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
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