Sunday, July 30, 2006

I have never liked Nicky Campbell. I’m aware that this statement doesn’t exactly court controversy, and it isn’t intended in any kind of polemical way because I’ve never particularly disliked him either. He’s just there, at the edge of the nation’s collective consciousness, being affable yet bland.

Until now. Now I actively dislike him, after he penned
a column for the Guardian this week decrying Aston Villa fans for being a bunch of deluded whiners. Apparently we should be grateful to Doug Ellis for cautiously steering the club through the mass-spending 1990s and bringing us out the other side solvent and secure, we should stop complaining about his lack of investment in the club, and we should give up on the notion of ever winning anything again because Chelsea have sewn everything up.

Well, excuse us for giving a toss about the club we support. Bear in mind, I’m speaking here as Mr Long-Distance Armchair Supporter: any right I have to be aggrieved pales into insignificance alongside the loyal season ticket holders who splash out thousands of pounds per year on tickets and travel to follow their club. I’m pretty pissed off as it is, so I can barely imagine how pissed off they feel about the situation. As I’ve said before, I am grateful to Ellis for the fact that Villa didn’t go the way of Leeds United, but it’s time for change.

I don’t think anybody’s expecting Villa to win the league as Campbell suggests, or even challenge for it any time in the foreseeable future. But teams like Bolton, Charlton and Everton have challenged for Europe in recent years on similar resources, and West Ham got to the Cup final. It’s not just about money, but the whole culture at Aston Villa: we can’t get good players to come, and on the occasions that they do come they don’t perform. In recent seasons we saw Birmingham City and West Brom tempting decent players simply by convincing them that the clubs were going places. Both of them got relegated in the end, but before that they convinced players to take a gamble on joining up. There is no longer any belief at Villa that such a gamble might possibly pay dividends, even if the risk of relegation is (slightly) lower.

Another major problem is that no decent manager will work under Ellis. This is crucial as the club’s recent managers have all lacked savvy in the transfer market and we’ve bought a lot of duffers. It’s a sad state of affairs when you’re enviously eyeing the players Portsmouth have managed to grab. The frontrunners for the Villa job are all strongly rumoured to want it only if a new chairman is appointed: the fans will doubtless be close to despair on this issue after reading reports of Ellis’ conduct during the meeting with prospective buyer Randy Lerner, whose straightforward cash offer (not a Glazer-style mortgage against future earnings, as reported elsewhere) foundered as Ellis shifted the goalposts, haggled over figures that had already been agreed, and insisted on retaining a role at Villa Park.

Being suspicious of any potential Americanization of football is one of English supporters’ favourite pastimes, along with bitching about the FA, picking England teams we think are miles better than whoever the current manager has selected, and sneering at talented foreign players for ‘showboating’. I am no exception. There are few things we enjoy more than being aghast at rumours they want to split the game into four quarters to boost ad revenue, or make the goals wider, or replace penalty shoot-outs with a keepy-uppy contest or whatever. (Smart work from Budweiser to notice this and build its recent ad campaigns around it.) But I did have sympathy for Lerner on this occasion, and rather wish he’d come back and have another pop at buying the club.

We can only hope that Ellis behaved this way because he was also suspicious of American interest, and doesn’t behave like an arse in the upcoming meetings with other buyers, because this deal needs to go through fast. All transfer dealings have been suspended until the ownership of the club is settled, for sensible reasons – but if the sale drags on too far into August we’ll end up rushing into a load of panic buys. Last time that happened we ended up with Eric Djemba-Djemba (and we’ve still got him, if anyone wants him). We also need a manager, and it’s evident that we’re not going to get one until Ellis goes. Not a decent one, anyway.

The thing that irritated me most about Campbell’s comments, though, was not really Villa-specific. It was his suggestion that Villa fans should content themselves with the fact of their club simply existing: not winning anything, not going out of business, and hopefully not being relegated. That actually suggests to me that the man doesn’t understand football. We all hold out the hope of doing better than we are: that applies to every football club, even Chelsea, who will be gagging to win the European Cup this season.

And does anybody seriously believe that Chelsea are going to go on dominating English football forever? The gap between the rich clubs and the rest has made the rate of change slower, but things will still change. A couple of seasons ago nobody could see Arsenal getting beaten, now few will give them any chance of winning the Premiership. I also believe that Chelsea cannot go on spending silly money indefinitely: they may be a rich man’s plaything, but Abramovitch will have a business plan for his club. And even if they do just keep spending, this is no guarantee of success: just look at Real Madrid. Maybe I’m wrong. If I am, the Premiership is set to become a very boring place. I blame the Champions League, but then I always do.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The ethics of those in control of top-flight football clubs are of course beyond reproach – just ask any Italian football fan – so naturally I don’t intend to suggest any impropriety when I make the following observations: (1) Doug Ellis appeared last season to fall out with David O’Leary; (2) O’Leary was due a substantial pay-off if his contract was terminated without due cause; (3) Ellis is a colossal tightarse; (4) suddenly, in the past week, a statement (supposedly issued by Aston Villa’s players) criticising Ellis has appeared, nobody seems to know where it came from and O’Leary has been cleared of any impropriety… yet Villa’s internal investigation has resulted in O’Leary’s dismissal, with a severance package that, we are told, reflects the outcome of the investigation.

If you choose to infer any impropriety from these observations, what a cynic you must be.

The incident with the so-called players’ revolt – which they all seem to have denied any involvement with since I last posted here – is one of the oddest events in the short history of the Premiership. Perhaps Villa will elect to explain what they discovered in the course of their investigation, as O’Leary’s departure has made matters no clearer. But surely the club can’t be entirely unhappy with the outcome. I was amazed that O’Leary wasn’t dumped immediately after the end of the season, having predicted his departure after the scoreless home draw with Fulham in April was followed by a 5-0 defeat away to Arsenal. The fact that it has now come after an incident which – whatever his relationship to it – seems to have allowed Villa to renegotiate his redundancy entitlement is terribly convenient for the board.

I’m not complaining, mind. I’ve wanted O’Leary out since it became clear early last season that 2003/4 was a flash in the pan, and if Villa have saved a bit of cash in getting him out then I hope that this will be spent on players (HA! I make joke). He’s turned out to be one of those annoying ‘admit no weakness’ managers who always over-rate the team’s performance, and I’d rather have a Martin O’Neill type manager who’s willing to be critical. In fact, I’d rather have Martin O’Neill, as he appears to be available, but sadly I think he’s too intelligent to take the job. I suspect we’ll end up with Curbishley: he’ll have his work cut out, but he’ll never get a better chance to prove he’s a top-class manager. In fact, if he can turn Villa around, he’s wasted in football and should be sent to balance the Japanese economy or something.

Friday, July 14, 2006

This was a big day in the recent history of Aston Villa. Today the club’s players put their names to a collective statement criticising Doug Ellis’ handling of Villa, a bold and rare move that speaks volumes about how troubled this famous old club – the club which spearheaded the formation of the English football league – has become.

Only you probably didn’t notice, because they released the fucking thing on the day that one of the biggest stories in world football broke. The statement quickly slid down the pecking order on Sky Sports News as the verdict came through from Turin that Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina had all been found guilty of match-fixing. There’s a certain irony in the release of a complaint about mismanagement being so poorly managed itself.

It’s a shame because the statement itself is eye-catching by virtue of its comedy value, accusing Ellis of failing to stump up £300 to water the pitches and barring staff from putting a cup of coffee on expenses at the airport. As John Gregory noted, Ellis’ stinginess has been never been any secret – but this statement blows the whistle by supplying concrete examples beyond the constant lack of cash for players. Oh, and they mentioned that too, mainly the fact that Ellis refuses to find the money to sign James Milner, probably the club’s best player last season, on a permanent basis.

To be fair to Ellis, he didn’t go mad when everyone in football was spending silly money in the late 1990s, and we never got into financial trouble as a result: whoever you want to blame for the ridiculous inflation on players’ salaries in recent years, you can’t blame Doug. Furthermore, on the occasions when he has put up the money for new players in the last few years, the acquisitions have usually been uninspiring to say the least. Players like Juan Pablo Angel, Eric Djemba-Djemba and (shudder) Bosko Balaban have flopped at the club (Angel has played well at times, but not well enough to justify what he cost). When he gave David O’Leary the means to sign eight new players last year, he had the right to feel dissatisfied with the club’s poor showing this season.

However, it’s less surprising how poorly the club is doing considering the picture which the players have painted of life at Villa Park. One imagines that they sit around of an evening like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, comparing hardships: ‘I ’ad to pay for me own massage after training today.’ ‘I ’ad to do me own massage today.’ There’s no confidence in the club, and with a perpetually small squad, the players are entitled to feel that they are being unreasonably expected to out-perform teams with far better resources. This is a self-sustaining state of affairs, because decent players – even decent players who we could afford – won’t come and the club won’t get better. And Ellis, in characterising that, is blocking the team’s progress. Not that things are likely to get better in the immediate future, now that the players have gone public with how much they hate him.

The phrase ‘lack of ambition’ is so firmly attached to Villa these days that it might as well be our club motto. You should be able to buy mugs with it on from the club shop. If they sold well, maybe we could put up the cash for some new players.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Football fans and pundits are very keen on omens. These range from ‘Team X are never beaten by team Y when player Z is in the side’ – which, although usually partly coincidence-based, at least make some sort of sense – to the utterly meaningless likes of ‘Wolves have never beaten Port Vale on a Thursday fixture in February’ and the mythical ‘unlucky’ dressing-room at the Millennium Stadium. This trend sinks lower whenever England are involved in the World Cup, as we desperately search for correlations between now and 1966: the personal histories of the England squad, friendly results in the run-up to the tournament, world events, what was in the charts then and now – to the extent that a scrappy performance in the opening match against South American opponents is seen as a sure sign of ultimate victory.

At the start of this World Cup, Italian fans were pointing towards the pattern of their previous post-war final appearances: 1970, 1982, 1994. The twelve-year cycle pointed to another place in the final. Nothing else did, frankly: a squad considered less-than-vintage, turmoil in the domestic game and a group that was arguably just as tough as the more commented-on ‘group of death’. I predicted that at least one of the big teams would go out in the first round and picked Italy. But their omen has come good, and this seems to me to be terribly unfair. Our omens always seem to mean fuck all in the end. Why do theirs work out?

The answer, we must grudgingly admit, is that they’ve worked for their omen. A number of the hotly-tipped teams, particularly England and Brazil, turned out to be collections of talented individuals who failed to convince as a team. Italy have played as a unit, balancing their traditionally strong defence with fluidity and variety in attack (ten different players have scored) and just a little more adventure than we’ve seen from them in the past, enough to kill off Ghana, the Czechs and Ukraine in matches that, in the past, would have ambled to 1-0 and left neutrals wishing for Ahn Jung-Hwan to pop up and teach them another lesson. They even got a second against the Germans, despite only having got the first in the 119th minute.

As a result, my longstanding irritation with Italy has abated. This has already happened to me once this World Cup, with the no-longer-cynical Argentina, and they promptly went out – so Italy will probably now lose. I actually don’t mind much who wins the final, I’d just like to see a competitive match. My first World Cup Final was 1990: it was widely believed to be the worst ever, and the first one in which the losing team failed to score (that was what turned me against Argentina in the first place). Since then, every final has been a bit one-sided: Italy stifled the 1994 final against an unusually defensive Brazil, and never looked like winning it; Brazil managed to get worse on the way to the 1998 final, and meekly got beat by France; and the draw fell apart nicely for Germany in 2002, and they lost to the first really good side they met.

So I’m hoping tomorrow will be a good, see-saw game. Every World Cup final played in a year ending in six has seen the losing team score twice, so the omens are good.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

All right, I got some things wrong. I thought 4-5-1 might work. I defended Sven bringing Walcott (although I did say we needed some more reliable cover for Owen and Rooney). I even thought Beckham should keep his place and England inarguably played better without him (although I think this is partly because the team realised they could no longer rely on him to rescue them with a moment of inspiration). But I would like to remind everybody that I’ve been a keen supporter of Owen Hargreaves for some time, and was defending him from the haters at the beginning of this tournament. Just in case this fact passed you by, readers.

When Hargreaves played in the first few matches, he did pretty well – but still not well enough to convince those who’d made up their mind that he was essentially useless. But then came Portugal, and he was immense. He seemed to run the length of that pitch fifty times: he practically made up for the loss of an eleventh man all on his own. This was literally the case at one point when his path was blocked by a defender, he looked up to make a pass to the left wing, saw there was nobody there because Joe Cole had gone off, and simply decided to run into the position where Cole would have been and then ran back inside. And he was still getting back and making crucial tackles throughout the match. And he was the only one to convert his penalty.

Not only was it England’s outstanding performance of the match, it was (given the lack of alternative contenders) the team’s outstanding performance of the tournament. Sadly, this is what it takes to impress England fans: not just performing your role effectively in a successful team, but actually running your guts out. We’re weird like that: we’d rather feel proud than win. Effortless players like Zidane are all right for fancy-dan foreign teams, but we like to see hard graft and, preferably, actual blood running down a player’s face and soaking into his shirt. (Top tip for future England players: win the fans over by having a razor blade in your shorts pocket and engineering a clash of heads with an opposition player. When you clutch your head in ‘pain’, sneakily slash it open, avoiding major arteries. As long as the FIFA officials don’t spot it and have you banned for life for carrying an offensive weapon on the field, you’re laughing.)

With Beckham no longer central to the team, the midfield should be rebuilt around Gerrard’s strengths – which means Hargreaves should take over the defensive duties that have stifled Gerrard for so long in England matches. You’d think I’d be satisfied with Hargreaves cementing his place in the team, wouldn’t you? But I’m not going to stop there. Instead, with Beckham having sensibly resigned the captaincy, I plan to commence my Hargreaves For Captain campaign. Just think – the first Canadian to captain England. We can make it happen.

Bringing Hargreaves into the set-up was one of Sven’s most controversial decisions, but has ultimately turned out to be one of his best. Yeah, Sven also made some bad decisions but I think we should focus on the future now rather than wasting time laying into him. There’s no need for an autopsy, we’ve been doing it as we went along – probably too much. The only thing most people have been able to agree on is that Sven was doing it wrong. The actual advice was often contradictory. People have been saying Sven should have done better with these great players… but everybody also seems to agree that they couldn’t all play in the same team. They’ve also said that the likes of Beckham, Lampard and Owen have underperformed, and that Rooney wasn’t fit enough. Take those players away and is the team really that great? Probably Sven’s biggest failing was that he did try to fit all those players into one team – that and his conservative habits.

For most of our history we’ve been a quarter-final team and Sven failed to raise us above that – but he didn't make us sink below it, which is more than you can say for a lot of England managers. With good young players coming through, the next manager has a solid base to build on. It’s just a shame that the next manager is a smug, clueless twat.