In one of the worst weeks in the history of Aston Villa there was one story that stands as testament to the misplaced confidence of a club that has been forced to endure the toe-curling indignity of two cup exits at the hands of lower-league opposition. That would be the one about Bradford City offering a deal in which both clubs would share the proceeds of a Capital One Cup final appearance.
It was proposed to Villa between the two legs of the semi-final, with Bradford 3-1 up from the game at Valley Parade and preparing to defend their lead at Villa Park. They offered their Premier League opponents a deal, subject to Football League approval, by which both sides would share the £1m earnings from an appearance at Wembley. Bradford were prepared to cash their chips in early but figured that, given their financial situation, it made sense.
You can guess what option Villa took. The way their luck is at the moment, they would lose a winning Lottery ticket, pass up the chance to sign The Beatles, turn down the opportunity to invest in a little electronics start-up called Apple and spend the money instead on re-signing Emile Heskey. By the end of Tuesday night, it really was case of winner takes it all for Bradford.
Eliminated from the Capital One Cup semi-finals by Bradford, of League Two, on Tuesday. Beaten by Millwall of the Championship in the FA Cup fourth round on Friday. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Villa's misfortune is the fact that it has the scope to get so much worse. Tomorrow at Villa Park they face Newcastle United in a game that is too early to be definitive on relegation candidates but will tell us who, near the bottom, is fighting and who is flatlining.
As for Paul Lambert himself, on Friday night he hit the manager-in-crisis klaxon by responding to questions from the local newspaper, in this case the Birmingham Mail, with a grim silence that made his post-match press conference part farce, part Harold Pinter spoof.
The sad thing about Villa is that for all the trouble they find themselves in now – 20 points from 23 games, 17th in the Premier League – it is a personal view that what they tried to accomplish this season with young players was worth fighting for. It was brave, and interesting, and when they went to Anfield on 15 December and won, Villa's young team looked like they might be one of the stories of the season.
The team that beat Liverpool featured five academy kids in the first XI – Chris Herd, Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan and Andreas Weimann, average age 22, plus Eric Lichaj who was just out of his teens when he signed for Villa. That was a remarkable achievement. The problem is there has been precious little to celebrate since.
It is a myth that the Villa owner, Randy Lerner, has given up investing in the team. He spent the best part of £20m last summer on seven players with another, Brett Holman, brought in on a free transfer. The only significant sale was James Collins' departure to West Ham United. Judging profit and loss in a transfer window is an inexact science but most experts were putting Villa's net spend in the top seven in the league, at the very least.
Villa were saving money on contracts. Their signings were either young and from the Football League (Matt Lowton, Joe Bennett, Ashley Westwood and Jordan Bowery); young and from a smaller European league (Christian Benteke) or older and cheaper, having come from a selling European league (Ron Vlaar and Karim El Ahmadi).
Giving kids from the academy the chance to flourish; trying to sign the best young players from English football's lower division and leavening the mix with an extremely promising young player like Benteke, who has already appreciated in value considerably since his £7m signing, that is a vision for success that any club and their supporters would sign up to.
The problem for Villa is that their senior players who might have been expected to carry the kids and the new arrivals on their bad days have simply not been able to step up to the plate for a variety of reasons.
Lambert has clearly clashed with Darren Bent, Stephen Warnock and Alan Hutton. Richard Dunne has been injured. Gabby Agbonlahor has managed two league goals all season while Charles N'Zogbia and Stephen Ireland have scored none in the league. Stylian Petrov's illness is one of those dreadful twists of fate no one can legislate for.
There are some clubs that stumble into a relegation crisis, having lavished a fortune on all sorts of mercenaries, crocks and laughing galahs (Queen's Park Rangers spring to mind). In spite of their ignominious position, Villa's approach was noble: young footballers, many produced by the club, and a promising young manager. With hindsight it looks at best naïve. Others might say reckless.
The success stories this season in the Premier League from outside the elite have been the likes of Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion, who have made a virtue of astute signings and loanees from the Premier League clubs and further afield but have little in the way of academy graduates in their first teams. Newcastle, Villa's stricken opponents tomorrow, have placed their faith this month in signing young French players.
Villa's approach was bold. But it is a risky business. As with that deal Bradford offered, Villa decided that they should go for broke and wound up bust. They would not be the first, but three days from the end of the transfer window and with no action having been taken yet, it looks like Lerner and Lambert are preparing to back this plan right to the brink.
Will Fergie's new prince still turn up for Palace?
For Wilfried Zaha, the biggest thing that has happened in his football career so far has already come to pass this season. He has agreed a deal to sign for Manchester United in July. As for Crystal Palace, the club he is now playing out the next few months with, the season's great prize, promotion, is still there to be claimed. It is telling that Sir Alex Ferguson is said to have told Zaha to make sure he does his best for Palace this season.
Not every young prodigy signed by United makes the grade; far from it. The first test of Zaha's character will not be what he does in a United shirt, but what he does in a Palace shirt as a guaranteed future United player. They have got everything to play for, he does not. Will he still turn it on?
Gazza, Butcher and my day as a Wembley ballboy
The last word on ballboys. 28 March 1990, England v Brazil at Wembley. The ballboy between the tunnel and the dugouts was me. My Sunday team were picked by lottery by the Football Association and, 14 at the time, I was one of those selected by my club. Stuart Pearce's handball on the line enraged the Brazilians to the extent that Careca refused to sign any autographs for us ballboys.
I stood as close as I could to Paul Gascoigne when he came on as a late substitute and listened to him making that series of yelps and barks that turned out to be symptomatic of his mental health issues. Terry Butcher shouted encouragement at Des Walker in the tunnel before the game. Walker looked terrified. At the end of the night, the man from the FA made us give the tracksuits back. And I never time-wasted for a moment, principally by virtue of the fact I never touched the ball.