Aston Villa's kids are all right, as Paul Lambert will prove if he just keeps the faith
Resist short-term compulsions and bend it like Beckham and Co
You will never win anything with kids; the words of Alan Hansen uttered in August 1995 after Manchester United had been humbled on the opening day of the season by Aston Villa. Since Villa Park is once again the focus of kindergarten scrutiny, manager Paul Lambert might want to reflect on the inversion of Hansen's wisdom by Sir Alex Ferguson's "fledglings", who recovered to win the title in May.
Lambert has entrusted the immediate future of Aston Villa to the Premier League's youngest squad, average age 23. The Boxing Day massacre by Spurs followed the club's biggest defeat at Stamford Bridge, 12 goals in two coruscating matches. Today Villa host Wigan, whose own run of just four points from the past nine games following the victory at Spurs on the first weekend in November has resulted in their slide into the Premier League dead zone.
The habitual battle against relegation is Wigan's lot. This is not why Lambert left Norwich, who sit comfortably in mid-table, their progress lauded under the husbandry of Chris Hughton. Victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United have cast Hughton's work in the kind of appreciative glow that once attached itself to Lambert. How quickly credentials melt away in the Premier League crucible. At Carrow Road, Lambert was a progressive young Scot in the vanguard of emerging coaching talent. Today he is on the spot, his investment in youth interpreted by some as the folly of inexperience.
When Ferguson let go Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis in the summer of 1995 he was making room for David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers to sit alongside Ryan Giggs. This callow ensemble were ambushed at Villa Park, falling 3-0 down inside 37 minutes. One report in the Sunday Express opened with the line "No Ince, no Hughes, no Kanchelskis, no chance", bombastic stuff that corresponded with the Match of the Day studio when Hansen delivered his infamous judgement.
Hansen fell into the same trap as the newspaper, forgetting that football is a game of two halves. If the reporter and Hansen had taken as much account of the second 45 minutes as they had the first they might have noticed the seeds of the Premier League's richest crop being sewn.
Beckham, a second-half substitute, scored the only goal of the half dominated by a young team that grew in confidence with every flick and feint. It was the first of 37 goals on the road that season. No other team breached 30. United won the title by four points, inducing from Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan the "I would love it" rant as a 12-point lead disappeared in the red blizzard.
Eight months earlier Hansen thought he was on the money when he said: "You can't win anything with kids. You look at that line-up Manchester United had today and Aston Villa, at quarter past two when they get the team sheet, it's just going to give them a lift and it will happen every time he plays the kids. He's got to buy players, as simple as that."
The January window is upon us. Does Lambert heed Hansen's advice or adhere to his instincts that have produced, on occasion, convincing periods of fluidity? The kids were all right for an hour against United last month, running up a two-goal lead early in the second half before coming apart in the final 30 minutes. And in the space of four days in the middle of this month ran through Norwich 4-1 at Carrow Road to advance to the Capital One Cup semi-finals and beat Liverpool 3-1 at Anfield. No one saw the eight goals coming a week later at Stamford Bridge. The four Villa shipped at home to Spurs were clearly a reaction.
Whenever Gabby Agbonlahor or Ron Vlaar are lame Lambert has entrusted the captaincy to a 23-year centre-back, Ciaran Clark. Wing-back Matt Lowton, 23, signed by Lambert from Sheffield United, has played in every game. Ashley Westwood, 22, another Lambert buy from Crewe, forms the midfield axis with Barry Bannan, a veteran of 90 Premier League matches and still only 23.
Lambert made three changes after the Chelsea defeat. Two of those who came in, Joe Bennett and Fabian Delph, are 22 and 23 respectively. Gareth Bale's first Premier League hat-trick made an ambitious selection look insane. Villa are only three points clear of Wigan. This classic six-pointer is all the temptation Lambert might need to chuck in half a season's hard graft, load his gun with old blokes and come out shooting like Hansen. Or he could have the courage of his convictions, resist football's short-term compulsions and bend it like Beckham and Co did 17 years ago.
There is inspiration, too, in the example of Roberto Martinez, who has steadfastly stuck to his ideals at a club with limited resources. Wigan's rum amalgam of Anglo-Latin rhythms has somehow managed to defy Premier League gravity. Once again they have been sucked into the bottom three, but that is never the signal for Martinez to abandon his pursuit of aesthetic geometry on the pitch. Neither should Lambert desert his beliefs at a time his players most need them.
1. Managers' memo: decisions can go to the other side too
The slow death of football's Respect campaign continued with Sir Alex Ferguson escaping sanction following his touchline berating of assistant Jake Collin and fourth official Neil Swarbrick during the Old Trafford fixture against Newcastle. Until managers learn to accept decisions that do not go their way, the game will for ever be stuck in the moral midden.
2. Brown's Rovers overture will have Berg laughing
Phil Brown's best work this season has been on Radio 5Live's satirical quiz show Fighting Talk. This might have been his funniest line had it not accompanied his CV marked for the attention of Venky's c/o Blackburn Rovers: "Whoever goes into that club will have a real chance to get that club into the Premier League." That will be Henning Berg splitting his sides.
3. Huth-Shawcross axis as strong as Europe's finest
Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris St-Germain, Malaga, Stoke. That's how Tony Pulis rolls these days courtesy of a defensive record that sees him grouped with European elites and Qatari power spenders as the most parsimonious in Europe. Just 14 goals have slipped through the Robert Huth-Ryan Shawcross cordon, half the total shipped by the leaders Manchester United.
4. Arshavin could rediscover the Henry touch at Reading
Most Gooners will probably file Andrei Arshavin in the Antonio Reyes tray of talented duds, but for one night at least, in a 4-4 barnburner at Anfield three years ago, he was all to Arsenal that Thierry Henry had ever been. A four-goal, left-foot/right-foot masterclass like that would do Reading very nicely, if the Mad Stad is to become home.
5. Ronaldo ready to move on? Don't bet on it
So Cristiano wants out of the Bernabeu. Didn't he once tell fans of Manchester United that the Real dream was dead while behind the scenes negotiating a conditional departure with Fergie? A new negotiating position is engineered once more through the United prism, but, I suspect, one designed to keep him in Madrid, not take him back to Manchester, unlike his boss.
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