Of the twenty teams in the Premier League there is one who has a unique – some might say privileged – circumstance.
They are the only club who – season after season – are in no danger of getting relegated and presently have little-to-no hope of pushing for a European spot any time soon.
With this in mind they are free to play adventurous, attacking, attractive football that entertains the thousands of supporters who pay through the nose to turn up in all weathers. With pressure and expectation at a minimum they are free to inject some fun into their pursuit of points – utilise a flying winger, illuminate their midfield with pass-masters, hell even permit their most extravagantly gifted player to showboat like a 70’s mulleted maverick.
That team is Aston Villa.
Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that Alex McLeish employs Richard Dunne in an attacking mid role for shits and giggles and sets his side out with a formation last seen when players smoked ciggies on the wing and called each other ‘Colonel’.
But when you possess a goal poacher as prolific as Bent, a centre-back pairing of Dunne and Collins protecting a sensational stopper in Shay Given, the smooth surety of Petrov in the middle and a talent in Agbonlahor who is capable of winning games single-handedly it would take some astounding misfortune or mismanagement to take such a team into the Championship.
It’s not only the personnel involved that makes this so improbable, history too is on their side; Villa haven’t suffered the ignominy of the drop since 1975 whilst conversely any hopes of qualifying for continental contests deserted them when Martin O’Neill threw an almighty strop and wandered into a temporary wilderness.
Entirely within character the claret and blues are currently an equal amount of points from the bottom three as they are from attaining a Europa League spot and are surely drifting along to a mid-table finish. This fate was almost reserved for them before a ball was even kicked.
The blame for this lies squarely at the size tens of Alex McLeish, a drab, dreary, cautious man.
Taking this into account Villa Park could and should be packed out every fortnight with the Holte End bouncing with excitement as their side rip into opposition fatigued by a long relegation campaign or lain rigid by title-chasing nerves.
What we have instead of enterprise and excitement however – what we have instead of free-flowing football from the sole club free to do so – is drab, dreary, cautious fare that is only a pulse or two away from a communal coma.
The blame for this lies squarely at the size tens of Alex McLeish, a drab, dreary, cautious man and no slight is intended upon the club itself. I like Villa; anyone who is old enough to recall Peter Withe’s wristbands or witnessed that supernatural strike from Dalian Atkinson down at Plough Lane will attest that they are a fine club steeped in tradition who have largely been a credit to the top flight. Much of that is down to their fans who are as passionate and loyal in numbers as any around.
McLeish, with his face like a pensioner’s scrotum and possessing all the ambitious intent as a pacifist Frenchman, has taken this legacy and placed it beneath a carapace of cowardice. Villa are set-up to not concede, to nullify, to curl up in a ball and hope the big boys get bored and forget to score. Their rare forays into the opposition half are largely made up of lumped clearances to a striker with little support or to hope Agbonlahor breaks with pace and does something magical.
If ever a team and club had the opportunity to take on a Keegan-esque ‘If you score three we’ll score four’ mentality and light up the Premier League it is them.
If ever a team and club had the opportunity to take on a Keegan-esque ‘If you score three we’ll score four’ mentality and light up the Premier League – making them everyone’s second favourite team in the process – it is them yet the dour Scot shackles creativity in favour of safety-first prudence. Their dull functional football is an abuse of their privilege, like a good-looking trust-fund kid staying in every weekend rather than tearing around the city in a supercar, posing in exclusive bars and getting laid.
The open passing football of Wigan and Bolton – teams that are genuinely in the mire and have every right to play the direct style of Villa’s but choose not to – shames them.
With talented youngsters in Bannan, Albrighton and Clark Villa have a potentially bright future but these youngsters should be revelling in a freedom to show off their abilities that they will never be able to experience again. Instead they are tethered by McLeish’s cautious tactics.
Back in November McLeish took his side to White Hart Lane and, in the pre-match interview, suggested an upset – ‘a miracle’ – was possible. No Aston Villa manager should ever talk about his team’s chances like that against a club traditionally considered to be of an equal status to their own. It was a revealing insight into the defeatist mindset of a man in charge of a squad that contains genuine quality and unsurprisingly his pessimism transferred to his players who barely ventured out of their own half – even after conceding – as though they were indeed a lower-league David trying to keep the score down against a top flight Goliath.
This shambolic display was by no means a one-off this term; there has been a litany of games where Villa have been bereft of belief or intent, but with it being almost inconceivable that they suffer the ultimate price for their lack of ambition just what exactly do they have to lose in such games besides pride? For McLeish to surrender this so willingly – at a club built on such a virtue – is baffling in the extreme.
All this has prompted a dislike of the man and his methods but of late it has calcified into something more. You see the above was written the evening before Villa prevailed in an uncharacteristic five-goal thriller over Wolves recently and was scheduled to appear here this morning – just 24 hours after their 3-2 reversal away at the Emirates.
The Cutter is meant to be impartial but this much is true – I hate Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa.