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

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Ron Vlaar

3 Points, 2 Games, 1 Goal: Here We Go Again

Who Are These Guys?

Only one more signing until we reach lucky 11
Only one more signing until we reach lucky 11

Nothing like a wholesale cleanout of the squad to remind us that Aston Villa Football Club isn’t only about a bunch of highly paid professionals toiling on the pitch. Players come and go, managers come and go, owners come and go (we hope), and only the fans remain.

(And, as the Soft Boys remind us, the stones.) Continue reading “3 Points, 2 Games, 1 Goal: Here We Go Again”

Crystal Palace 0 – Aston Villa 1: The Lion Scores Tonight

It is, as many before me have observed, a funny game. With Aston Villa’s bleak record in London; with the eighth-minute injury to Joe Cole, the most influential player in last Saturday’s draw against Burnley; and with a Crystal Palace team that seemed to be attacking in waves from the opening whistle, there were few if any signs that Villa’s trip to Selhurst Park would end in anything but tragedy. Even Benteke seemed out of form in the opening minutes, his self-inflicted three-game layoff appearing to have broken the form he was starting to find.

Christian Benteke: The Lion Scores Tonight
Christian Benteke: The Lion Scores Tonight

But then, after a terrific strike in which he turned defender Scott Dann and forced a fine save from goalkeeper Julian Speroni, Benteke proved again why he is so important to the team. Stealing the ball from Dann on the sideline, he raced toward the goal and used the body of Brede Hangeland to screen an inch-perfect shot that curled into the lower right-hand corner.

Imagine how things might look if we’d had him all season. Certainly, the Lambert Out contingent would have less to complain about. A couple more goals at the right moment and everything would look different.

Everything certainly looks different this morning. Yes, Palace certainly had more and better chances. And yes, our defending was desperate for long stretches of the game. And yes, it at times resembled bordered on farce as we offered up chance after chance to score—chances that Palace were unable to capitalize on. In the battle of The Team That Can’t Protect a Lead versus The Team That Can’t Score, Palace proved to be just a little bit more awful on the day.

I almost felt sorry for them, knowing what it’s like to cheer for a team that can’t put the ball in the back of the net. But as I say, almost.

In the battle of The Team That Can’t Protect a Lead
versus The Team That Can’t Score, Palace proved
to be just a little bit more awful on the day.

And Villa’s grit and determination are something to cheer about. They came into the game with an utterly awful run of nine games without a win and they fought like hell to end that streak yesterday. A team without Vlaar, Delph, Senderos, or even Cole and Baker.

No two Villans seem able to agree on our best starting lineup—some detest Sanchez, some were furious he wasn’t starting. And at least one fan seems to think, bizarrely, that Cissokho is the worst player ever to pull on a claret and blue shirt. But everyone, everyone, is feeling better today. We’ve woken from our most recent nightmare. And, if Villa can beat Leicester City at Villa Park on Sunday, which they should, we’ll be dreaming again of a top-half finish.

Hell, I’ve already started.

Premier League table December 2, 2014

Queens Park Rangers 2 – Aston Villa 0: Tom Hanks Reconsiders

I really don't know what they're moaning about
I really don’t know what they’re moaning about

I know something about losing. I know what it’s like to come to the field week after week, hoping for a win, a draw, or even an honorable loss—and, week after week, to go home disappointed. I know what it’s like to sift through shit looking for the gleam of a coin that was swallowed long ago. I know what it’s like to say, “We’ll get ’em next week” so often that no one believes it, no one even pretends to believe it, but you say it, because you have to say something. And, when you’re losing, any senseless noise is better than silence.

And I’m not even talking about Aston Villa here. I’m talking about the AYSO teams I’m coaching, teams with players capable of kicking the ball backward, teams with goalkeepers whose attempts to catch the ball sometimes resemble an attempt to throw the ball into their own net. I have coached 10 different AYSO teams and always before managed to shape even the most rag-tag teams into a unit capable of a balanced season.

But this year is different. This year, I have some players who cannot run, dribble, pass, catch, bend at the waist, or understand the simplest instructions: play the ball out wide, don’t pass in front of your own goal, don’t reach for the ball if you are not a goalkeeper.

And yet my U10 team, the team that has won one game in eight, has STILL MANAGED TO SCORE EIGHT GOALS AGAINST SUPERIOR OPPOSITION.

As opposed to Villa, who have managed four.

*     *     *

During Villa’s rough run of form against last year’s top teams, I had been content to count positives and bide my time. Weather this storm, I reasoned, and we’ll be sitting pretty—bottom half of the top half of the table, easy. Villa were defending well, passing better, and at times even showed a little swagger. However, with playing Villa away at last-place QPR, yesterday marked the day when we could no longer look for silver linings.

The 10 points from our flying start was now good enough only for 15th place—hell, even Newcastle had 10, courtesy of their weekend win over Tottenham. Villa supporters found themselves doing some familiar math: counting the teams that seem certain to be lousier than ours.

With playing Villa away at last-place QPR,
yesterday marked the day when we could
no longer look for silver linings.

Villa started brightly, as they often do, and seemed to have a shaky QPR back on their heels. Checking the mood of the supporters on Facebook (I confess to watching from work), I found them optimistic. It was only a matter of time before we scored!

But, as luck would have it, it was Charlie Austin who scored first for the other team, completely against the run of play in the 17th minute. It was early, though, and Villans still believed we would break through. Not just one goal, but two, or more!

As the game went on, and Villa still seemed to have the better of the play, they couldn’t break through. And when Austin struck again in the 68th minute—cruelly, off a poor pass from Sanchez, who was previously having a man-of-the-match performance—reality set in. The announcers did their best not to call the game over (being down by two goals was said to be, in the Premier League, “a not insurmountable problem”) but it was over. I did something I never do: I stopped watching ten minutes from the end.

For the day, I had had enough.

*     *     *

On paper, we don’t look bad. Unfortunately, as a man once observed, games are played on grass.

But it’s still hard to believe that a team with internationals such as Benteke, Vlaar, Senderos, Delph, Guzan, and Hutton can be so utterly woeful. (Yes, I’m including Hutton; and little of this is Guzan’s fault.) And I really don’t know what to think. The team have played good, attacking soccer at times this year. They defended brilliantly in the first bunch of games. I don’t think they’re even that badly managed. But they are shit, and we once again must take the threat of relegation seriously. If they don’t start scoring some goals, they’re going to be setting some records it will take years to live down.

In yesterday’s game, Villa had 65% of the ball to QPR’s 35%, outshot them 15 to 11, had more shots on target (6 to 4), and had twice as many corners (4 to 2). Hell, they even committed more fouls! And yet . . .

  • We have now lost five games in a row.
  • We have not scored in any of those five losses, the first team since Derby County to manage that (however, we are not in danger of breaking their lowest-total-points record).
  • We have conceded 13 unanswered goals.
  • Have played 8 hours and 51 minutes without scoring.
  • Villa may be in 15th place in the league, but are 20th in number of goals scored, 20th in shots (56), 20th in shots on target (18), 19th in possession (38%), and 19th in conversion (7.1%).
  • Just 14% of our crosses are on target, 19th in the league. (Only pattern-weavers Arsenal are worse.)

Here are some other stats you may find interesting:

  • There have been babies born into Villa families who have lived their entire lives without Villa scoring a goal or earning a point.
  • You have a slightly higher chance of contracting ebola from a hug than Villa scoring from a crossed ball.
  • If you do contract ebola, you still have a better chance of surviving it than Villa has of converting a cross.
  • Tom Hanks was overheard at a posh Hollywood eatery saying he fancies a team called “West Sandwich Albion.”
  • Gabby Agbonlahor bought his blazing speed in a deal with the devil. The price was his ability to score goals.
  • Everything that has happened over the past three years is part of a minutely detailed rebuilding plan by Paul Lambert. The plan is proceeding perfectly and will come to fruition in the fourth year of his contract, when we will finish seventh, and he will be rewarded with an eight-year contract.

Up the Villa, and as Lambert said, we’ll pick ourselves up and go again next week.

Against Tottenham.

Who were beaten by Newcastle.

Which surely means we’ll fail to score again.

 

 

final stats?

Aston Villa 0 – Manchester City 2: By the Hairs of Roy Keane’s Mighty Beard, I Still Believe

Having started the season playing five games unbeaten, a run that saw them reach the giddy heights of third place, Villa have come crashing back down to earth as they play five games against last season’s top five teams. They nicked three points away at Liverpool but the results since then have been grim:

  • A 0-3 loss at home against Arsenal.
  • A 0-3 loss away to Chelsea.
  • A 0-2 loss at home to Manchester City.

Roy Keane and his mighty beardIt’s Monday, we’ve fallen to tenth place, and yet I remain sanguine. What’s wrong with me? Have I learned nothing from last year? Have I been drinking Paul Lambert’s Kool-aid, which is an elixir of optimism brewed with three parts denial and flavored with a whisker from Roy Keane’s mighty beard?

Well, look. With Weimann playing as a lone striker against Man City in the absence of an ailing Agbonlahor, I didn’t expect us to score any goals. Benteke’s just getting back and will need some minutes to find his feet. And Villa defended brilliantly for 80 minutes against a top-flight attack. We came within a hair’s breadth of taking a useful point.

Against Chelsea, hell, they actually didn’t look too bad for a team ravaged by a virus. Against an in-form Diego Costa, the scoreline could have been far worse. And we played Arsenal without Vlaar or even the vastly improved Baker.

What’s wrong with me? Have I
learned nothing from last year?

Here’s why I think this season will be better, and why I think a tenth-place finish is an eminently achievable building block:

  • This year’s defense is still much better than last year’s defense. Once Vlaar and Senderos are side by side again, with Baker as a capable substitute, they’re going to be tough to unlock. (And, who knows, we might even see Okore on the field again!)
  • They have played well for large parts of the games they’ve lost, pressuring the offense and fighting to regain lost balls.
  • The midfield is beginning to gel, to pass and hold possession better than we’ve seen for a few seasons.
  • Benteke is back. He will score some of the goals we’re sorely needing.
  • Roy Keane’s beard is really impressive. Put this one under “intangibles.”

I would expect us to be outclassed by teams possessing individual players who cost more than our whole starting eleven. Last year, we overperformed against the top four teams and underperformed against everybody else. I suspect that this will be the year when we invert that formula, taking our beatings like everybody else from the top sides, but beating more of the teams we should beat. (Hear that, Palace? We’re not your punching bags anymore!)

And with two weeks to prepare for a trip to a sputtering Everton—time for Benteke to heal and build his strength—things really don’t look that bad. Villa has already proven that they enjoy playing in the city of Liverpool!

Villan of the Week: Anthony Niblett

Anthony Niblett“I’ll take erudite sports fans for $1000.”

“This claret-and-blue Birmingham native is a professor at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.”

“Who is Anthony Niblett?”

Correct! Yes, you’ll find Villans everywhere, even in the groves of academe (where, rumor has it, Professor Niblett is quite popular with the students). A lifelong supporter of the Villa, Niblett found a big moment of fame on the small screen in late 2013, when he became a bona fide (note my use of the Latin) Jeopardy! champion! (Apologies, but to comply with trademark law we had to use that second exclamation point.) Read to the end for a tasty bit of trivia, and test your wits with a quiz question provided by our Villan of the Week himself.

The Starting Eleven

Where were you born, where do you live now, and what do you do for a living?

A gift from his students
A gift from his students

I was born in Birmingham, but now—after living in a few different countries—I’m in Toronto, Canada. I work as a law professor. It’s the best job in the world.

How and when did you choose Villa?

My family are Villa fans, my dad in particular. I started following Villa in the mid 1980s. My first season was when we were back in the old Second Division (1987–88). My first game on the Holte terraces was against Sheffield United. A dull 1-1 draw.

Anthony Niblett and Martin O'Neill in Columbus, Ohio (2007)
With Martin O’Neill in Columbus, Ohio (2007)

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Lots to choose from. One of my earliest games was a 5-0 over Hull City on New Year’s Day 1988. The two League Cup final wins in the 1990s were great, especially the 1994 win against Man United. The 5-1 win against Birmingham in late 2007–08 was a cracker. But, probably the happiest moment was back in summer 2007 in Columbus, Ohio. Meeting Martin O’Neill and the squad at a reception in the Statehouse. The feeling around the club was fantastic at the time. Good times.

What was your most painful moment?

Hmm, probably more to choose from. Stern John’s 94th minute equalizer for Birmingham City back in 2004 was painful. We were the better team all day and we still managed to let it slip in the last minute. Not fun.

As the season is all but over, which team did you most enjoy beating this year—or which team do you most wish we had beaten?

The first game was pretty good. Beating Arsenal at the Emirates. Less said about the rest of the season, the better, I think.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Martin Laursen, John Carey, Anthony Niblett, Olof Mellberg, and Thomas Sorensen in Columbus (2007)
Martin Laursen, John Carey, Niblett, Olof Mellberg, and Thomas Sorensen in Columbus

Benteke. He’s our only world-class player, our only genuine match winner. When he’s out, we look terrible. We need Vlaar at the back; without him, we are a mess. We need a few changes in personnel in 2014–15.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Going to struggle to limit it to one. David Platt was great in his few seasons for Villa. His goals from midfield almost won us the league in 1989–90. Dean Saunders, Dalian Atkinson, Tony Daley, Paul McGrath, Gareth Southgate, Olof Mellberg, and Martin Laursen would be up there, too. I still miss Jimmy Milner.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

BBC football. The Guardian. I’m on a few Villa facebook groups. I tend to stay away from message boards; they leave me a little pessimistic about the future of mankind.

Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?

Ian Taylor and Anthony Niblett in Chicago (2012)
With Ian Taylor in Chicago (2012)

I used to be a better fan. Villa websites used to be the first thing I read in the morning. I still watch all the games. And when we’re on the box, I go to the pub, usually wearing a retro Villa top, to watch with fellow Toronto Villans.

Where do you usually watch games?

The Toronto Villans watch at a pub called The Oxley in Yorkville. It’s a lovely pub with a pretty good breakfast. I just wish we could recruit a few more Toronto Villans to get out regularly.

Toronto Villans at the Oxley
Toronto Villans at the Oxley

What are you usually drinking?

Just a coffee at that time of the morning. For games that are on in the afternoon here, either a Junction Craft (a local beer) or a Guinness.

Extra Time

Rumor has it you did pretty well on a quiz show called Jeopardy! What is your favorite bit of Villa-related trivia? Got any stumpers for us?

‘Tis true. I love trivia, but I don’t really have a favorite bit of Villa trivia, I’m afraid. Here’s a couple though:

  • Villa Park has hosted the most FA Cup semifinals and, if New Wembley keeps hosting semis, Villa Park will remain top of that list until 2035.
  • Villa have scored the second most goals in the top division of English football with 6,550. Anyone know who’s first?

 

Villan of the Week: Bob Stephenson

Bob Stephenson and Ian TaylorBob Stephenson has one of those faces where you think, I know I’ve seen that guy before, but where? Well, you’ve probably seen him a lot of times, but never in person—a quick scan of his IMDB page reveals the actor’s extensive range of credits, from Se7en and Fight Club to Zodiac and Larry Crowne, with a whole lot of TV appearances besides. (Check out his feature reel here.) But the hard-working actor, writer, and producer still likes to get up early—and, on the West Coast, kickoff can be very early—to cheer on Aston Villa. And, lest you think he’s some Johnny-come-lately Hollywood type who’s hopped on the bandwagon, ask yourself, What bandwagon? Who tries to score points by rooting for a team that’s flirting with relegation? Bob says he’s been claret and blue for 15 years, and closed his message to me by saying, “Thank you for the interview—means a lot to be a Villa fan and thank you to the fans for embracing me the way you have. I’ll keep flying the Claret and Blue here in LA. UTV! VTID!!” Find him on Twitter at @bobstephenson.

The Starting Eleven

Where were you born, where do you live now, and what do you do for a living?

I was born in Camarillo, California, near Los Angeles, which is where I live now. I am an actor and a writer. I’m not worthy of the titles but that is what I do.

How and when did you choose Villa?

I chose Villa about 15 years ago. I loved the working class/underdog feel of the team, and the fact that it’s a big club with a proud history. I think Villa chose me, to be fair. It just happened.

From left: Tom Hanks, Bob Stephenson, British Consul Priya Guha, Colin Hanks, and Geezer Butler with Matt Lowton at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon (July 2012)
From left: Tom Hanks, Bob Stephenson, British Consul Priya Guha, Colin Hanks, and Geezer Butler with Matt Lowton at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon (July 2012)

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Doing the double over Man United this year! YEAH!! Oh wait, that was a dream. Damn.

What was your most painful moment?

These relegation fights are my most painful moments. I lose sleep. I believe in the system and what we’re trying to do and I love Lambert but he desperately needs funds.

As the season is nearly over, which team did you most enjoy beating this year—or which team do you most wish we had beaten?

Always Manchester United.

They're all here somewhere
They’re all here somewhere

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

I have a few: Delph, Vlaar, Gabby, and Guzan . . . .

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Gareth Barry.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

I read all the English press and Astonvillanews.com and definitely the supporters’ pages for thoughts.

Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?

I can be very positive. I can be very impatient and emotional. I don’t make judgements until I’ve calmed down from a bad loss—MOST of the time.

Where do you usually watch games?

At home. They’re on so early in LA. Once in a blue moon I’ll sneak down to the pub for an 11 a.m. game but I’m usually one of two supporters there. There aren’t many here in L.A.

What are you usually drinking?

Green tea. HA! it’s way too early to drink by myself.

Extra Time

Hoping you can give us a little celebrity-soccer dish. Are there other actors you know who are big fans of Premier League teams? Which teams do they support?

A lot of actors support teams. Many Spurs fans and Arsenal fans. The London teams, of course. And Man U fans. Ugh.

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