Short of tallying up revenue (or perhaps expenditure, more appropriately), trophies and crowd attendances, it is difficult to know how to establish the size of a football club. A great deal is said of history as an indicator of grandeur but quickly does it become tiresome and a little embarrassing to see and hear people desperately holding onto past glories. Attitude ought to be the means of defining a club’s contemporary stature, with more surely made of a team’s approach to each game that they play.
Take, for example, Aston Villa.
Once a titan of English football, Villa have experienced a turbulent decade and a trophy-less last two. Under Martin O’Neill, they challenged for a place in Europe’s elite competition three seasons running, resembling a club with the sort of stature that has been banished to the history books. Persistently, for the last few years, they have only just found themselves on the right side of the narrow margin between relegation and survival. This season of strife could prove to be a bridge too far. Despite their fruitless recent history, though, the Villans maintain a position as one of the country’s biggest clubs, even if their attitude to every game would suggest otherwise.
To expect the worst of each match must be demonstrative of how far the club has fallen and symptomatic of a much deeper issue than simply one of personnel. A change of manager at Villa Park has done little to quell fears of the drop, and even less to alter the outlook for the long-term with every game seen as a probable defeat and careless ownership still in place. If club stature were to be judged based on the number of trophies won over the years, Aston Villa would be considered a bigger one than Newcastle United, to whom they listlessly suffered a 0-1 defeat on Saturday. Attendances this season, by contrast, tell a different story. Newcastle’s average of 50,883 supporters per game eclipses and shames Villa’s 33, 176.
Evidently, the Villa Park faithful have little faith in their team these days. Great clubs are built on their drive, belief and ambition – in short, their will to be great clubs. The claret and blue outfit have lost all of these characteristics and it is hard to pinpoint when any of them were last in evidence in the Midlands. Not for some time, it is fair to say.
Villa began the season well – brilliantly, in fact. Taking 10 points from a possible 12 was a dream start for Paul Lambert and his young side of which little was known and even less expected. Form rapidly went downhill in the subsequent weeks and months and the club has since descended into what can only be described as resignation. Relegation looms larger than in previous terms, of that there is little doubt. The only way Villa will escape is through a healthy portion of good fortune and the poor form of teams around them, which begs the question: which are the clubs with which Villa should be competing.
In truth, it’s hard to say but most supporters will believe that Newcastle United are among them – perhaps Stoke City, Swansea City and West Ham United too. These clubs occupy the positions from 8th to 11th, sitting just outside the impenetrable seven and represent top-flight comfort and accomplishment. For a club that has been in the Premier League every season since its inception, Villa should be there at the very least.
Another truth is that this should have been a season of growth, not regression, as should the season before and the season before that. Perpetually stuck in Premier League quicksand, it is a wonder whether Aston Villa and comparable clubs of considerable size but limited quality set targets for upcoming campaigns or whether they simply adapt according to how the season seems to be panning out. A laissez-faire attitude to ambition seems to have engulfed Villa Park and it has shrouded the players, fans and disposable coaching staff in an uncertainty that is now embedded in the preparation for every game.
The larger question in light of all this trouble, though, is: how does a big club re-establish itself after so many years of struggle? The short answer involves a significant investment from a wealthy foreigner, rightly or wrongly. Since one has not been forthcoming since Randy Lerner’s decision to put the club up for sale, perhaps it would be wiser to look at other clubs and the examples they have set. Newcastle United might, in fact, be the most important case of a positive resurgence, particularly given the real possibility of the drop.
There have been suggestions that relegation would represent an opportunity to clear out and start again, as it seemed to for Newcastle. This argument is as short-sighted as most of Villa’s activity has been in recent years, as a dip into the Championship could be more long-term than anticipated, as Leeds United and many other clubs have proven over the years. Relegation is not akin to clicking the refresh button. It would cost the club millions of pounds in television money for instance, which is something that simply cannot be afforded after the monstrous new deal struck by Sky and BT.
In reality, any proposition as to what the club must do in order to rebuild itself is futile if each of its elements are unable to come together to achieve. Ultimately, the attitude at Villa Park has been and continues to be wrong and quite poisonous, with success as improbable in practice as it is in the minds of all those involved with the club. Of course, Lerner must go and give life to a new era at the club. Sherwood’s position is as tenuous as his qualifications for the job and the players are on equally thin ice, given their lack of quality. Things need to be refreshed but not in the Championship. Unless things change quickly, Aston Villa will just be another big club in England’s second tier and could stay there for some time.
Football has become more cut-throat than ever and fans even more fickle. History will mean nothing to Villa in a league that they don’t belong. The club’s mantra says it is “prepared”. Whichever division they start in next year, needless to say those present will have to be prepared to re-establish the historic club to how it should be.