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.

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