Villa ...

Slipping Towards Point of No Return

By Oli Gamp

The days of Martin O’Neill’s reign seem like a distant memory for Aston Villa Football Club. The energetic Northern Irishman had crafted together an exciting, captivating team that played fast and attacking football: a squad capable of challenging for the highest possible honours in English football. Not three years ago were the Villains strutting their stuff in European competition and battling the Premier League elite for the ever-coveted Champions League spots. Today, the Claret and Blues are less than 3 months away from the almost certain doom that awaits them: after an agonising year in the Barclays Premier League.

Unless they can discover a new winning formula under new man at the helm, Paul Lambert, they’ll face at least a year in the Championship; an unpredictable division where so many of the top flight’s relegated teams have found it so incredibly difficult to bounce straight back up. Just ask Bolton and Blackburn.

The main issue here is Villa’s squad. It simply isn’t good enough anymore. Where are you Gareth Barry, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, James Milner and Brad Friedel? Long gone. You cannot hope to build a squad capable of challenging for top honours when you constantly sell. This is why Arsenal have gone nearly eight years without a trophy, can you imagine how good their team would be had they kept the likes of Nasri, Fabregas, Van Persie and Song? You’ll notice a pattern that they sell about two of their star players each season. Do United do that? Do Chelsea? Never, and that is why their trophy cabinets are always kept full.

The quality of Villa’s squad is now at Championship level. Their summer signings, with the exception of Benteke, have been abysmal to be brutally honest. Two full-backs from Sheffield United and Middlesborough? Not good enough. January was the time to rectify that and instead they’ve brought in two relatively unknown players that quite frankly do not inspire. A wise move would’ve been to make a few sacrifices and cash in on someone like Darren Bent, then use the funds to sprinkle some fairy dust on a team with such inadequate depth.

Paul Lambert is a talented manager, and under no circumstances should Randy Lerner and the Villa board be inclined to cut him loose, but a change has to come from somewhere within the club. As the transfer window has slammed firmly shut, this alteration may well have to come beyond the curtain fall of the season: whether they survive or crumble. But would this be such a disaster should the latter happen?

We only need to look at Newcastle in 2009. The club were relegated to the Championship following a dismal season and many manager changes. Immediately there was panic from fans and pundits that they would ‘do a Leeds’ and not only fail to return to the Premier League, but falter further and possibly even slip down to another division: and this is always a huge risk for recently relegated teams.

Very little changes to the squad and an internally appointed manager in Chris Hughton meant the Geordies were able to bounce back to the top flight at the first time of asking; but they did this in the midst of immense pressure on them to do the job Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves, who are currently flirting with the possibility of successive relegations, have all so miserably slumped to this season. Not only this, but they have actually become a greater side than the one they were before they were relegated. They did this buy taking time to recover in the Championship and slowly and carefully rebuild. Now they find themselves in Europe and with a very talented and exciting team at their disposal.

It’s very much do or die now for Aston Villa Football Club. Last weekend’s 2-1 defeat away to Arsenal, when a point was so nearly within their grasps, somewhat epitomised their season: lack of fight and cutting edge to grind out a result. Whether or not they stay clear of the trap door to the Championship remains to be seen, but what remains intriguing for the future of the club is pondering on the thought of whether they would be better off in a lower division to regroup, or would it ruin them forever?