By Chris Weir.
On Saturday, Aston Villa’s relegation to the Championship was confirmed. In his post-match interview, Joleon Lescott drew the ire of fans and commentators alike by suggesting that relegation was almost a “relief” for the players. I understand completely where he’s coming from.
Since Martin O’Neill left under a cloud in 2010, Aston Villa’s trajectory has only been downward. Despite their fate being sealed after a 1-0 loss to Manchester United, fans are optimistic about returning to the Premier League next year. After all, this is a club that won the European Cup in 1982, who play to almost 50,000 ardent supporters every week in the UK’s second largest city. They are a ‘sleeping giant’.
Except that no, they’re not.
It’s this kind of fallacious logic that saw fellow ‘big club’ Newcastle go down in May 2009, and which again sees them flirting with the drop this year.
Newcastle and Aston Villa are not ‘big clubs’ in anything other than a sentimental sense, and even then only to their own fans.
I don’t want to seem unkind. I think both clubs are institutions in the British game, each with glittering histories and loyal supporters. Players like Alan Shearer and Dwight Yorke left indelible imprints on the footballing landscape.
Yet I’ve watched countless games, particularly involving Newcastle, where the fans set such high standards for their mediocre players that they’ll never be happy. I invite anybody to argue that starting Jack Colback in your midfield will bring European football back to Tyneside, for instance.
I get it. Newcastle’s situation is unique. They are the sole football club in the UK’s sixth largest city. They have the Toon Army, a fantastic fanbase as fervent and loyal as any throughout the country. Wherever you go in Newcastle city centre, St.James Park looms like a watchful gargoyle over its footballing cathedral.
Still, I can’t remember the last time fans won football matches. I can’t remember the last team decibels translated into points, or shirt sales into goals.
Football, like everything in life, is worth only as much as you are willing to put into it. In Randy Lerner and Mike Ashley, Villa and Newcastle have two of the Premier League’s most recalcitrant owners. In Ashley’s case, it took fan protests for force him to shell out on transfers in the summer – a strategy that has failed woefully, as several promising signings have failed to deliver on the pitch this year.
Giorginio Wijnaldum has withered apathetically after a promising start, while Aleksandr Mitrovic is gaining a reputation more for his aggression rather than his goals. The players already there have also flattered to deceive. Moussa Sissoko scored his first goal of the season at the weekend – hardly the kind of form that would see Didier Deschamps racing to call him up to the France squad for this summer’s Euros. The less said about Papiss Cissé, meanwhile, the better.
Villa’s problems are perhaps even larger. A focus on the French market, with the signings of Jordan Veretout and Jordan Ayew, has been combined with an emphasis on diligent but inferior youth products like Ciaran Clark and past-it mercenaries like Micah Richards.
No wonder, then, that Lerner has had the club up for sale for almost two years now without finding a buyer.
In the dugout,the appointments have been nothing short of disastrous. Alex McLeish, former manager of arch-rivals Birmingham City, was a non-starter both in PR and footballing terms, whilst Tim Sherwood will always be more successful as an internet meme than a serious sporting coach.
Villa’s relegation, and Newcastle’s similarly likely fate, is a product of poor club management and strategy. There can be no denying that the clubs are where they should rightfully be, at the foot of the Premier League table.
Still, football has and always will be about the fans. These two groups of supporters deserved better from the clubs they give their money to. They expect better from the teams they grew up with, who are supposed to represent the areas where they’re from.
In this sense, it is not the clubs who are the sleeping giants – it’s the fans. Villa and Newcastle supporters should wake up and demand that their clubs be treated with more respect than mere distractions by uncaring owners.
Only then will change sweep through the boardrooms at St.James and Villa Park. Only then will they be able to call themselves big clubs, looking to the future rather than the past.