason. He tried to, missed and Johnson went down. Daft penalty, daft tackle. Tevez hit it hard and straight and it went under Brad Friedel. Damn.

We went straight up the other end and Carew fair walloped the crossbar with a shot that bounced out, rather than in. City then came immediately back down the end we were defending, and again Johnson on the by-line made them a goal. With defenders all going to the ball, he just rolled it a few yards to Adebayor, who simply stepped back a pace and plonked it into the net from 6 yards. Defensive disorganisation, really, and smart movement from Adebayor.

That really was the end of the game to all intents and purposes. The second half was slightly cagey, with City mostly on top. Gabby, Ashley Young and Carew were not getting much change from their defence, and while we defended well enough, as we looked to push on for an equaliser, we were leaving gaps. Warnock went off injured, and Heskey and Delfouneso came on, with Carew also going off. The Fonz looked lively again, but really the service wasn't there. City scored on the break after Wright Phillips skipped past Collins, who missed his tackle then just stood and watched, the ball was played inside to Bellamy, and he scored into the top corner. Now there was a real noise in the ground, but it was too late for Villa to try and quieten it.

At the end the players came over and applauded us, we responded in kind.

My thought going into the game was that it would be academic anyway, as I was sure Spurs would beat Burnley and Bolton, whatever their result against City. Realistically 4th was already out of reach.

Some marks

Friedel - 6 - fine

Cuellar - 8 MotM (for Villa)
Dunne - 6
Collins - 6
Warnock - 5 (Fonz - 6)

Ash - 5
Stan - 6
James Milner - 6
Downing - 7

Carew 6 (Heskey 5)
Gabby 5

I don't think anyone could find fault with the efforts of any of the players, over the season, there's one or two who might be a bit more committed in the tackle, Stewart Downing. But overall the team has bettered last season's performances and results and we're still moving in the right direction, though progress gets harder the further you rise.

One game left, and I'd particularly like us to finish with a win, and above Liverpool. Then we'll need to have a long hard think about what to do next, and how to do it.
 

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Too Soon for Flowers - Bolton Away Report

 
Not a classic game, not even a good game. 

But that doesn't matter, and in my estimation it didn't matter to any of the Villans present. What mattered was that we won.

In a lifetime of strange weeks, this has been one of the strangest.

Obviously the previous one had contained an almighty gubbing, but what followed that had been quite extraordinary. A bit of a media storm regarding the future of the manager which had all apparently been started off by a poster on the messageboard saying his mate had told him MO'N had resigned, though he didn't believe it himself. It was an insight into the way the media works, and how the Club responds. First the media - they trawl the internet, using news now, for "stories" about Villa. If something pops up on their computer they publish it. Then they may get round to sort of checking whether it's actually true or not. Then the story becomes not the original thing they published, or broadcast, that they got off the internet, but the Club's reaction to the story. And all the while fans have their hopes and fears played with, Managers feel undermined and media officers run round trying to put the genie back in the bottle, or at least trying to understand where the genie came from and why, before trying to work out how they can stop the next one emerging.

Still, enough about nothing. It's football that matters.

A nice short train ride to the Reebok, a stroll to the pub and then some fine "Flat Cap" while watching Chelsea beat Manchester United in between talking about over-reaction, what team should he pick and what would the score be.

As it happened, the team selection was spot on for the game. James Milner got to have a rest on the bench, Ditto Luke Young. Carlos Cuellar was back in at Right Back, Fabian Delph into the centre and both Big John and Gabby were over their aches and pains up front. Downing was in for Sidwell.

After about 10 minutes of play, Villa pressing for a goal, we got one, and it was a beauty. Some decent interplay and close passing, and Ashley Young, who is right on form just now, cut inside on the left wing and curled a peach of a shot, right footed, into the top corner.

Bolton then had a spell of pressure, and Friedel saved well from a powerful shot, down by his near post, below me. That was pretty much his only real save of the afternoon, and to be fair, Jaskaleinen didn't have many to make either.

It was clear that Bolton, at the back, were terrified of the pace of Gabby and the trickery of Ashley Young, and this perhaps prevented their full backs and big centre halves from venturing up the pitch. They're a work in progress - not yet rid, completely of the "style" of Megson and Allardyce, and not yet fully adapted to the more pleasing play that Owen Coyle used at Burnley.

As for Villa, there was no sign of the fatigue that's been recently apparent and there was evidence of the defence regaining it's normal parsimony. James Collins and Richard Dunne headed everything away, Carlos sniffed out trouble and stopped it, and Stephen Warnock looked like he'd been fitted with new Duracells, working prodigiously up and down the left.

The game only really sparked into life near the end. Heskey, on for Carew was knocked flat, challenging for a header. The game stopped for a he'd injury. Eventually he woke up and was shown to the sideline. A drop ball. There was no "you give it to them" from the ref, like there sometimes is. Instead it was a genuine challenge between 2 players. Villa won it, the ball squirming through to Gabby, who promptly advanced on goal, but missed, his shot going 2 feet wide of the post. Bolton players and fans got the hump. They presumably felt that they should have been given the ball.

Bolton pressed for the equaliser, but at no stage did they look like getting it.

Villa broke a number of times, but as the game came towards the end, the breaks were towards the corner flag, rather than goal. From the last of them Downing ran the ball out wide, the ref blew and then tiny Jack Wilshire (8 1/2 ) wobbled his lip, stamped his little feet and pushed at Downing once the whistle had gone. He wanted to be allowed out to play some more, and it wasn't fair, he didn't want to go in for his tea. Downing didn't like being pushed by a smaller boy, and pushed him back. Then all the other children ran in, shouting "fight, fight, fight", but like other playgrounds, there wasn't actually a fight at all. The ref waved his magic yellow card at Downing and little Jack, and made them all go inside.

Fun over, the happy Villans trooped off to their cars, coaches and trains singing about Wembley. Then it started to rain. It still doesn't feel quite like Spring yet.

Some marks
Brad - 7. Very solid.

Carlos - 5 - defended soundly, not much going forwards.
James Collins - 5 - defended soundly, some iffy distribution, and one wild free kick.
Richard Dunne - also defended well - 6
Stephen Warnock - 6 - worked very hard, and played well.

Ashley Young - 7 - A wonderful goal and a constant threat. Fell over a bit too easily at times. I thought he'd stopped doing that.
Fabian Delph - 6 - Bright, and fitted in well with Stan. Improved since the start of the season. (Replaced by Sidwell, 5)
Stan - 6 and steady
Downing - 5 - Some good crosses.

Carew - 5 - Not massively involved. (Emile - 5)
Gabby - 6 - played well, held the ball up and should really have scored when clean through. Looked much fitter than last week, which is a good sign.
 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Black is the Colour - Chelsea Away Report

 
This was a game I wasn't originally going to go to, but the best laid plans of mice and men can sometimes not work out as you'd hope. My ticket was going to go to a friend, but in the end he couldn't make it, so I thought "why not?"

Yet another early start for a train down to that London. I'm not a train spotter, but seeing a huge steam locomotive at Preston station chugging away, full to it's many carriages with people about to breakfast in style while puffing their way up the West Coast did perk me up. My journey was on an equally packed Pendolino at presumably much higher speed, which did at least leave me time for several beers and a sausage sandwich in the "Oligarch & Congestion charge" Pub (I may have misremembered the detail, as MPs say) in Earls Court. Just as well really as a relaxed outlook was needed to deal with what was to follow. 

Unfortunately the shock of paying £48 blinking quid for a ticket was not the end of the day's surprises, as no doubt people will know by the time they read this. That said, I'd gone to the game expecting a heavy defeat.

Now that you've read this far, let me let you into a dirty secret. I enjoyed the game. I saw more positives than negatives. First of all, let's be fair Chelsea were excellent and clearly deserved to win by a distance. That said, I'm a Villa fan, so why the positive vibe after a gubbing? Well, despite the score, the thing is that all week I've been getting  electricity letters, portable telephone typings and Internet writings about how everything's wheels are unravelling. But they are not. I got to see with my own eyes that all is well ( ish).

Now I expect that only mental health professionals will still be reading this far in, so give me a chance to explain before carting me off to the electrode room.

We got beaten heavily by a very good, motivated, side. But despite that, at no point did Villa "lose it:. There were no hissy fits, no tantrums, we just lost. And we actually played quite well first half.

With the team being changed around a bit - Luke in at left back, Sidwell in the middle and Gabby restored there was some freshness and the ability to pass the ball down the right hand side. Though Gabby seemed to spend most of his time at right back, often behind Luke Young. He was stopping things, but his pace, I felt would be needed up front if we were to get anything out of the game.

Chelsea scored first, after about 15 mins. Lampard tapping in at the far post after Warnock got caught napping with a difficult ball to deal with, low across the box.

We deservedly equalised when sidwell then Ash did well and Big John had a simple finish from a delicious cross.

30 minutes gone, all square. It stayed that way until just before half time, when Collins brought down their full back for a "continental" penalty ( those ones where the defender doesn't get the ball, and the attacker goes down to "help" the ref make his decision). No complaints, we/they all do it. Lampard scored again.

Second half Villa stated brightly, but the seeds of our eventual undoing were there to see. Despite the general flow in the first 8 minutes or so being towards us Villa fans, Warnock nearly gifted them a bonus by passing straight to Anelka from a Chelsea clearance. As it was they opened us up with a sublime goal shortly afterwards. Deco the key man in making it.

That was game lost. What then followed was Chelsea with the confidence high, Villa out of it and with first Carew, then Stan, then Gabby all going off injured, or just knackered, and the team therefore rejigged & unable to cope with the pace and movement.

We ended up with Warnock in midfield, Ash at centre forward alongside Nathan D, Beye at right back, Luke at left back.....The defensive sloppiness and lack of ability to deal with the movement of Chelsea was clear to see.

Chelsea got another pen for 4-1 and eventually another 3.

We defended poorly as a team, the midfield was out manoeuvred and what threat we did manage was dealt with by Chelsea. But there was threat, from Ash, from Nathan and from James Milner. Unfortunately while our shots were blocked and deflected for corners, or players were brought down for free kicks from range, their attacks were not closed down the same.

We kept singing, MO'N sort of apologised with a gesture at the end of the game and then I legged it for the undertube back to the pub and train back north.

I'm typing this on a tiny iPod, being buffeted by the undulations of a Pendolino and to be honest if I wasn't then I'd have forgotten all about the game by now. I think that's the best tactic in the circs. 

It's not a cause for panic, it's just the way things go occasionally.

Some marks
Brad - 6
Luke - 6
James Collins - 4
Dunney - 5
Steve Warnock - 5

Ash - 7
Stan - 6
Siddy - 5
James Milner - 7
Gabby - 4

Carew - 6

Subs - Downing 6. Nathan 6. Beye 5

The important thing is not this game, it's the one for a chance to win the cup. Palace lost 9-0 at Anfield and then beat them in the FA Cup semi, famously, and we can do the same with Chelsea...If we learn some lessons.
 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Obstacle 1 - Wigan Away Report

 
A rearranged game at Springfield park, sorry the JJB, no I mean the DW Stadium. A chance to try and make up some of the gap between us and 3 others chasing 4th place - games in hand being all very well, but you've got to win the beggars for them to have any weight or meaning.

The original game having been postponed when Wigan's undersoil heating broke down in the depths of January's cold, the game took place last night in the relative warmth of an early spring evening, and on a newly laid pitch blanketing the delicate pipes below from any more of that nasty coldness you get round these parts.

You know the routine by now - train, (excellent) pub, a few pre match scoops and a chat. This time to see whether fellow travellers had thawed out from Saturday's game at Stoke and to be impressed by Bickster’s diligent preparation for a family flight to Singapore/Australia - Beers, pie, football (loved ones guarding the luggage in a hotel). Happy hols, you lucky sod.

We timed it well, leaving the pub at just the right moment, so that the walk to the ground was followed seamlessly by a pie and then taking our seats just in time to see the team come out. Despite talk of rotation and such like, we all know that such things are not Martin's way, so the team was barely changed from the one before and the one before that and....dot dot dot.
Gabby coming in for Emile was the only difference, and one that was welcomed universally.

In contrast to Saturday, the game started brightly and continued that way all through. Initially Wigan looked the sharpest and more of the play was in front of us, than down at the far end we were attacking. Soon though Villa started making positive moves, more than matching Wigan's endeavour - with Gabby and Ashley Young causing trouble down the channels and 
out wide and Milner looking determined to make sure none of the many new blades of grass would remain untouched by his boots. Both keepers had to make sprawling saves and players all over the field were involved in the game, trying to make things happen, or thwart opposition thrusts. James Collins was looking particularly good defensively, winning just about everything, and Richard Dunne was almost equally in control.

The first goal was a bit of a strange one. We got it, but I'm not quite sure how. From what I could see a cross was put in by Ash, there was a bit of to and from in the box, and then it seemed that a Wigan defender volleyed the ball into his own net, with Kirkland desperately trying to keep it out. I don't think anyone else in the Villa end had any better idea than I did what had happened.

Unfortunately we let them straight back into it. A free kick was given against Warnock for being clumped into by a Wigan player, and the delivery was excellent. Again, I'm not sure exactly what happened - whether the ball went straight in, or whether a Wigan player got a slight touch on it. It wasn't great defending or goalkeeping either way - if it went straight in, I wonder whether Brad might have got it, and if it was touched by the Wigan player, why was he unmarked?

Back to square 1.

Ashley Young had a good chance but missed, and when I say missed I mean he managed to kick the ball right out of the ground, which shows a) he hit it really hard, and B) it was somewhat misdirected. The environs of Springfield park no the JJB, sorry the DW Stadium were unimpressed and spat the ball back into the stadium, allowing the game to continue to half time.

The second half pretty much followed the pattern of the first - the game was even and open - the teams taking it in turns to attack, or have spells of pressure. It was enlivened even further by the involvement of the ref. He'd been having a fairly decent game, letting it flow where as much as possible, but it was like he started to think he had an audience - presumably he'd noticed after one set of fans or the other had disagreed with a decision, and he then gave the impression of starting to play up to the gallery. It may all have begun when he gave a ridiculous decision against James Milner in their box. He was penalised for jumping up in the air in an attempt to block a clearance. The Wigan defender did clear the ball, and in following through, lightly hit Milner. Milner went mildly Ape, Bennett thought about booking him for dissent, probably realised that either a) Milner was entirely innocent of any offence, or B) That Milner is (at the moment at least) like a better version of Steven Gerrard, and as it's against the law to penalise Gerrard, it must be so for Milner, too.

Just to prove point B) above, Milner lashed one in from 20 yards - a corner flapped at by Kirkland. a defender nodding not very clear, and James Milner's right boot tonked the ball back past the unsighted keeper and into the net. 2-1, half an hour or so left.

Wigan pressed, Villa pressed back but I don't recall either of the keeper's being forced into major saves, mostly moves either broke down, or shots were wide or straight at the ‘keepers.

Gabby and Big John were taken off, Sidwell and Emile were brought on. Sidwell did well, getting involved immediately and the extra body in midfield helped. Emile was less involved and to be honest less of a threat than either Carew or Gabby. Maybe this was the rotation that MO'N was on about. Whatever, it worked in that we saw the game out - Sidwell almost scoring right at the death from the same place he tonked one in last season. Stan was going potty at him for not holding on to the ball, but it mattered not and Carew and Gabby got an extra 10 minutes rest.

At the end, the players were clearly chuffed and clearly knackered - forced into their efforts by Wigan, who are lower in the table than they perhaps should be.

With a lift home from LV, with AJ and Jack (lucky charm) it was a fine evening out.

Some marks

Brad - 7 - Dependably cool and solid

Carlos - very good tonight - 8
James Collins - also very good - 8
Richard Dune - it's on the tin. 7
Stephen Warnock - tremendous effort, not at his best - 6

Ashley - 7
Stan - 7
James Milner - 8
Stewart Downing - 6 - he sometimes needs to be braver, not necessarily physically, but in terms of making things happen.

Carew - 6 (Sidwell 6)
Gabby - 6 (Emile 5)

The whole team worked really hard, defended well and though Wigan may feel hard done by, Villa just wanted it that bit more, and had a tad more quality.
 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Your Way - Stoke City Away Report

 
To be honest with you, 0-0 is pretty much all that there is to be said about this game, so if you're pressed for time, look away now.

The day started bright and sunny, on my walk to the station, but by the time I was on the train the clouds had taken away the thoughts of spring, and the wind had reminded me of the long cold winter.

Still, the journey went very smoothly indeed, one of those days where despite some of the decrepit trains still in use, the connections were all just right and I arrived in blustery Stoke with plenty of time on my hands. Deciding to take the advice of my beer guide, I headed for a pub in Newcastle. The beer was excellent, and the Stokies friendly enough. So much so that they let me on their bus from the pub to the game, once again giving me more time than I'd expected. After the obligatory fanzine purchase and a quick chat I entered the Britannia, reminded of last year's epic encounter.
Truth be told no part of the game lived up to that day, this time around. The strong wind, cold, and worn pitch saw to that, as did some fairly lamentable refereeing at times. The ref was undoubtedly a "homer" in my view. Still, that's what you get when you go to Stoke - the reputation of both their support and their spirited football sees to that.

Anyway, with Villa keeping the same team, again, as last week, and with Gabby only fit enough to sit on the bench it was a fair bet that the game would be played via set pieces, throws and all stop start.

What little there was to pick from a pretty unentertaining game was in the form of excellent defending by both sides, the cool of Stillian Petrov in midfield and, er, um, the green sawdust sprinkled about the concourses. Had they been warm, or had they actually not run out of food and drink, then I would have awarded the facilities "Man of the Match", but they simply were not able to raise their concretey standards above the level of the football outside. Plenty of solidity, but nothing to lift the spirits at all.

Moments of note on the pitch included a splendid tackle by James Collins, another by Dunne and superb blocks by Dunne and Warnock. Even Delilah seemed to put in only a token appearance, both sets of fans pretty much numbed by the lack of flair and the chill wind.

Things perked up for Villa when Gabby replaced John Carew, although most would have preferred Gab to come on for Emille, judging by the noise of disgruntlement from the 2900 of us in the away end.

That's pretty much all there is to say about the game. I guess a point is both about right given the way we played, and par for the course in terms of a chase for higher league placing.

Some marks
Brad Friedel - 7
Carlos - 7
JC - 7
Dunney - 7
Stephen Warnock - 6
The defence was solid and dealt with all the Delap missiles competently

Ashley Young - 6
Stan - 7.5 MotM
James Milner - 6
Stuart Downing - 5

Other than Stan, no one really managed to put their foot on the ball and make much happen.

Emille - 6
Big John - 6 (Gabby 7)

Not a memorable day for anyone, but there's plenty of those to come, I hope
 

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Take me to the River - Fulham Away report

 
They come round faster than birthdays, important games these days. Today it was time to go down to Fulham, for one of the best away trips of each season.

An early start, with a 7:56 train from my northern lair, on a cold but clear morning. The train ride was mainly spent feeling a bit tired, reading the paper - there's not much good news about, just mendacious politicians, disasters and the fear of terror, so I looked forward to the pub and some cheery company. Happily all went well - the train was on time, the undertube engineering works on some other line and after a quick stroll along the river looking at the oarsmen and women straining their muscles whilst being shouted at by midgets with megaphones a sit down in the warm was in order. We supped some pretty decent ale, munched down some dinner and then trekked back over the bride across the park and into the way end.

Villa's side was the same as in midweek and we were kicking into the goal at the far end of the ground. Fulham started the brighter, but after the first 10 minutes the game settled down into a pattern of neither side being particularly dangerous, once Zamora had shot over. Villa, as the away side would have been the more content, and we began to control much of the possession. The thought came to me that maybe Arsene Wenger's daft comments had done us some extra good, as the ball was pretty much always played on the floor, and the team was patient in it's play. More so then on some occasions recently. Fulham too play a similar passing game, and it seemed to be Petrov and Murphy who were doing the "leading".

Writing this some hours later, I can't remember that many chances - Brad fumbled a deflected shot, but got to the loose ball first, Ashley Young shot just wide. I hoped for a Villa goal to reward our greater part of the play, and not long before half time it came. A cross from the right after a throw, and Gabby headed in. At first I thought it had been saved, but people leaping about beside me indicated we had scored. I have no idea who crossed the ball - maybe Ash or Petrov, but Gabby was pleased, and it was good to see him score after a few games without a goal. Not much later he got a peach of a goal for his second. The ball was passed to his feet on the corner of the box, he turned the defender really easily and curled a shot in, left footed, from the right hand corner of the box. 2-0 and half time.

The second half saw Fulham have more of the game, but truth be told, apart from a goal that was disallowed with about 15 minutes left, we were holding out well. Richard Dunne was superb, Luke young too, played well, defensively and Friedel didn't really have much to do. Villa had some half chances, too, but the game remained sporadic in it's moments of real quality play - often stuff broke down because of a poor final ball, or good defending.

It was heartening to see Ash back to his livewire best again, Gabby was bright, Heskey got the hump with something and was like pooh bear with head stuck in a jar of honey, getting himself booked with it.

Most of the players on both sides looked like they'd had a hard run of games, but it was Villa who had the better shape and confidence and desire to get something from the game.

After the match it was back to Euston, and a few more beers round the corner, before a late train back and a chat with the Blackburn Rovers officials and BBC Radio Ay Up commentator from their game at West Ham. Nice people.

All in all a good day out, an excellent result and continued hope for the games coming up. The ticket price at 40 quid was steep (read downright over-priced), but I doubt that anyone is going to care about that.

Some Marks

Brad - 7 - solid and reassuring

Carlos - 6 pretty decent again.
Luke - 7 - did well filling in for Stephen Warnock
Richard Dunne - 8 - towering
JC - 5 - The standard mark for a decent level of performance. Not a good as Dunney, but its' the partnership that works

Ash - 7 - very good
Stan - 7 - ditto, but looks to be carrying an injury
James Milner - 6 - worked hard, as ever, but possibly tired
Stewart Downing - 5 - Not at his best - another one looking like rest is needed

Gabby - 8 Motm (just)
Emille - 5 - good in parts, as they say. He's got some aggression back, which is nice to see.
 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Someone Almost There - Blackburn Rovers League Cup Semi Away Leg Report

 
It was a long time coming last night's match - both in terms of a wait for a semi final and of course the postponement of the original game a week or so ago.

We hoped that the the contrast between the fevered desire to get hold of tickets for the game by us lot and the indifference shown by the Rovers fans would be reflected in the performances of the two teams over this game and the return leg next week, and to an extent it was, for the first half at least.

Blackburn is pretty convenient for myself, LancsVillan and AJ, so the evening started with leaving work just a bit early, a short train trip to Blackburn and arrival in the Pub by 6. We met up with Paddy and other Villans taking the sensible decision to avoid the fizzy beer and massive queues in the Fernhurst and settle for decent ale and good service in a better pub. I could have happily stayed in the warm for longer, but who wants to miss a semi final?

A quick jaunt in a taxi from town and we arrived at Ewood, still bordered by heaps of snow and icy paving. It was pretty apparent that there had been no late take up of tickets by the locals, despite the tickets being very well priced at only £15. It's a shame, because you always hope a semi final will be played in a packed ground, but I guess the "rugged" style of Allardycian football and a rotten run of results has taken many Blackburn fans into the No-zone layer - that place all fans go from time to time, where even if you go to the games, you actually don't like your team, you become immune to the dire form and bad results and just deny that there's any hope, for fear of further disappointment and pain, and most don't bother at all.

The Villa sections of the ground were somewhat different - packed, noisy, and expectant. 5,325 of us were there (plus a few more sitting on their hands in the home seats). Had we been allowed more tickets, we'd have probably sold as many again.

The first half started with Villa defending the end we were gathered in and for maybe the first 5 minutes or so Blackburn came at us with their typical "pile it in" approach. David Dunn had a shot just wide and various corners and crosses were piled in to put Guzan under pressure We coped, but it wasn't pretty and it wasn't comfortable.

Soon though the exchanges of hopeful balls punted and bunted hither and thither settled down, and Villa began to pass the ball more accurately - Petrov and Milner getting a grip in the centre and starting to play it in to Emille, or pass out wide for Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to run at their full backs.  
Stan played a cracking pass to Heskey, unmarked in the area, but he turned the wrong way and the chance was gone. Ashley Young lashed a shot well over the bar and Villa had a spell of concerted pressure, forcing corners, having shots blocked and saved. It seemed likely that we would score, but when we did the goal didn't come as a result of the onslaught, but from a break away from our own area. Guzan rolling the ball out to the feet of Milner who just charged at the Blackburn half of the pitch, taking the ball to the edge of their box, rolling a neat pass out to Downing on the right, and running onto the return low cross to score excellently past Robinson.

Confidence lifted, Villa could and should have had more goals, perhaps. Blackburn got even worse. Gabby was booked for diving in the box, but various text messages from people watching at home, or in the pub said that it was a "definite pen" and the ref, Clattenburg, had got it wrong. There didn't seem to be much by the way of protest from Villa, though - or maybe the players are well disciplined in not dissenting.

Just as I was about to make my way down towards the shelter of the concourse for a bit of a warm up at half time, Villa looked to have scored again, but the "goal" was disallowed - I'm not sure if it didn't go in the net, or there was a foul, or what. Text messages said a Blackburn player hand-balled in the area, but the ref thought a Villa player had committed the offence. Personally I felt that Villa were unlucky not to have been more goals ahead even allowing for refereeing mistakes.

The second half was different - Blackburn actually tried, for a start and had more of the game than in the first. Presumably Big-boned Sam had thrown his bluetooth earpiece thingy, his chuddy and some choice cuts of Galootian swearing at his players at half time. Chastened his team upped their efforts, started passing to each other a bit more and from a corner at the far end one of them headed against the post. Not so long later an excellent Rovers move saw their forward lash the ball first time against the same post from 20 yards. That it didn't go in possibly spurred Villa to get a grip again, Sidwell was brought on for Heskey, who had done well and perhaps it disheartened Blackburn, too, because we started to get chances again, and control the ball a bit more like we had in the first half. Ashley Young tormented their left back on several occasions, without a goal resulting. He also got clean through, but shot wide. Gabby had a header from a corner very well saved by Robinson. Right at the end, Blackburn almost scored from a header at a corner, but their late flurry came to nought.

At the end of the game there was no celebration from the players, MO'N acknowledged the fans, but no tempting of fate. Quite right too. The result was just about fair, I guess, but one goal is not enough to guarantee anything. No one is bulletproof.

Some marks

Brad Guzan - 6 - Not called on to do any heroics, but was solid.

Carlos Cuéllar - 6 Right back is not his best position, presumably he played to counter Blackburn's height, as Luke Young was on the bench.
Steven Warnock - 6 - Solid and reliable
James Collins - 7 - The two centre-backs repelled the vast majority of Blackburn's pressure 
Richard Dunne - 7

Ashley Young - 7 - lively all night, might have scored.
James Milner - 8 - MoTM - Excellent yet again.
Stan Petrov - 7 - More good work from Stan. Used the ball well all night.
Stewart Downing - 7 - He looks completely fit and at home, now.

Emille Heskey - 7 - Held the ball up really well (sub Steve Sidwell - 6 - bolstered the midfield when we were under pressure )
Gabby - 7 - Booked, but apparently harshly so, always a threat.
 
 

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