American Born Villan

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



Aston Villa 2 – Leicester City 1: Sometimes Defense Is the Best Offense

Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off
Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off

A quiet Sunday at the Globe and only one Villan, a Brummie named Peter, was present as I walked through the doors with Bob Kemp and my father, Tom, visiting from Montana. Soon, however, we were joined by Simon, Kristen, Andrew, Nick, and Greg, plus a large handful of faces new to me (Ashley is the only name I can recall at the moment), possibly even shifting the usual yank-to-expat ratio in favor of the expats.

The Chicago Villans Facebook group, now numbering over 1,000 and outpacing even the Aston Villa America group, includes so many England-based Villans that Bob’s question on Friday (“Who’s going on Sunday?”) received just as many responses from Birmingham-area supporters with tickets to Villa Park as it did Chicagoland fans heading down to the pub. As much as I love hearing from random Villans worldwide, I can’t help but think we’ve lost a tiny bit of our identity as a local group.

Anyway: we won! Three beautiful points saw us reach the heady heights of 11th place! Granted, the table is congested, with teams you’d expect to do better not doing well at all (Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton), and teams you wouldn’t have expected to do very well surpassing expectations (West Ham, Southampton), with the end result that Villa are currently just as far from 5th place and European competition as they are from 18th place and relegation.

We’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table but
we are continuing to climb the injury table as well.

But with a very winnable game against West Brom coming up next—they’re in 16th place and 18th in the form table—we could well be top half before we face Man United just before Christmas.

Villa started well and certainly looked most likely to take the lead until Leonardo Ulloa did just that for the visitors in the 13th minute, slotting home a ball that came off Guzan’s hand in a save attempt. Replays showed that the initial shot might have taken a deflection, making Guzan less culpable than he appeared to be. Still, while the pride of suburban Chicago remains an excellent shot stopper, he hasn’t been holding on to the ball very well lately, which only adds to our already frayed nerves.

Ciaran Clark, of all people, equalized just four minutes later, on a superb sliding header from an Ashley Westwood free kick. But when Westwood was stretchered off before halftime, taken out by a tardy tackle by James Vardy, I started to lose my conviction that Villa would score again. Our midfield can look shockingly lightweight, and without Delph, Westwood, or Cole, a one-one draw against the league’s worst team seemed a likely result.

I wasn’t counting on Alan Hutton, who completed his cycle of rebirth with his first competitive goal in FOUR YEARS. In the 71st minute, Gabby passed to Benteke who passed to Hutton, who seemed to stop time, or just stop, as he gathered the ball, thought about it, calculated the angle and trajectory and possibility that, yes, he might actually be able to take a shot on goal—before firing and, yes, SCORING A GOAL!

You just can’t rush some things.

Hutton was later yellow-carded for shoving Paul Konchesky, who apparently deemed his ankle-stomp insufficient and barked at Hutton with the seeming intent of making him pull a Benteke and get sent off. Instead it was the English-born player with the Russian-sounding name who was sent off, shown a straight red, although it was unclear whether the red was for the tackle or his provocative conversational style. Leicester fans will think it harsh, although for Villa fans it somehow balanced Benteke’s sending off against Tottenham.

Benteke himself was unlucky not to have scored on a couple of on-target headers and a breakaway. Though the final ten minutes provided sheer, nail-biting agony for the fifteen or so Villans on their feet at the Globe, that the game wasn’t closer was due mainly to Leicester’s man of the match, Kasper “Son of Schmeichel” Schmeichel.

As much as I’m buoyed by Villa’s recent form—we’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table—we are continuing to climb the injury table as well. We’re now 3rd in those rankings, behind only Newcastle and Arsenal. And with more winnable games coming in the busy holiday-season schedule, if we play without Delph, Cole, Westwood, Cleverley, Vlaar, Senderos, and Baker, we could still struggle against beatable teams.

Although I’m much more worried about the midfield: clearly we can win without our first- or even second-choice defense!

Burnley 1 – Aston Villa 1: They Stole Our Kit, They Took Two of Our Points

Joe Cole is cleared for takeoff
Joe Cole is cleared for takeoff

Oh, the wonders of techmology: just a few minutes to boot my aging laptop, a mad scramble to locate the password for my in-laws’ guest wifi login, a couple of attempts to remember my RCN password, then a helpless wait as the NBC Live Extra page loads and stalls and loads and stalls again. Watch a short commercial and voila—instant video!

It’s a strange experience, watching a game on a dashboard like a videogame console. The data at my fingertips is both fascinating and troubling. Why remember things when your device does it for you? I much prefer to have my remembering done by the lifelong Villa supporters at the Globe like Simon, Brian, and Rick.

The first half was a joy to behold as Villa attacked, attacked, and attacked again. Despite one supporter’s pregame insistence that Joe Cole starting was the last straw, I think most of us asked ourselves the same question: why hasn’t Joe Cole been starting all season? Villa looked lively and creative, and by the time Cole deservedly scored the first goal in the 38th minute, the only surprise was that we hadn’t gotten two or three of the things.

Match stats
I like all the numbers except the matching 1’s

The data on my dashboard seemed questionable, reporting that, by the end of the first half, Villa had an unheard-of 13 shots with 12 of them on target, but whether accurate or not, they certainly captured the gist of things. Burnley may have lost concentration in the scuffle just prior to the goal, but it was well earned on balance. Even better, the game was actually entertaining to watch.

Villa started the second half on the wrong foot, looking very vulnerable, but slowly imposed themselves on the game. Without creating as many chances or showing as much creativity as the first, still looked capable of seeing the game out, holding on to a lead created in the first half, something they’ve struggled to do all season. And Lambert’s substitutions seemed unlikely to create any controversy as they did last week: Cole was obviously tiring, and Grealish is a player fans are demanding to see. The latter had less of an influence than the former, but played well and had an influence. And in taking a largely anonymous Weimann off for Richardson, Lambert appeared to have made the right moves to see the game out.

Villa’s inability to hold a lead is woeful.

And then Okore, who had been having a very good game, got caught out of position and bundled Jutkiewicz over to prevent a goal. Danny Ings comfortably slotted the penalty home in the 87th minute to score the equalizer and break our hearts again. Due to a bend in the time-space continuum (or maybe just a delay in my video screen) I saw the yellow card and the goal noted on my videogame console minutes before I saw it happen. I felt like I’d been stabbed twice.

How many players have we seen make game-changing gaffes and blunders this year?

Villa seemed as shell-shocked as Burnley was energized, and the home team was thumping on the door in added time. They hit the post and shot just wide, barely missing their chance to take all three points.

For some teams, earning a lead is difficult but holding on to it is more routine, and it’s tempting to be clever and say that Villa has that problem in reverse. Also wildly inaccurate: for us, earning a lead has been extraordinarily difficult and protecting it nigh well impossible.

The Good News

There’s good news, right? After six straight defeats, three straight draws must be seen as an improvement. And getting a goal from someone other than Gabby or Andi is a big positive. Just last week I saw a post somewhere about Villa’s reliance on true strikers to get goals, set against a trend of other clubs seeing more offensive production from midfield players. Clearly, we need more than two or three players to get on the score sheet this season. And, with Benteke coming back, the odds of that happening are increasing.

The Bad News

A perfectly winnable game becomes, in the end, a hard-won point on the road against the league’s second-worst team. (Granted, we’re the league’s fifth-worst team, so maybe this should go back up under “good news.”) Villa’s inability to hold a lead is woeful. Their record stands at 3 wins, 4 draws, and 6 losses. But three of the last four have been winnable games: against Burnley and Southampton, we conceded late goals to turn wins into draws. And, against Tottenham, we conceded TWO late goals and contrived to lose the game completely. That’s two points out of a possible nine. Add those extra seven to our current tally and we’ve stolen Tottenham’s position this morning of seventh place.

As we say in the U.S.: coulda, woulda, shoulda.

I still believe this team can and will play better, and I’m not worried about relegation—yet. The players seem to slowly be regaining some belief, although I worry about the manager’s: Lambert’s body language looks awful, and he’s aging before our eyes. And he doesn’t even have Mr. Keane to keep him company on the bench anymore, either.

Nine games without a win and counting.


P.S. A note on the stats: NBC Live Extra has villa with 18 shots, 16 on target. The BBC had it as 18 and 7. The Guardian has it as 18 and 7. I didn’t keep count, but I guess Mark Twain’s words hold true: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.


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 United 3: Ashley Young Didn’t Even Have to Dive

Christ, Villa can be a frustrating team. They came out looking brilliant, pinned the Red Devils back, got a couple of shots on target, nothing amazing, but still, still, for a moment, you could believe that this would be the day when Villa Park would once again become a fortress, when we would once again show everyone we’re headed in the right direction—that, on our day, we can beat anybody, even a mid-table team on a poor run of form, even the second-best team in the city of Manchester missing some of their most formidable players.

Danny Welbeck scores his first
…and there it goes…in the back of the net.

And then, against the run of play, in the fifteenth minute, Danny Welbeck put one in. And then, a mere three minutes later, he put another one in. And, unlike the many games where we’ve come from behind, or fought hard and stayed in it, we were just out of it. You could tell it was over, that a third goal for the visitors was more likely than a goal from us. I found myself hoping not for a win, not for a draw, but for Benteke to get a goal, one lousy miserable goal, to give us a sign that he might pick up the team and carry them as he did last year.

Not a chance.

I had made it to the Globe in time this week (yes, I set my alarm), and was gratified to see about 10 Villans, all wearing the colors, a much stronger and more unified turnout than the Man United fans scattered around the pub (I counted three red shirts). Though our spirits fell too soon, Chairman Simon lifted them again with gifts of Villa swag (including poster books for my sons) while, against one wall, wrapped presents under a twinkling tree awaited distribution to the Lurie Children’s Hospital. The gift drive is a combined effort of the Villa, Man City, and Arsenal supporters, all of whom meet at the Globe, their cooperation a reminder that some things are a lot more important than the score of a single game. Also discussed was the news that Villa owner Randy Lerner had gifted a million pounds to Acorns, keeping the team’s bond to the children’s hospice strong as ever. (Many of the newer, American Villa supporters have cited this as one of the reasons they were originally attracted to the team.)

As I devoured my F.E.B. (Full English Breakfast) and washed it down with a pint of Robert the Bruce, however, I couldn’t help but make a Christmas wish for myself—for six points in Villans’ stockings, come the end of Boxing Day.

Reasons for Pessimism

How long have you got? Since our hard-fought victory away to West Brom, we’ve lost away to Fulham and at home to Man United, giving up five unanswered goals in two games. We look porous at the back, clueless in midfield, and toothless up front. Even our go-go guys, Gabby and Andi, haven’t been causing problems for the other teams’ defenses. Losing early, we still sat back, letting them hold the ball. At the pub, Villans were growing for blood. None of us would have minded losing if we had seen our team really fight for it, sending the visitors home with a few bruises as souvenirs of their trip to Villa Park. Gabby’s late-game barge of De Gea notwithstanding, we never threatened in any way.

For the second time this season, Guzan gave up a goal when holding his ground against a striker—when he arguably should have moved forward, closing the angle, maybe even winning the ball from his feet. (Not that he should have been put in that position in the first place.)

We just failed to execute fundamentals. As Liverpool-Tottenham got under way, Andrew Grant offered wry commentary that just about summed it up: “Look, the guys on their team are all wearing the same shirts, so they know who to pass to . . . Look! On that corner, each of the defenders marked one of the players on the opposing team!”

Reasons for Optimism

The defense was weak, but we were missing Vlaar, who would have helped. And Herd impressed the previous week, too. If he hadn’t picked up an injury in training, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him starting again, and it might have made a difference.

We were also without Delph, who would surely have helped win some midfield battles.

Albrighton was a bright spot, albeit a lonely one. He worked hard, ran at defenders, and tried some interesting balls that didn’t quite work—but could have. I hope he gets another start.

Luna, despite whatever weaknesses he may possess, has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like that.

Shit match,sorry to the villa fans!!!

When the season is over, no matter how Villa played or the way we felt about them while they were doing it, the season will be judged on the numbers: goals scored, games won, and our position in the table. Last year, after 16 games, we had 15 points, were in 17th place, and had a goal differential of -13. This year, after 16 games, we have 19 points and are in 11th place with a differential of -5. Our next four games are Stoke (away), Crystal Palace (home), Swansea (home), Sunderland (away). Even given our maddeningly inconsistent form, it’s entirely conceivable that we could start the new year with another 6 or 7 points. And, so long as we’re better than last year, we’re headed in the right direction.

Aston Villa 0 – Everton 2: Too Much F—ing Perspective

Aston Villa 0 – Everton 2: Click here for highlights–er, Lowlights

Tim HowardAnother bright start—a bright start that, in this case, lasted about an hour—followed by another home loss. (According to Soccernomics, playing at home is statistically good for a one-goal advantage, so apparently we avoided an 0-3 humiliation.) Another game in which we had chances we failed to finish—although I can only shake my head at Tim Howard’s save of Benteke’s penalty. Benteke could arguably have hit it harder but it certainly was well placed. And against ANY OTHER TEAM I would have been pumping my fists just like the U.S.A.’s number-one keeper after he made the save.


Alex McLeishSo we lost a game in which we played well, which feels like some measure of progress compared to seasons past in which we were so uninspired, so abject, that it was hard to think of Villa as “my team.” (And yes, I’m looking at you, McLeish.) But there are no points for if-only.

There’s a scene in Spinal Tap that offers one of my favorite throw-away lines of all time. Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls are visiting Elvis’ grave:

St. Hubbins: Well, this is thoroughly depressing.
Tufnel: Well, it really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?
St. Hubbins: Well, it’s too much. There’s too much fucking perspective, now.

For the rest of Saturday, I felt depressed by the perspective the game had put on things. Losing to Everton, a team with a history of drawing or losing at Villa Park, painfully illustrates the difference between the two sides’ start to the season. You could argue that we should be an Everton, a well-managed, mid-budget team perpetually lurking around the middle of the top half of the table. You could argue that we will be—but don’t try that this week.

Sunday I felt a bit better. I tried to broaden my perspective to include the whole Premier League, not just two teams. Now, call me crazy, but I’ve been basically optimistic all season. I saw bright spots even in our 0-4 loss to Tottenham in the League Cup. Yes, we lost soundly, but I still held on to the sense that we were better than the scoreline showed. I kept my head up when they beat us again 0-2. Hey, they’re a side with Champions League ambitions and money to burn after selling Gareth Bale to Los Blancos (and, while he’s shooting blanks, it’s Andre Villas-Boas who’s laughing all the way to the bank).

Andreas Weimann scratchingLosing at home by two goals to Everton was, I’ll admit it, harder to take. It’s a game we certainly could have won, and, given the teams’ head-to-head history, I expected at least a draw.


Perspective. Let’s take a big step back. Then another. Aaaaaand another—careful, you just spilled that guy’s drink.

We’re nine games in. In league play, we’ve faced: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Manchester City, Hull, Tottenham, and Everton. Our first three opponents currently occupy the first three spots in the table (interestingly, in that very order). And SEVEN of those nine are currently in the top half.

You could argue that they’re in the top half with our help, but still: no one would argue that Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Tottenham, and Everton won’t finish in the top half at the season’s end. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we have just 6 points after 9 games last year—and without having played the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man City?

So we’ve got 10 points. November’s schedule includes West Ham (currently 15th), Cardiff (currently 16th), West Brom (12th), and Sunderland (19th with a bullet!). Nothing is certain. But if the team stays mentally strong, results are bound to improve. Some of those chances are bound to fall. Benteke, getting fitter, will find his game. And Luna might even find his way back to his position when it counts.

That said, if we don’t pick up at least seven points from the next four games, then I’ll be starting to worry, too.

Aston Villa 3 – Manchester City 2: Beating the Blues

We still have a load of issues to address, but you know what? We will get better. And we’ve just bought ourselves a little time in which to do it.

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t looking forward to watching us play Manchester City. Yes, I had dutifully set my DVR to record the game, and, yes, I was hiding from the score as I spent the first part of Saturday coaching my AYSO teams. But I expected nothing. With a team that can’t win on the road playing a team that can’t win at home, my natural sense of fatalism kicked in and I assumed it would be City who would see their streak end first. They have bought some terrific players and, at times, have played some great soccer.

Then my friend John tweeted at me: WHAT A GAME. I had been avoiding Twitter, but an inadvertent glance at my phone’s lock screen let me know something was up. Then other tweets arrived. I was buoyed, thinking that, if nothing else, the game would be worth watching. Perhaps Villa had scored an equalizer, or even gone ahead, before ultimately succumbing to a Dzeko strike in stoppage time. Another loss, probably, but perhaps more hope for the future.

Then someone tweeted WE ARE VILLA and I thought, hold on, we got a point!

Funny how the mind works.

Anyway, back at home and with the kids sent off to the showers, I finally watched the game, hoping against hope that . . . I don’t know, could we have actually won this thing?

Andreas Weimann
I know exactly how he feels. Except for the part about scoring the winning goal in a game nobody expected us to win. But apart from that, Andreas Weimann and I feel exactly the same way.

Well, you know the result, and I finally do, and it’s certainly one of the most unlikely come-from-behind victories I have ever seen. We gave up thirteen corner kicks, and two goals from corners, and relinquished possession for long stretches (we had only 33% overall) while we played five men across the back.

And yet! OK, El Ahmadi was offside, but only half a step. It doesn’t take anything away from the play. And what a free kick by Bacuna. The more I see this guy, the more I like him, and not least because he seems to actually enjoy playing the game. (Why don’t more players smile, I wonder? Surely getting paid to play the game you love can be fun?) And, finally, brilliant distribution from Guzan, a nice flick on from Kozak, shocking defending from City, and a confident finish from Weimann, who really has deserved to be on the score sheet more often this season, given his relentless desire to move forward.

Against Norwich, we got three points for a poor game. Against City, well, on balance we were outplayed—and we have to do something about our woeful defense of set pieces—but we finished our chances when we needed to. And City, despite having some of the best players money can buy, didn’t have what it took to close out what should have been their first three points on the road.

We have played six, lost three, and won three. We’re in ninth place. (Manchester United is in twelfth!) We won six points against two teams you have to figure will finish the season in the top four. We still have a load of issues to address, but you know what? We will get better. And we’ve just bought ourselves a little time in which to do it.

Final thought: Taking Villa out of it, this is shaping up to be an entertaining season. The top of the table (currently Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea) looks like it might be up for grabs, and the next three spots (Southhampton, Man City, Hull) show signs of change as well. No, I don’t expect the Saints and Tigers to be there for long, but in a weekend where Villa beat City, Tottenham played Chelsea to a draw, and even the Baggies beat Man United, it feels like anything is possible.

Which, as we all know, is an all too rare feeling.

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