It wasn’t so long ago that this blog featured a report detailing the loudest grounds in English football. Near the top of that list sat recognizable English giants Manchester United and Liverpool. At third on the list sat the proud claret and blue of Aston Villa. Surely one of the loudest moments in Villa Park during last season’s campaign was the last game when Aston Villa beat Liverpool. Not only had Villa walked away with all three points, but also it was during this game that the Holte End discovered that their crosstown rivals would be relegated. The stadium sang so loud that it drowned out the commentary on the television, with over forty thousand voices creating an exuberant fortress of a football ground.
However, upon the arrival of Stoke this week, the once-vocal support of a European Cup winning side were largely absent, as 13,000 empty seats became the image to summarize this season at Aston Villa Football Club. The disillusioned supporters inside Villa Park are now being forced to see unfortunate parallels between their plight this season and that of their neighbours only one year ago. This time last year, manager Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City also sat five points above the relegation zone with only six games to play. Villa fans are left hoping that other results might give them a lifeline. With Wigan’s win at Old Trafford and QPR’s victory at Swansea, the lifelines are appearing shorter and shorter.
Alex McLeish’s arrival at Villa Park was always strange. After a messy move from the blue side of Birmingham, McLeish arrived with an overflowing inbox. He would first have to win over the Villa fans, then address some severe shortages in the first team squad, all while managing a wage bill that had run out of control under the watch of his predecessors. It’s fair to say that these are heavy tasks for anyone coming into a new job. However, after another draw that saw Villa teetering on the brink of Premier League safety, it’s time for the Villa leadership to realize that McLeish may not be the man for the job.
McLeish’s resume is no stranger to relegation, as his stint across town saw his former club relegated twice, once under identical circumstances last year. It was solely this reason that Aston Villa fans met his appointment with such aversion. Why employ someone with a proven record of falling short? It would be an understatement to suggest that Aston Villa has been far from easy-on-the-eye this season, with performances that have had former Villa legends lambasting their club. Recently, Tony Cascarino called Villa’s performance at the Emirates “awful,” admitting that he was “amazed at how poor they were.”
Sadly, it doesn’t take a Aston Villa legend to drive the point home. Instead, the empty seats at Villa Park speak volumes. It’s true that McLeish’s appointment alienated Villa supporters, but though media outlets continue to suggest this is only a result of his stint at Birmingham City, Aston Villa fans continue to point out that the vitriol aimed at his tenure only has to do with his CV. The tactics, or lack thereof, have proven inept; from playing players out of position, strange team selections, and a defensive mentality, Villa now have their lowest point tally in years, and only seven wins in the Premier League.
Villa’s American owner, Randy Lerner, has poured millions of pounds into the club, and has been rightly heralded as a model foreign owner, coupling loyalty and patience with personal investment. However, his appointment of Alex McLeish is driving the claret and blue army into hiding. Aston Villa fans are now being forced to watch the results at the bottom of the table. With Wolves already destined for the drop, Villa supporters are now praying for other clubs to defeat the likes of Wigan, Blackburn, Bolton, and QPR — teams Villa have struggled to defeat throughout the season.
In addition, distressing news surrounds the league. Both Aston Villa and Bolton have had to cope with tragedy this season, as the Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with acute leukaemia, while Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba suffered cardiac arrest on the pitch. The response to both of these tragedies has illustrated the overwhelming support from the global football family, and put the game into perspective. Amid tragedy, unrest, hardships and tribulation, and with the relegation battle looming large, these clubs are destined to meet on the 24th of April. Both teams will be playing for everything.