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

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Gabriel Agbonlahor

Aston Villa 0 – Liverpool 6: Valentine’s Day Massacre

I haven’t been blogging about Villa much lately. Part of it has been that I have been busy with three very different book projects (stay tuned for more on those). Part of it has been the usual stuff of my day job, my family, and the things I love to do, like coaching my kids’ teams. But I suspect the biggest reason is that, too often, I feel I’ve run out of new things to say.

I’ve written one or two posts about what it feels like to win. I’ve written a few posts about meaningless draws. I’ve written still more about losses big and small, and the grind of supporting a terrible team. And I’ve written a lot about how, often, the only thing that makes supporting Aston Villa worthwhile has been the Chicago Villans.

I’m about to write another one of those. What’s the point? you might reasonably ask. But you could also ask that about watching our team over the past four and a half seasons. Continue reading “Aston Villa 0 – Liverpool 6: Valentine’s Day Massacre”

Aston Villa 0 – Manchester City 0: A New Hope

All smiles at the Globe Pub
You only come to see the Villa!

That flutter in my chest—was it hope? Or merely a sign that I shouldn’t have ordered the egg-and-sausage omelet at kickoff?

I’m Not Crying

Forty degrees as I rode my bike toward the Globe at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. The wind had my eyes watering and hoping that no one saw me before I could dry them. They might think I was crying in advance of the expected result in a battle of first against worst. (Testifying for the defense: Flight of the Conchords.)

En Garde

My prediction for this game had been an 0-3 Villa loss. Granted, that was in the misty days of yore, a full 23 days earlier, back when a man named Tim Sherwood was the manager of the team. Gather round, children, and I’ll tell you the tale of a man whose magical powers were contained in his gilet. Once vanity caused him to forswear the sacred garment, his days were surely numbered . . . .

The choice of Remi Garde as the new Villa manager was an intriguing one, but with a team mired in last place and enduring a seven-game league losing streak taking on the team at the top of the table, it didn’t seem reasonable to expect much. I think I speak for most Villans when I say we were hoping not to be embarrassed too badly. At best, we wanted to see signs of improvement. And even if Villa were to get hammered 6-0, no one would have blamed Garde. Continue reading “Aston Villa 0 – Manchester City 0: A New Hope”

Aston Villa 1 – Birmingham City 0: The Globe Pub Is Ours

The blind, the halt, and the lame--at least as far as our employers are concerned.
Ten men on their deathbeds–at least as far as our employers are concerned.

Nik: Enjoy the game!
Brian: You don’t enjoy derbies.

A Game of Two Halves

The 2015–16 edition of Aston Villa clearly has more potential than last year’s model—but while they suffer a historically bad start in league play, a key question is whether they can realize that potential. And with Sherwood’s managerial tactics clearly at fault in a a couple of games, another question is whether he would learn from his mistakes before it was too late.

Fortunately, the old cliche—it’s a game of two halves—is rooted in actual fact. If yesterday’s League Cup game against Birmingham City had consisted only of the first half, I’m not sure extra time and penalties would have been sufficient to determine a result. They might still be playing. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that, due to some ripple in the space-time continuum, there isn’t an alternate universe in which they are still playing an ugly, uninspired game for 18 hours and counting. Continue reading “Aston Villa 1 – Birmingham City 0: The Globe Pub Is Ours”

Sunderland 0 – Aston Villa 4: The Cult of Tim

In Tim We Trust
In Tim We Trust

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. Continue reading “Sunderland 0 – Aston Villa 4: The Cult of Tim”

Leicester City 1 – Aston Villa 0: We’ll Score Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When

We're number one in worst disciplinary record!
We’re number one in worst disciplinary record!

I watched the nil-nil against Crystal Palace with a handful of supporters at the Globe. The sound was off, we were seated in the wrong part of the bar, and the game was so boring I couldn’t stand to write about it.

I didn’t watch the FA Cup game against Blackpool—not even sure I could have. But I wish I had seen it, as the sight of Villa scoring a goal ranks up there with spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker. Or has our ability to score a goal truly gone extinct? Only time will tell. Those who claim to have seen Villa score may soon be regarded with the same skepticism of those who claim to have seen Bigfoot strolling through their backyard.

Or has our ability to score a goal truly gone extinct?

But winning that game and staying alive in that competition, and then drawing Bournemouth in the fourth round, put me in a very tolerant mood. Yes, Villa are boring, and no, they don’t score goals, but I found myself nodding in agreement with a couple of blog posts I’d read about how patience is required, we’re building, and all things considered we’re doing well. I mean, in all competitions, the last 5 games had seen 1 win, 1 loss, and 3 draws—not the worst, all considered.

We're number one in goal efficiency!
We’re number one in goal efficiency!

And the lack of goals has been so—bizarre—I figured that, you know, at some point Villa would go hog-wild crazy and score two of the things. I mean, why not? And if ever there was a team to do it against, it would be Leicester City. Yes, they’ve improved a bit, but they’re not dead-last in the Premier League for nothing.

So how bizarre to watch Villa well and truly beaten by the worst team in the league. Despite what sounded like solid support from traveling Villa fans, the team deserved nothing for their efforts, and nothing is what the fans got. I’m looking for signs of hope and, barring some revelatory moves in the January transfer window, I just don’t see any. On the whole, we do defend well, and Guzan is still keeping us in games. But we have no ideas in midfield and no teeth on attack. We’re now keeping the ball better than we have in ages, but it doesn’t matter, because we clearly don’t know what to do with it. It’s tempting to blame Benteke’s lack of service, but even with players lobbing the ball at him desperately, he tends to run lukewarm and cold this season.

In sartorial terms, Villa is wearing a stout pair of shoes and a nice pair of pants but lacks a belt, shirt, and anything above the neck. Cleverly isn’t, N’zogbia doesn’t, Cole can’t, Richardson used to in September, and Westwood probably never will. Delph might be a wee bit overrated, but if he goes, what are we left with? Sanchez, who’s solid enough but still doesn’t offer anything going forward.

It occurs to me that my notion of “winnable”
is several years out of date.

We need someone to help create goals and we need someone who can score goals. And if Benteke isn’t scoring goals, who will? It pains me to say this, but I really don’t care if Gabby starts ever again. Ditto Weimann.

We had so many winnable games in December and we got 8 points out of a possible 18. We’ve had two winnable games in January and we took 1 point out of 6. Of course, staring such harsh data in the face it occurs to me that my notion of “winnable” is several years out of date. For the rest of the season, no game will seem winnable and any points will feel like a Christmas present.) Our next three league games are Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea. I could see us getting 1 point out of 9, or 0.

Worst of all, watching Villa is BORING BORING BORING. Honestly, at this point, I’d rather go see a casual acquaintance’s one-woman show about her relationship with her mother than to watch another 90 minutes of what I saw yesterday. Hell, I’d rather STAR in a one-woman show about my relationship with my mother than watch Villa lose to the last-place team. I mean, Leicester is still going down, right? We all agree on that? So if we can’t compete with a team that is all but guaranteed to be relegated means . . . .

Don’t make me say it out loud.

Holy shit, Villa are boring. I have no hope we’ll score. I counted one truly nice passage of play yesterday, around the 32nd minute I think, that of course paid no dividends. What did I do in a former life that I was condemned to watch so many shit games?

We're number one in least goals scored!
We’re number one in least goals scored!

I’ve always resisted the call of “Lambert Out!”—in part because I don’t know that we’ll do any better than him. (I was absolutely astonished to see one supporter fondly remembering Alex McLeish’s term in charge.) But more and more, I wonder whether a change needs to be made. Even if we got a new-manager bounce that was only worth a couple of wins, those 6 points might be enough to save the season. And while we may not have the talent we need, the players we’ve got are better than the results we’ve had. And that, more than anything, may be a case for making a change at the top.

I will say this: I desperately want Lambert to succeed. Yes, Villa returning to winning ways would boost all our spirits. But it would also give some meaning to these endless hours waiting for a goal. It would feel like that time was worth something, not wasted, that our patience (and, yes, sometimes impatience) was rewarded.

Some stats that will boggle your mind:

  • Chelsea, Man City, and all the rest can eat our dust as Villa is now FIRST in the disciplinary table. They have five sendings-off.
  • Villa is also FIRST in the goal efficiency table: at two points per goal, they leave their nearest competitor, Stoke, far behind dust (1.18 points per goal).
  • Villa is also LAST in scoring with 11 goals. The next worst team, Sunderland, has 64% more goals than us.
  • However, Villa has the FIFTH BEST defense in terms of goals allowed. Only Southampton, Chelsea, Man City, and Man United have allowed fewer.
  • Due to the scarcity of goals scored, Villa still has the FIFTH WORST goal difference.
  • If you want to get really depressed about the lack of offense, there have been 544 goals scored in the Premier League through the first 21 games. Despite the fact that Villa represents 5% of the league, their 11 goals represent 2% of the total haul. (And still that number seems high…)

Given all that, it’s hard to believe that Villa is as high as 13th in the league table. Efficiency or no, if they don’t start scoring some goals soon, we might be watching them in the Championship next season.

Swansea City 1 – Aston Villa 0: And I Made My Loved Ones Watch

Still smiling after the 1-0 loss to Swans
Still smiling after the 1-0 loss to Swans

Introducing people you care about to your favorite team is a fraught proposition. It can be like bringing your first girlfriend home to meet your parents—ideally, she’s a Phi Beta Kappa valedictorian with an I.Q. of 132 who got a six-figure job straight out of college. Or it can be like bringing home the “dancer” you married under circumstances neither of you remember. In the latter scenario, you will be desperately extolling her virtues (“She’s . . . really flexible!”) while your family sniffs her breath and tries to ignore her neck tattoos. But there is, of course, some logical reason you were first attracted to her, even if you can’t always remember what it was.

Members of my family have, of course, known of my infatuation with a certain Aston Villa for years. To them, I’m sure it’s one of those puzzling but endearing personality traits they’ll never understand, along with my penchant for reading roadside interpretive signs in the voice of a 1940s newsreel announcer and the fact that I still listen to E.L.O. But many of them have never actually watched a game with me. This year, with my brother Sean’s family visiting from Salt Lake City for Christmas, and my mom Nancy in from Montana, things were destined to change.

Aston Villa 1 – Manchester United 1

I had originally planned to take them all to the Globe the morning after they arrived. But a delayed flight (on Frontier, whose motto should be, “You Get What You Pay for, Unless We Give You Less”) and a post-midnight arrival meant that no one jumped out of bed the next morning. One by one, my guests roused themselves to find me enjoying my morning coffee and watching TV as Villa played host to Man United. “They usually destroy us, but you never know,” I said, then watched with growing pride as Villa first scored (Christian Benteke in the 18th minute, on a beautifully worked solo strike), and then didn’t completely collapse. Yes, they gave away the lead (to Falcao in the 53rd), but who wasn’t expecting that? Given the history between the two sides, most of us were probably expecting them to give away several more goals, and maybe even the North Stand. In the end, it was a point that felt not like victory but progress.

And, for the record, that was never, ever a red card offense by Gabby. Looked like a fifty-fifty to me.

Swansea City 1 – Aston Villa 0

Even my mother and niece noted ten-man Villa’s tenacity in holding the high-priced Manchester side at bay, causing my chest to swell with pride. And when, on Christmas Day, I casually suggested that we could all enjoy a Boxing Day breakfast at the Globe before afternoon departures from O’Hare, it seemed perfectly logical that they would all be interested. Only my own sons said no—we’d been dragging them downtown all week, and besides they had new toys to play with. At kickoff, I was proudly hosting two tables of Globe first-timers: my wife Marya (at last!), my brother Sean, sister-in-law Kirstin, niece Wilhelmina, nephew Oscar, and my dear mom.

What my family saw, of course, was a team whose
collective ability to erect a wall resembled that of
the Cannabis Builders’ Union.

My own recruitment efforts will always pale in comparison to those of Chicago Lions Chairman Simon Leach, but I do consider it my duty to bring more fans into the claret-and-blue fold. And this, to me, seemed like a good game game to do it. Yes, Villa were away, but the days of home-field advantage seem a distant memory these days. And, yes, Swans came into the game in eighth place, four above twelfth-placed Villa. But, with Benteke and Delph back on the field, with Alan Hutton back at right back, with Villa playing with more and more confidence and less and less hoof-and-hope, the moment seemed ripe for a one-goal victory, the perfect bookend to a great holiday week. Even more, I hoped Villa would put on a performance that would offer a strong argument for my allegiance to the club.

However.

Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is not a dwarf from Lord of the Rings, goes over the "wall."
Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is not a dwarf from Lord of the Rings, goes over the “wall.”

What my family saw, of course, was a team whose collective ability to erect a wall resembled that of the Cannabis Builders’ Union (motto: You Can Count on Us to Finish . . . Wait, What Were We Making Again?). Blame Guzan the architect if you must, but it was a collective lapse of concentration that led to as simple and embarrassing a concession on a free kick as I can remember. Yes, the foul Okore was charged with was not really a foul, and, yes, Gabby should have had a penalty on that push later on. And, yes, Villa created far more chances in the second half than their hosts. But what will my guests remember about this game? Gylfi Sigurdsson kicking the ball into the net like a training-ground exercise.

(The Guardian called it a “missile,” but technically, any flying object can be called that. And, if the defending side paints a target on the goal, does the offense really deserve credit for hitting it?)

And this is where my soccer-team-as-the-
stripper-you-married metaphor breaks down.

LuvabullThe thing is, I still saw growth and potential in this game. Just as the man who married the stripper knows she has the potential to be a ballerina, or at least one of the Luvabulls, I saw things giving me hope that all I’ve invested in this relationship will some day be worth it. Villa lost when they deserved at least a point—on yet another maddening lapse of concentration—yet they held the ball better, they passed their way out of trouble (and, admittedly, into it), and they really had a lot of times when they COULD HAVE AND SHOULD HAVE PUT THE BALL IN THE BACK OF THE NET.

(Sidebar: Watching Match of the Day late last night, it occurred to me that, if teams scored every time the commentators announcers intone, “He should have scored,” or “He should have done better” or “He should at least be putting the ball on target,” soccer games would have American football scores. But I digress.)

And this is where my soccer-team-as-the-stripper-you-married metaphor breaks down, because, if you marry a stripper, the presumption is that, if nothing else, you will score.

Ever the gentleman, Simon chatted warmly with Wilhelmina and Oscar, reminding my eleven-year-old nephew (who adores Bayern Munich) that he could choose an English team, too. And that, further, when one Bayern Munich and one Aston Villa met one fateful May night in 1982, it was the English side who carried home the jug-eared trophy. (And promptly lost it, but that’s another story.) I think we’d all like to give the Germans a chance to redeem themselves . . . .

Fourteen-year-old Wilhelmina, a soccer player, runner, and ultimate-frisbee player, showed real promise as a Villan, rising out of her seat when Villa was on the attack, wincing when they were on defense, lending her voice to the general dismay when we missed another chance on goal.

So maybe she sees the potential as well. And if even one or two more family members take a rooting interest in Villa, the outing will have been well worth it—a perfect Christmas present to me, and from me.

Let’s just hope it’s not a gift Wilhelmina and Oscar want to return after the holidays are over.

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