Regular readers will have noticed that I haven’t posted for awhile. That has been both accidental and intentional. Accidental because I thought I had hit “publish” after the Arsenal game when, in reality, I had only hit “save” (I just fixed that error); intentional because, after Chelsea and Hull, I really had run out of new ways to write about the same old shit.
Aston Villa 1 – Chelsea 2
I watched the 1-2 loss to Chelsea a few days after undergoing eye surgery. When Hazard’s eighth-minute goal went in, I picked up the phone, ready to call my doctor and ask him to put the bandages back on. But the goal actually brought Villa to life—they responded well, played hard, and Okore’s equalizer was well deserved. Given Mourinho’s record of frustration at Villa Park, I actually allowed myself to believe we would earn a point or steal a victory. When the inevitable loss came, however, I saw glimmers of hope. Breaking a 660-minute goal drought, and losing by only one goal, seemed like a decent result against the league leaders. More importantly, Villa didn’t look defeated. They played hard and didn’t show any sign of quitting. With Carles Gil adding some creativity in midfield, it seemed perfectly reasonable to expect points against Hull in midweek.
Hull 2 – Aston Villa 0
Of course, what about this season has been perfectly reasonable? At work, I got the stream working just in time to see Nikica Jelavich fluke one in off Clark’s attempted block. As the commentator said, “When you’re down at the bottom, all the luck seems to go against you.” Yes, Villa has played dull and uninspiring soccer. But, when you look at the players they have and the results you get, sometimes you just wonder if it could all change direction if a fluke went our way for once. And yet. When Dame N’Doye buried his own rebound off Guzan’s initial save, it was clear that, once more, we were out of luck. My stream chose that moment to freeze and, in a rare moment of apathy, I simply closed the window. Ten games without a win in the Premier League and, for the first time this year, I believed we would be relegated. Also, finally, I agreed with the notion that it was time for Lambert to go. Unless we were to play out this bizarre Becket, Beckettian season to its final end game, still waiting for goals, a change had to be made.
That said, surely it can’t have been all the unemotional Scotsman’s fault. Lambert out. Villa out. Supporters . . . you’d better stick around, you’re the only ones keeping this thing afloat.
Aston Villa 2 – Leicester City 1
And then Lambert was out! And, without a number two, suddenly our managerial bench looked very thin indeed. And Tim Sherwood, the candidate linked to seemingly every managerial opening in England, was suddenly installed in our opening. (Which I really should rephrase, because it sounds as though we’re being managed without our consent.) Would Sherwood build upon his fabled 59 percent winning percentage with Aston Villa? It certainly looked that way after the fifth-round FA Cup win against Leicester City. With the game deadlocked at halftime and Sherwood watching from the stands, he made an unplanned visit to the dressing room to deliver the kind of speech that, if this were a movie, would have had Gabby Agbonlahor leading a slow-clap that would have risen to a slow crescendo, followed by an utter second-half demolition of the Foxes.
Since it was real life, an uninspiring but legally earned win fit the bill quite nicely.
Aston Villa 1 – Stoke City 2
Belief was growing in the buildup to the game against Stoke. Sure, Stoke are nobody’s patsies, but as players spoke of renewed belief, of energized training sessions, and Sherwood’s ability to make them feel ten feet tall, all signs indicated that it was our turn to enjoy the fabled new-manager bounce. Having seen many other teams knock out a few wins after a change of gaffer, I hoped that, even if Sherwood would turn out to be yet another managerial bust for Villa, even a short string of improved results would be enough to move the team out of the relegation zone to safety.
Sherwood’s own self-regard seems to rival Jose Mourinho’s and, if a niggling vast gulf of achievement separates the two men, Sherwood certainly isn’t losing any sleep over it. Unusually, however, he cited Pep Guardiola’s career as a more reasonable ambition. Didn’t anyone tell him that Paul Lambert’s own desire to emulate Pep has been part of Villa’s problem? Winning the possession battle has never translated into winning results for the Villans, who have in recent years fared far better when letting the other team keep the ball at their feet and feeding off scraps. How many of us long to her the words “lightning fast counterattack” again. Or even “hoping to catch them on the break.”
It’s been so long since I watched Villa win a game—I’ve been watching the Cup games late at night or even a day later—that, without consulting the archives of this blog, I couldn’t even tell you when that last happened. I’ve been coaching my kids’ indoor soccer teams, too, which has made it difficult to get down to the Globe to take in the latest loss in commiseration with my fellow Chicago Villans. This last Saturday, though, a favorable late-day schedule meant I could get down to the pub, and I did, happy to see a dozen of the usual suspects rolling in as the game got underway.
Unlike the fatalism that has permeated recent gatherings, the mood was optimistic: change had arrived and we were all expecting a change in fortune. It seemed this expectation would be rewarded as an energized Villa attacked Stoke and took the lead through Scott Sinclair’s 20th-minute header. “Do you remember how to write something positive?” asked Simon happily—and it was a sign of my own shared, and equally misplaced, optimism that I didn’t even stop to consider whether this remark was premature. Villa were on the front foot and I believed the game would go their way.
But then something happened: as they have so many times, Villa began to drop back. They allowed Stoke to bring the game to them, and the visitors were rewarded with an equalizer just before the halftime whistle. Time for another inspirational Sherwood team talk! Well, whatever he said, it didn’t work. As the second half wore on, it felt more and more like a 1-1 draw in the making. Not what we were hoping for, but a point’s a point and most of us would have taken it without too much griping.
And then: Ron Vlaar. The team captain, the best defender at the World Cup, Substandard Concrete Ron took a bad touch and atoned for his error by giving away a penalty in the closing minutes of the game. Guzan guessed wrong but it wouldn’t have mattered: Victor Moses placed it perfectly and Stoke left Villa Park with all three points.
And Aston Villa slipped to 19th place in the table.
* * *
Hope is a funny thing. When Lambert was sacked, a friend asked on Twitter whether I was happy. Happy didn’t seem like the right word. I suppose there’s some relief when a change is made that holds the possibility of a change in fortune. But the thing is, when a manager is given a long-term contract, the idea is that you’re building something. When the desired edifice fails to take shape, how can you feel happy that suddenly a new guy is on the building site with his own set of blueprints?
In the game itself, failure is a constant. Whether it’s a hoof-and-hope that sails out of bounds or an intricately constructed series of seventeen passes that fails to produce a shot on goal due to an imperfectly weighted through-pass that deflects off a defender’s toe, almost everything a team attempts during the course of a game is destined to come to nothing. Still, if one or two of those attacks succeed, that can be enough success on the given day.
But a whole season, or a two-and-a-half-season tenure, that fails to produce anything like the desired result—that’s a different order of things entirely. Oh, to be the fan that can shrug off that scale of failure and suddenly feel confident that, yes, now things will be done properly. I wish I were that fan. Instead, I increasingly suspect that there is no plan, only an endless series of desperation moves. Will this be the desperation move that somehow restores a storied club to its rightful place in the Premier League?
I didn’t dislike Paul Lambert, although he was possibly the least mediagenic manager in England. He meant well, but though his Norwich was a reasonably high-scoring team, he turned Villa into something as dull, hopeless, and predictable as his own after-match remarks. I like Sherwood, who at least promises to be entertaining. But his tenure at Tottenham was awfully short. Despite his vaunted win percentage, we don’t have a lot to judge him on. (Given the small number of games factoring into that equation, each successive Villa loss will make a measurable mark on his lifetime win percentage.)
But everybody’s got to start somewhere. Sometimes a lack of experience can be helpful in seeing things freshly. I hope Sherwood’s admirable self-confidence is warranted. But I worry that, a few months from now, those words of hope and promise will sound sadly ironic, the delusional ravings of the latest man unable to reverse the fortunes of the club we love.
* * *
The post is already unforgivably long, and yet here’s more: sometimes, on Facebook, I’ve seen sneering comments from born-in-Brum, lifelong Villans who mock the Yanks who have chosen to support the same team. Why don’t we support a local team instead of prospecting abroad, they wonder. (That we don’t know the first thing about the game is a given—we’re American.)
It’s a funny thing. I can well understand the derision of a someone who, say, supported Manchester City before they were fortunate enough to get bought by a sheikh capable of reversing their declining fortunes. Anyone who has suffered long naturally resents those who suddenly buy a shirt and claim a part of the success. (Although you could also argue that, if you truly love a team, you’d want them to be the biggest team in the world, bar none, and that it’s a bit insecure to feel like someone else’s casual flirtation with your club threatens your lifetime relationship.)
But American Villans can hardly be accused of being glory hunters. Long-suffering English Villans who resent Yanks who have chosen to share the suffering seems . . . insufferable. It’s as if, given the many recent years of disappointment, and with no success to jealously guard, the suffering itself has become key to certain supporters’ identities, and they’re unwilling to share even that. And is that how Aston Villa supporters want to define themselves? Aren’t we bigger than that?
It reminds me a little bit of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where Brian is thrown into the dungeon and spat on by the jailer, only to be accused by the prisoner already chained to the wall of being a coddled bastard.
I fully admit that, with roughly a decade invested, I’m still a late arrival. I’m keenly aware of how much about the team I don’t know, that I’ve missed, and will never experience. But I’ve made good memories among the bad and found many new friends among the Chicago supporters. I also know that I’ve suffered too much to give up now.
So maybe my suffering defines me, too? Well, as far as I’m concerned, all are welcome to share.