As the final whistle blew on Aston Villa’s 0-0 draw with Manchester City, the crowd cheered loudly. They had limited arguably the finest attacking midfield in the league to minimal chances. The Remi Garde era had begun.
But that new beginning feeling is one that keeps coming back. No matter what changes at Villa Park, the more it stays the same; a vicious cycle of mediocrity and discontent.
Ever since Martin O’Neill resigned in August 2010, the Villans have lurched from manager to manager, but have found no real hero. Gerard Houiller, O’Neill’s replacement, was hugely unpopular with the club’s support well before he left due to ill health.
But Alex McLeish was hated far more. Not backed from the start due to the fact he just left relegated rivals Birmingham City, the fact McLeish’s side picked up only four home wins over the season he was in charge made his tenure even more loathed.
Paul Lambert lasted over two and a half years, but his teams were dull and lacked goals, Christian Benteke aside. But Tim Sherwood’s reign was colourful for all the wrong reasons, his love for sound-bites failing to make up for a tenure of tactical disasters and transfer disagreement.
The fact that Villa recorded a clean sheet for the first time since the opening day of the season, the 1-0 win over Bournemouth also being their only league win this campaign, should of course be commended, especially up against an attack that cost well over £150m.
But it’s difficult to see the start as anything more than that: a start. Garde deserves credit for not just the way he set his new team up but the way he introduced the players that Sherwood maligned, like the trio of newly purchased Jordans (Amavi, Veretout and Ayew) who were all misused or mistrusted.
The reason for O’Neill’s departure being that he was not allowed to spend the majority of the funds raised from James Milner’s sale will not alarm Garde; after all, he oversaw Lyon’s change from big-money spending to their current grow-your-own stance that has spawned the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Maxime Gonalons.
But the fact that elusive Randy Lerner wants to get out should be a concern. Villa have suffered from the fact that the American has stopped bankrolling transfers to the extent he was in his first period as owner.
Whether it would have stopped because of Financial Fair Play anyway is another question, but that wouldn’t have mattered if the club was run as well as, say, Swansea or Southampton.
The Swans and the Saints both lack the huge history that Villa have, yet their reputation as one of England’s biggest clubs means nothing when they lack the identity or philosophy of the aforementioned pair.
The managers reflect that. All have drastically different views on how to play the game, and its this change that means players that are recruited and perform well under one manager are suddenly cast aside. Contrast that to Southampton, who have jumped from Nigel Adkins to Mauricio Pochettino to Ronald Koeman with ease.
Clearing the wage bill has been a big priority of McLeish, Lambert and Sherwood, and undoubtedly will be one for Garde too. The likes of Darren Bent and Shay Given may have added experience, but their huge wages when not contributing hugely has limited the already small transfer budget; the same can still be said for Charles N’Zogbia.
Bought from Wigan during the McLeish era in 2011 for £9.5m, a big fee at the time for someone in the last year of his contract, N’Zogbia has gone onto flatter to deceive, and even argued with fans about the fact he picks up over £65k a week.
For a winger to earn that kind of money despite just scoring just four league goals over his five year stint at Villa sums up the squad really. Young players were bought in and pushed in the deep end, where only the best like Benteke could survive.
But the club in its current state is perhaps symbolised best by Gabby Agbonlahor. Once seen as a real prospect, under O’Neill Agbonlahor was part of a devastatingly fast and potent attack.
But now, he has almost become a joke figure in the support; having lost a yard of pace, he was laughed at by the Sky Monday Night Football team after his shocking performance against Tottenham.
It is figures like that that shouldn’t represent Aston Villa in the modern era. Players like Benteke for example, who come for smaller fees to be sold on for premium prices, are important for how a club who lack the financial power of the top five or six clubs operates.
The Aston Villa under Martin O’Neill are what Villa should be now, but those memories show how badly they have declined. The slate wiped clean is what is needed; whether that be playing staff, or Lerner selling on. Time will tell whether Garde can do that without dropping into the unknown abyss of the Championship.
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