Villa try to make passing impression of 'huge club'
Arrival of Paul Lambert has changed the style but not yet the substance
Just how big a club are Aston Villa? "Huge, huge," was the estimation of Paul Lambert when he was introduced as their manager in June. Some might say he was merely comparing them with Norwich City, Colchester United and Wycombe Wanderers, the previous clubs he has been in charge of in an indisputably upward trajectory. Others would point out that anyone who has played for the former European Cup winners Celtic and Borussia Dortmund has a fair idea of relative size.
Of course, Villa won the cup with big ears too, 30 years ago, but a wise old fan used to suggest that they had done well to be thought of as a big club, having in the best part of the past 100 years added to it no more than one League title and one FA Cup (he did not consider the League Cup worth mentioning).
Some of that reputation may also have been down to having an imposing stadium in days when many were slums, staging more FA Cup semi-finals than any other ground and always attracting good crowds. For much younger supporters, three successive sixth-place finishes between 2008-10 under Martin O'Neill confirmed the impression that they were a top-six side.
Then there was the fact that since the Premier League began, Villa have been top dogs in the parochial Midlands. In those 20 seasons only Nottingham Forest (1995), Birmingham City (2003) and West Bromwich Albion (2012) of their local rivals have finished above them. Yet even in the O'Neill era, attendances were slipping and once the League positions fell more dramatically, to ninth under Gérard Houllier and then 16th, disenchantment rather than harsh economic reality led to an overall drop of 15.4 per cent in five years – and nine per cent last season alone.
Some of those fans returned for the opening home game last weekend but were dismayed by a display that allowed Everton a 3-0 lead by half-time against a team in which the Dutch centre-half Ron Vlaar was the newcomer with the highest profile.
There was a brief flurry of excitement on Friday when it seemed that Clint Dempsey, scorer of 17 League goals last season and coveted by Liverpool and Spurs, might be heading for Villa Park. Instead the club were grateful to get two strikers in Christian Benteke from Genk and Chesterfield's Jordan Bowery.
The previous centre forward to be recruited was Darren Bent, for a club-record fee of more than £18m, and fans reluctantly acknowledge that the contrast shows how times have changed even since Houllier's day, let alone O'Neill's. It was the owner Randy Lerner's decision to tighten the purse strings that prompted O'Neill to walk out a few days before the start of the season two years ago.
Alex McLeish, insensitively recruited from local rivals Birmingham, and his successor Lambert have found them no looser, although the latter said on Friday: "Randy's been great." He also insisted: "There's no two ways about it, this is a huge club with a terrific fan base and excellent facilities. What they've done in the past, winning the European Cup, that should never be forgotten. If you're here you have to live with that."
As well as accepting the new culture of financial restraint, Lambert is trying to change to a more pleasing passing style. In the 1-0 defeat at West Ham on the opening day, fans were chanting in mock surprise: "We're Aston Villa, we're passing the ball!" The approach has won him time and respect – though not yet matches, which adds to the pressure for today's game at Newcastle, where they have a poor record.
Lambert denies there will be a relegation struggle. Gratitude for such small mercies is what a "huge" club has been reduced to.
Newcastle United v Aston Villa is this afternoon, kick-off 4pm
Latest in Sport
New day (slowly) rising – As Brasileirão gets underway, Brazilian football stumbles, rather than leaps into the future
The average Serie A crowd last year was 13,000 - comparable to Australia’s A-League.
by James Young
24 May 2013 04:31 PM
Monaco is a street circuit where driver ability is more important than anywhere else and if we take ...
by Gareth Purnell
24 May 2013 02:00 AM
Three weeks ago as I drove off the Eurostar, I remember thinking what a very long time it was until ...
by Martin Ayres
23 May 2013 05:29 PM
Why Manchester City were willing to fork out $500m on stake in MLS
Champions League final: Biggest German invasion since the fifth century as Borussia Dortmund face Bayern Munich
Borussia Dortmund v Bayern Munich: 50 things you should know about the Champions League final
Champions League final preview: Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund
Champions League Final: Can Jürgen Klopp and Borussia Dortmund stop the Bayern Munich machine?
- 1 What, let gays get married? We must be bonkers
- 2 Rocky Horror star Tim Curry 'suffers major stroke'
- 3 Exclusive: How MI5 blackmails British Muslims
- 4 EDL marches on Newcastle as attacks on Muslims increase tenfold in the wake of Woolwich machete attack which killed Drummer Lee Rigby
- 5 Farewell, Shameless. Your heirs have work to do
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.