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Aston Villa, From Chicago to the Holte End of the World

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Aston Villa at Everton: Please, God, Let Us Have Another Point

jordan-amavi

Libor Kozak. Jores Okore. Jordan Amavi. When Villa’s promising new players get injured, they sure don’t mess around.

Thankfully, Rudy Gestede’s knee injury doesn’t sound too serious, but with Amavi on the wrong end of a season-ending tackle while playing for the France U21s—shortly after playing an important part in that slide-stopping nil-nil against Man City—I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering whether Aston Villa is truly cursed.

I guess the question going forward is this: is an Aston Villa with Kieran Richardson significantly more likely to get relegated than an Aston Villa with Jordan Amavi? (If we were baseball geeks, I believe we’d be talking about WAR.)

I’m sure that’s completely unfair to the former player, but if Villa are to stave off relegation this season, it’s likely to be by the finest of margins.

Everton’s home record is mixed, but their recent goal-scoring record against Villa—yikes. If there’s anything that makes me feel better at the moment, it’s Jordan Ayew’s goal for Ghana.

What’s that you say? It was only against Comoros Islands, and you couldn’t find that on a map?

Spoilsport.

Please please please please let us get another point to add to our collection tomorrow. I’m not even going to dream about a win.

UTV

Who Will Win the Next Five Games? Bold Predictions by Two Fearful Fans

At the invitation of Lewis Rollins, a Villa supporter who blogs under the pseudonym “Lewis Rollins” (I was able to deduce his true identity only after hiring a private investigator), I have, against my better judgment, predicted the outcome and scoreline of the next five games. Why have I done this? Because I like nothing more than to turn up at the pub and be reminded how often and how badly I’ve gotten it wrong.

No, seriously, I’m doing it for the reason Lewis suggests, which is simply to add a diversion to what promises to be a bleak run of games. Villa may be unlikely to come out on top in many of its upcoming encounters, but either Lewis or I will emerge victorious in our quest to be the most accurate prognosticator. We’ll be awarding 5 points for guessing the correct scoreline and 2 points for the correct result. Continue reading “Who Will Win the Next Five Games? Bold Predictions by Two Fearful Fans”

Aston Villa – West Bromwich Albion: Predicting a “Convincing” Villa Win

Obviously, you’ve got a West Brom who, under Tony Pulis, refuse to concede goals. Aston Villa, who refuse to score them. So, the only possible outcome is a convincing Aston Villa win. Because it’s a funny old game, innit?

—Simon Burnton on Football Weekly, March 2, 2015

Aston Villa 1 – Stoke City 2: That New-Manager Thud

Tim Sherwood recalculates his lifetime win percentage after losing to Stoke
Tim Sherwood recalculates his lifetime win percentage after losing to Stoke

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.

UTV

Aston Villa at West Brom: Derby Day

An American Explains Derbies for Americans without Using “Um,” “Like,” or “You Know”

For the uninitiated, a derby is a game between two neighboring teams. (It’s also pronounced “darby,” unless you’re talking about horses in Kentucky.) Some the most famous derbies take place between teams such as Liverpool and Everton (whose stadiums are less than a mile apart), Rangers and Celtic (two Glasgow teams that embody the spiritual derby between Protestants and Catholics), AC Milan and Inter Milan (where the teams share the same stadium, San Siro, meaning that every derby is both home and away), and Boca Juniors and River Plate (two Buenos Aires teams who duke it out in the so-called “Superclasico”).

Handbags out!
Handbags out!

Barcelona and Real Madrid don’t have a true derby—their stadiums are nearly 400 miles distant—but the intense rivalry between the two cities, and a Catalonia-versus-Spain dynamic that goes back centuries (and reached its nadir during the reign of Franco), certainly make the contest worthy of derby status. Watch an “El Clasico,” and you’ll see so many players rolling around on the ground that you’ll think the war never ended.

Aston Villa is blessed with an abundance of derbies, due to the number of well-supported teams in the Birmingham area. This is convenient, as Villa’s rivals tend to get relegated with some frequency; having more than one to choose from ensures Villa are more likely to have at least one home-and-away Premier League derby—and, in some seasons, as in 2010-11, three.

Gabby stands up to Jonas Olsson
Gabby stands up to Jonas Olsson

There’s the fixture they play today, at West Bromwich Albion (West Brom or “The Baggies“—hey, it used to be “The Throstles”). A game against Wolverhampton Wanderers (usually just “Wolves”) would also be a derby—given that Wolves are currently playing in the euphemistically named League One (i.e., the third division of the professional English soccer), that’s unlikely to happen soon. Another derby would take place against what seems to be Villans’ most-hated rival, Birmingham City (“The Blues”) . . . although calling them a “rival” seems to give them a bit more credit than they deserve, as they’re currently plumbing the lower depths of the so-called Championship (i.e., second division).

A derby is instantly recognizable to any American sports fan as a crosstown rivalry, although, because most American cities tend to have only one team in any professional sport, these tend to take place more at the high school level. College sports are probably where rivalries are most intense in America: Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Oregon-Oregon State, and the list goes on and on.

There are, of course, major rivalries in pro sports—Bears-Packers, Cubs-Cardinals, and Blackhawks-Red Wings are the big ones in Chicago, where I live, and Yankees-Red Sox and Cowboys-Redskins come quickly to mind—but the sheer, staggering distance between American cities tends to cool some of the heat.

For the American fan, it’s hard to imagine the intense, generations-old animosity that accompanies these derbies, the hatred and violence that sometimes go along with them. Then again, in places where the fighting is, or has been, real, it’s not hard to see how the teams become surrogates doing battle on behalf of their fans.

MLS has, of course, imported a lot from European soccer to the U.S., starting with the awkward grafting of team names: Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, Chivas USA. And while some rivalries have grown organically—L.A. Galaxy-San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers—we’re still finding our feet on this whole derby thing. Somehow, the Chicago Fire and F.C. Dallas have been judged to be rivals, annually contesting the “Brimstone Cup.” But, given that more than 900 miles separate the two cities, a game against Dallas is likely to bring only a few dozen stalwart fans to Toyota Park, their presence made more notable by the empty seating around them. Hardly a derby atmosphere. The Fire’s more natural rivals are the Columbus Crew, who are nearer, but it’s certainly no Villa-West Brom.

Chris Herd gets a leg up on Liam Ridgewell
Chris Herd gets a leg up on Liam Ridgewell

Historically, Villa have gotten the better of the Baggies, with 4 wins, 2 losses, and 6 draws—although, in the last 5 meetings, it’s not as pretty a picture, with 3 draws and 2 wins for the Baggies. As of this morning, they’re currently level on points, 14 each, although West Brom is 11th, and Villa 12th, having scored one less goal so far this season. On form, West Brom is 8th (W D D L W D) and Villa 11th (W D L L D W). All things being equal, I (and, I suspect, most Villa supporters) would be happy with bringing home a point from the Hawthorns.

And what will the atmosphere be when I watch? I’ll be a long way from the heated derby atmosphere. I’ll be at work, and will turn off my Twitter feed and go off Facebook in hopes of avoiding the result while my DVR whirs silently at home. And, if I succeed in negotiating a complex variety of real-life tasks (kids, shopping, cleaning the bathroom for our Thanksgiving guests who arrive tomorrow), I’ll sneak off to the Globe to watch the delayed game with Simon and another guy or two—instead of watching it much later, alone, wishing I were there in the stands.

Aston Villa v Tottenham Hotspur: My Preview

I would have expected this one to be a walk in the park until I heard that Spurs replaced their coach. Lasso is out, replaced by a guy named Andy or something. If he knows the offside rule, we could be in trouble.

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