To lose once may be unfortunate…

Dave Woodhall gets Wilde about Villa’s FA Cup defeat.

On Sunday night Paul Lambert might well have been ringing David Moyes and Sam Allardyce to offer thanks for knocking him off the back pages. On a normal third round weekend Villa’s humiliating defeat by Sheffield United would have been the big story but instead Manchester United’s home loss to Swansea and the West Ham youth side’s 5-0 thrashing by Nottingham Forest will be the ones that make the headlines.

Whether Villa’s defeat is best forgotten, or should be remembered as a salutary lesson is a moot point. The build-up to the game couldn’t have been worse, with Lambert’s pre-match press conference dominated by the story that he was dismissing the FA Cup as an irrelevance. He said nothing of the sort of course, merely saying that the cup had a lower priority than the Premier League now enjoys and comes at the end of a busy period of league games. I’m certain that all his fellow managers agree and had the press pack reported his words fairly there would have been no real story but one of them in particular, namely Radio WM’s Mark Regan, chose to spin events in the most sensational way via the dubious medium of Twitter.

After being roundly criticised by a media who were more interested in a headline than in reporting the truth, Lambert then sent out a virtually full-strength side to play Sheffield United. There were less than twenty thousand Villa supporters inside the ground; how many had been put off by his reported comments and how many more would have been there had the relative strength of the team been known in advance is impossible to tell but ‘a few’ and ‘not many’ would be a reasonable guess. Even at reduced ticket prices the FA Cup is now an irrelevance to many supporters. The reasons have been debated many times but that’s modern football.

Not that this should in any way excuse Villa’s diabolical performance. Our FA Cup record since 1957 goes without saying but there have been few of what you’d call genuine shocks, particularly in recent years. Most of the time Villa lose to either a better team or have an off-day against equally matched opponents. The past twelve months have seen us surrender in the most appalling fashion to sides far below us in the league, and when you throw in the Bradford humiliation a pattern starts to emerge. Villa weren’t unlucky on Saturday, they didn’t lose to a team whose one attack on goal was a freak deflection followed by 89 minutes of flukey defending. They lost, to a side currently struggling to avoid relegation to the fourth division and who had been beaten by Walsall three days earlier, because their opponents passed the ball better, defended better and possessed more threat on goal throughout the entire game. Nothing else needs to be said.

What’s particularly infuriating is that while Sheffield United were losing at Bescot, Villa have been winning away at Sunderland, in a game that was either a dogged display of defending or a classic example of counter-attack, whichever way you chose to describe it. This should have provided the springboard for Villa to bounce happily into the New Year, brush aside the challenge of their South Yorkshire cup opponents, together with a hardy patronising pat on the back for their plucky efforts, and snap up a couple of bargains in the transfer window ready for a difficult set of upcoming fixtures. Instead, we’re back to square one yet again with nothing but the race for mid-table mediocrity to look forward to until May.

The cup exit has heightened criticism of Lambert, with many supporters saying he should be sacked. I don’t think now is the time but he should definitely heed the warning given by Graham Taylor to his players as they faced another potential FA Cup humiliation, two down at half-time to Crewe in 1989 – you got us into this mess, you get us out of it.