Dave Woodhall on Villa’s trip to north London this weekend.
Back in August 2006 the Emirates Stadium was opened and its first proper match saw Arsenal at home to Villa. It was a new dawn for both clubs – the Gunners had moved to a new home, holding 60,000 and enabling them to compete, or so they believed, with the financial clout of Manchester United and Chelsea. Villa, meanwhile, had just appointed Martin O’Neill as manager and Randy Lerner’s arrival was imminent. Stars and Stripes were waved and chants of “USA” abounded in the away section. This was no unpopular takeover by a faceless overseas owner; Lerner’s advance charm offensive had made sure he was welcomed into Villa Park with open arms by supporters convinced he would lead the club to the Promised Land.
That initial game finished 1-1, with Villa’s Olof Mellberg scoring the first competitive goal at the new ground. Villa and Arsenal then had a few reasonably successful seasons by their own comparative standards – Arsenal continued to qualify for the Champions League without getting close to winning it, we came close to qualification without ever genuinely looking as though we would break into the top four. Both teams are now, again by their own standards, struggling, with Arsenal’s trophyless run continuing and Villa battling for Premier League survival. Disappointing is as good a word as any to describe how the season has progressed and this feeling was heightened by the presence the following day of Bradford in the League Cup final after having beaten both sides on the way to Wembley – not that the commentators mentioned it much during the subsequent coverage.
Defeats in the previous two matches had put Arsene Wenger under pressure, and indeed the approach to the ground was as quiet and lifeless as I’ve seen since it opened. The word ‘backlash’ was also being ominously heard and when Villa went a goal down in the opening minutes a right hiding seemed possible. However, the team knuckled down and looked dangerous on the break, finally equalising thanks to an Andreas Weimann goal midway through the second half. Then Arsenal attacked, Villa defended and the rest was inevitable. Another late goal conceded, another point dropped.
Both sets of supporters argue that their team should do better and although no club has a divine right to success, in strictly financial terms they both have a good case. Since moving to the Emirates Arsenal have enjoyed the largest matchday income of any club in the world and have been ever-presents in the Champions League group stages, yet have never looked like competing with the European elite. Villa have spent more than most, and all they have to show for this investment is a League Cup final appearance and a string of UEFA Cup/Europa League qualifications. Failure for both clubs this season would result in an exodus of star players, an inability to attract replacements of equal ability and a severe reduction in income. It’s certainly not what anyone expected on that sunny August afternoon 6 1/2 years ago.