Is This the Real Life?
For awhile, blogging was difficult because I’d run out of new ways to talk about not scoring goals and not winning games.
After three wins on the trot, I’m finding it equally difficult to recall these long-forgotten words from my Villa Vocabulary: winning, scoring, cheering, excitement, happiness.
But though they sound strange on my tongue, and I’m no doubt pronouncing them wrong, it’s nevertheless time to use them again. It took a couple of games to kick in, but we are finally experiencing the joy of the fabled new-manager bounce. Villa has gained ground in the league, knocked the Baggies out of the FA Cup while advancing to a semifinal date against Liverpool or Blackburn (for the sake of argument let’s say Liverpool)—and possibly more importantly than any of that, Villa are fun to watch again.
Is This Just Fantasy?
Though in a moment of despair earlier this season, I wrote that I didn’t care if I ever saw Gabby Agbonlahor start a game again (admit it, you’ve felt the same way), I was glad I had that privilege yesterday. He looked like a new man, or, better, the old man, running at defenders, causing problems, and shooting with accuracy. (Wait, did he ever shoot with accuracy? Or is that a new Gabby?)
Benteke’s ice-cold penalty take against West Brom seemed to have rewired his central nervous system, as he ruthlessly dispatched his two chances. We got a brace of braces from two players who are going to be absolutely essential to the club’s ability to survive, and thrive, and in the same way that losing breeds losing, winning breeds winning, and we can only hope that these recent victories mate and reproduce until wins multiply like Tribbles.
(I’m very, very sorry for that comparison. It’s just awful, and has no place in a serious discussion of sport.)
Caught in a Landslide
One Villan on Twitter noted that playing with genuine width and wingers, and a big man/little man combo up front, is “the Villa way.” Why didn’t Lambert see these simple things, everyone is wondering.
Also on Twitter, I noted the following comment: “So have any of the lambert death cult members admitted that they were utterly wrong and that supporting Lambert was damaging to #avfc? Nah.” I’d like to think all supporters could just be happy the team’s playing better, but for some people victory only tastes sweet if others are tucking into a humble pie laced with vinegar. (One reply even suggested that Lambert supporters be named and kicked out of the club!)
Personally, I would have thought that Lambert’s management, the players’ performances, and executive decision-making were much more harmful to the club than the timid souls who spent too long hoping the skipper would right the ship. I know I’m one of them: in my defense, I can only say that I had little faith that Lambert’s replacement would be any kind of an improvement. Remember how we were all happy when Lambert replaced McLeish?
Maybe that’s operating from a place of fear, and maybe operating from a place of fear is a gateway to bona fide card-carrying membership in a death cult, but I’d like to think that reasonable people can disagree on the hypothetical outcomes of management changes without insulting each other. Of course, we’re Villa supporters, so “reasonable” might be a bit of a stretch.
No Escape From Reality
But if it makes people feel better to blame supporters for a lackluster season, fine. I’m man enough to admit that I supported Paul Lambert longer than was strictly rational, and that, while I did eventually reach my limit, I did not reach my limit in time to prevent Villa’s worst run of form in decades from happening. For that, I am sorry. I am personally responsible, and you, my fellow supporters, deserve better.
In my defense, I am also an American, and as has been established many times by some erudite minds with a greater claim to fandom than mine, I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Open Your Eyes
I still believe most clubs are too quick to change managers during a rough patch, but I can’t argue that Lambert was given too much rope before he got the chop. (And, for that mixed metaphor, let me also offer my apologies.) When you are no longer staring at the abyss but actually clinging to a withered shrub halfway down its slope, something needs to change. Given the relative salaries of managers and players, its usually the manager.
And it would be strange now to argue that it was the players who needed changing. With only the mid-season addition of Scott Sinclair to yesterday’s starting eleven, it was the same old players who got a brand-new result. All season long my belief that we wouldn’t really, actually be relegated came from the quality of the players. I always believed that we have better players than the performances indicated, and it seemed inconceivable that they wouldn’t break their run of woe at some time.
Look Up to the Skies
Is this all down to Sherwood? It certainly feels that way. He’s lifted the pall hanging over Bodymoor Heath and Villa Park. The players have renewed belief and some results that powerfully reinforce that belief. It’s clear that Sherwood himself doesn’t lack for self-belief. In the “intangibles” category, he has made things more entertaining off the pitch, too, with his claim that you have to have “bollocks” to play for Villa, his alternately brooding/pumped presence on the touchline, and his frank post-match interviews.
But while I don’t want to be the guy who drops a turd in the punch bowl, I would sound a cautionary note. While a few good results may be enough to salvage a season, they are not in themselves evidence the savior walks among us. A few people have wryly noted that Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa™ has won three in a row, and three out of five, bringing Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa Winning Percentage™ to a stunning 60%—better than even his vaunted 59% percentage at Tottenham.
The reality, of course, is that those results are not predicated on a rich mine of data: 5 games for Villa, 22 for Tottenham. Granted, even the most illustrious career must start somewhere, and it’s my sincere hope that Tim Sherwood goes down in history as one of the greatest-ever managers in the history of Aston Villa, overseeing the club’s return to European competition and glory therein.
But the very traits—blunt speech and abrasive, autocratic behavior—that are useful in the short-term world of a relegation scrap may be less useful over time as he manages a dressing room and oversees transfers and the development of young talent. (Although, again, the signs are positive: he gave 16-year-old Rushian Hepburn-Murphy a debut near the end of yesterday’s game.) He has given us all what we sorely needed—points—and that’s something to cheer about. And if he keeps the club up with the quality players at his disposal, that’s one marker of success. The next marker will be whether he can lift Villa into a top-half finish next season.
As happy as I am today—and that is very, very happy indeed—the last few seasons of disappointment have made me too wary to drink the Flavor Aid quite yet.
After all, when you’ve just been rescued and deprogrammed from one cult, why rush to join another?
And One Final Nonsequitur Subheading
In the meantime, let’s all just enjoy ourselves. There’s no need for the Lambert Out visionaries to root out and attack those who simply tried to cheer on the team during its darkest hour.