The Autopsy Begins Following Aston Villa's Lifeless Relegation
A catalogue of errors both on and off the pitch led Aston Villa towards a lifeless relegation from the Premier League. Fans have been left wondering how it was allowed to happen, and if there is tangible hope for the future.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Earlier this month, Aston Villa unveiled the new badge that will adorn the Midlands club's kits in the Championship next season. Unlike this year's effort, the revised version no longer features the club motto – "Prepared" – beneath the traditional lion rampant. The reason for this is grimly modern: including the motto necessitated a smaller lion, which meant that the badge "did not perform as well at very small sizes, notably in some digital applications."
The alternative theory is that Villa could not continue making such an obviously false claim on their official merchandise. Adopted in 1878, the motto could not have been more inappropriate this season, with a catalogue of errors both on and off the pitch leading to a lifeless relegation from the Premier League.
It is a sad state of affairs. Villa are a proud old club who were among the leading sides of the football league's first decades, winners of the top-flight title as recently as 1981 and the European Cup 12 months later. They have a historic old ground in Villa Park, a large and passionate fan-base, and the current Prime Minister supports either them or West Ham.
Given the ever-increasing litany of concerns he faces at the moment, David Cameron would have been considerably better off cheering for the Hammers this season. While the East London side have threatened the Champions League spots, Villa have won just three games and scored a paltry 16 points. There is an argument that, pound for pound, they are the worst team in Premier League history. You can make cases for the other contenders – Sunderland in 2005/06, Derby in 2007–08 – but in years to come Villa might be considered to have edged it.
That case hinges on the fact that they went down with such little resistance, despite possessing a team that looks reasonable on paper. Their defence should have enough experience to keep things tight and there is a latent degree of creativity and flair from the midfielders and forwards. In this respect you'd certainly have backed them over Bournemouth, who are effectively safe, and Norwich City, who look ready to fight until the final day.
But Villa have appeared opposed to any form of fighting for almost the entire campaign. During the run of nine successive defeats that preceded relegation they lost 6-0 at home to Liverpool, 4-0 away at Manchester City, and 4-0 at home to Chelsea. In all three, the team seemed to throw in the towel as soon as the first goal was conceded; in the Chelsea defeat, Pedro's second strike met almost no opposition from the defence. Since the end of August, many players appear to have accepted relegation as an inevitability.
Sports psychologist Dave Readle believes the problems on the pitch are rooted in the players' mentality, not their ability: "If you look at the league, you've got two contrasting teams at either end: Leicester flying high at the top, and Villa languishing at the bottom," said Dave. "I wouldn't say it's solely to do with the talent in those teams, because Leicester haven't spent massively, so it comes down to mentality. You'll find with any team – be it a cycling team, rugby, whatever – it's about leadership, and there's a clear lack of leadership across the board [at Villa]."
He continued: "It comes down to ownership [of your performance]. It's a problem with Premier League footballers – they tend not to take ownership of what they're doing. Unlike, say, an Olympic athlete – where if you don't perform you're held accountable – footballers can sometimes loaf, and it becomes a collective sense of disengagement. Working with footballers, they don't always take responsibility for their own actions. They'll take the credit when they win, but not in defeat. And I don't just think that's an Aston Villa problem – it's football as a whole."
Dan Gutteridge, a lifelong Villa supporter who grew up in Birmingham, provided VICE Sports with a fan's perspective on his club's demise: "I was at the Swansea game, which was Tim Sherwood's last match in charge, and that was my worst experience at Villa Park [his side lost 2-1 at home to their fellow strugglers, notching up a sixth successive defeat]. The crowd was so flat, Sherwood was running up and down flapping his hands, and it didn't seem like any of the players cared.
"In recent years, Villa were always the team who didn't go down but still managed to embarrass themselves anyway. In the summer, the spin was always that there was money coming in, but the next season would always be the same."
This season, Villa's lack of long-term planning caught up with them. As Dan puts it: "You can't lose your three best players – Delph, Benteke and Vlaar – and then put the money from those sales into mid-table French league players and expect anything [good] to happen." It's a sentiment you would imagine most Villa fans share, and is the inevitable result of short-termist policy that could equally be said to have left Newcastle as favourites to join Villa in the Championship next term.
Indeed, the Magpies are kindred spirits. Both are sizeable clubs with large fan bases and proud histories. But, more importantly, each must co-exist with an owner who seems largely disinterested in the club's long-term health.
This has seemingly always been the case for Newcastle, with Mike Ashley never finding favour with their fans, but Villa owner Randy Lerner at least began on a good note. "He came in and did all the right things," recalls Dan. "Putting Acorns [a local children's hospice] on the shirts, giving O'Neil money to spend, giving out free scarves with 'Proud History, Bright Future' – but he seems to have lost interest."
Increasingly, Lerner appears to be an absentee owner – and one who is looking to offload the club. Earlier this season he summoned now-departed boss Remi Garde to the U.S. for talks, surely a needless amount of travel for a manager whose entire focus should have been on the training ground, working with Villa's struggling players. The Garde experiment lasted just 147 days.
"The culture comes from the top," says Dave. "If the people at the top have no vision, if there's no clear strategy, then you don't get players who want to be at the club for long. They're there to collect their wages and go. So, from the top down, you end up bringing in the wrong staff, the wrong players, and there will be consequences for that."
Dan has a similar take on Lerner's lax leadership: "It's the same for anyone – if your boss doesn't look interested at work, why are you going to care? And it seems like that's filtered all the way down from the very top to the players."
Perhaps no Villa player has come in for more criticism than Joleon Lescott, not least for his bizarre "pocket tweet" following Villa's 6-0 home loss to Liverpool. With their departure from the Premier League confirmed on Saturday, the former Manchester City defender admitted it was "a weight off the shoulders."
The comment went down predictably badly. In response, Paul McGrath, who played more than 250 games for Villa and won two League Cups at the club, posted a tweet calling Lescott a "slime bag" who was only at the club "for money"; another ex-Villa player, Stan Collymore, became embroiled in an argument with Lescott via social media. Many fans seem to share this anger; the relationship between them and the squad is at a worryingly low point.
In August, Villa will embark on only their second season outside the top flight in the past 40 years. Bouncing straight back will not be easy – they won't have the same level of consistency as Burnley this year, for example, with much of the squad likely to be moved on and a new manager being sought – but there may be glimmers of hope.
"With Brian Little, who brought a couple of trophies to Villa, on the board with David Bernstein and Adrian Bevington you've got lots of football experience," says Dan. "It's about five years too late but they're there now. The hope is that they bring he right manager in."
Of course, any decisions they make must still go to Lerner for final approval, and an overhaul of the playing staff is clearly required, which means expectations must be kept in check. Following relegation, BBC Sport's Pat Murphy wrote: "It's fantasy to assume a revamped Villa squad could challenge for the Championship title at such short notice. A period of sober, humble realism is long overdue at the club. Just stop the rot, then restore pride and stabilise the slump. And hope that Lerner at last sells up."
Caretaker manager Eric Black believes Villa "have players capable of playing in the Championship," but how many of those will wish to do so could be crucial to a decent campaign, and ensuring that fans keep coming back to Villa Park as they look to rebuild. After a season of such dreadful performances, many of them at home, that will not be easy. Last season almost 36,000 were at Villa Park for Chelsea's visit; five years ago it was 40,100. But, when the outgoing champions swept them aside recently, 31,100 were in attendance (which is nevertheless impressive given the club's form). The only time Villa Park has been filled this season was for the visit of Manchester United; with that being back in August, both the weather and Villa's prospects were distinctly sunnier. It's hard to imagine huge numbers turning out for games next term, particularly if results do not start strongly.
And you cannot blame fans for that. When a club is so visibly mismanaged, leading to such a cataclysmic series of results, supporters are entirely justified in not wishing to spend large amounts of money on tickets. For the Villa faithful, there may be more difficult times ahead before the club return to anything resembling their former glories.
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