My team stinks
By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer
I began watching soccer in earnest around the time of the 2006 World Cup. I’d always enjoyed it, but prior to that time I hadn’t sought it out. But for some reason, when the World Cup started, I was entranced. I remember sitting at a Greek restaurant ignoring the person I was eating with, because I was watching Cristiano Ronaldo flop around and prance and preen in the way that he is now famous for – somewhat interestingly, I think the only world cup match I missed was the final where Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Matterazzi, essentially giving Italy the title (though they’d have to win it on penalty kicks). After the world cup, I added the DirecTV sports package solely so I could watch Fox Soccer and Setanta. The maxim I usually give to new fans is that you’re forced to pick a team after one year of following a league religiously (though I have to admit I haven’t followed that with the MLS). So after a year of watching English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Mexican Primera Division matches, I settled on Aston Villa, the “slumbering giant” of English football.
Villa are historically one of the most successful teams in England – one of only five clubs to win what is now known as the Champions League, seven-time first division champions, seven-time FA Cup winners, five-time League Cup winners and European Super Cup winners – more England internationals have played for Villa than any other team. In 2006, after a rough couple seasons, they had a new owner – Randy Lerner, one of the richest people in the world and owner of the Cleveland Browns. They had just hired manager Martin O’Neill, who had led Scottish club Celtic to the final of the UEFA Cup, Europe’s second-tier cup competition. And they had a team comprised of young, hungry players on the verge of being called up to the England squad. So I picked Villa as my team. I mean, it couldn’t be an established power like Chelsea or gag, Manchester United or a nouveau riche club like Chelsea (or soon to be Manchester City). Villa had the right mix of history and potential. Early on, it was quite a ride. O’Neill’s first season was mixed – the team started off undefeated after 11 matches, then slumped and was in the bottom half of the table before a late run had them finish 11th. With new signings like Ashley Young and John Carew, the 2007-08 season looked promising, and it was. The team shot up the standings and briefly flirted with a Champions League spot before finishing sixth. The next season? Well, we were competing in the UEFA Cup and once again fighting for a Champions League spot, before, again, finishing sixth. The third season? More of the same. And people started to complain. Had Villa reached its ceiling under O’Neill? Three sixth-place finishes. One League Cup final loss to Manchester United where we felt undone by a bad refereeing decision. Another FA Cup semifinal. The UEFA Cup knockout round tie against CSKA Moscow where we fielded a youth team in the snow and were knocked out. Were players like James Milner, Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing good enough to take Villa to the next level?
Well, O’Neill left. A week before the 2010-11 season. After the chaos of not having a replacement for a few weeks, we signed former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, who was vastly experienced, but also, well, old. Houllier attempted to change the culture of the team and bring in his own players. It backfired. Villa struggled all year and only made a good run at the end of the season once Houllier was on leave for illness to finish 9th. Houllier was dismissed amid doubts over his health. Carew left. Young was sold. Milner was gone. Downing was sold. Villa hired Alex McLeish, who had just managed Villa’s hated rival Birmingham City to relegation from the league (and a League Cup victory, but still). McLeish brought in his players. It didn’t go well. In fairness, he would never have been accepted, but the team’s middling play and his reactive tactics didn’t help. Villa finished with their lowest point total in the Premiership era and only avoided relegation thanks to other teams performing more poorly. McLeish was dismissed in favor of Paul Lambert, manager of a Norwich team that beat Villa on its final day. Optimism was back, but not money. Neither was captain Stiliyan Petrov, diagnosed with leukemia. Gone were the days of signing players with the likes of Valencia and PSV and AC Milan on their CV in favor of youngsters from lower divisions. Petrov-Barry in midfield was now replaced with Delph-Westwood (who?). Mellberg-Laursen in the center of defense had poor imitators in Clark and Vlaar. With only Agbonlahor the holdover of the “glory days” of the late 2000s, Villa fans were now forced to cheer for the likes of Brett Holman and Jordan Bowery. And Villa stink. How bad do Villa stink? Three wins at home in 2012. The entire year. 30 points from 38 matches in 2012. Eighteenth in the Premier League table. (Anywhere below 17 gets you relegated at the end of the year). Agbonlahor has scored 10 goals the last three years total after scoring 44 the four years before. Villa gave up 8 goals to Chelsea. Four to Tottenham Hotspur. Five to Manchester City. They blew 2-0 leads to Manchester United and West Brom. They conceded three goals to Wigan. They gave up four to Southampton. Bradford became the first fourth-division team ever to beat a Premier League team in the League Cup semifinal by beating Villa. At one point, Villa had scored the fewest goals in the top four divisions of English football and given up the most. We stink.
So where does that leave me now? Well, I stopped watching Aston Villa matches this season, choosing instead to check Twitter for updates. I’ve largely stopped watching the Premier League at all, choosing instead to focus my time on the MLS and the German Bundesliga, both of which are much more competitive and less money-driven. If Aston Villa survives this season (or maybe even if they don’t), they’ll probably be much improved next year when their bevy of young players has a full season of Premier League play under their belts. We’ll also have successfully shed the team of all the enormous contracts that were probably signed with the hope of Champions League football and its big payday. And then maybe one day the team will start competing again with the big boys. Maybe.