Dave Woodhall looks back on 2014-15 at Villa Park.
The season’s finally ended and it’s time to look back on what was a mostly unforgettable time.
So forgettable, in fact, that it’s strange to reflect on how well it began, with ten points from the first four league games and just one goal conceded. Incredible though it now seems, Villa looked to be on the up and last summer’s strange arrivals of cast-offs, past-its and Roy Keane somehow seemed to have turned into a formula that might not have been a winning one, but was at least not losing as often as it used to. And then things started to go wrong. Boy, did they go wrong.
“Worst performance for twenty years” is an oft-used phrase amongst Villa supporters to describe an abject performance, and there were plenty of claimants for the title as the season wore on. 2-0 away at QPR and 1-0 at Leicester were pretty bad, with a five goal thumping at Arsenal another low point. Paul Lambert’s tactics went from strange to bizarre, with long balls being abandoned in favour of lots of very short balls, although both had the same end product. Villa’s lack of goals had become a source of national amusement, their defence was often equally farcical
Throughout Lambert’s reign there had been occasional hints of better times around the corner but these grew less frequent and much harder to spot, until the nadir was reached one February night at the unlovely KC stadium in the even less lovely surroundings of Hull. Another two-goal defeat saw Villa slip into the bottom three and within 24 hours Lambert was finally gone.
It was the first time Villa had changed managers during the season since February 2002, when the populist John Gregory had been replaced by the club’s elder statesman Graham Taylor. Gregory’s departure had been a surprise reckoned to be engineered by Doug Ellis (one of the few times when Ellis misread the public mood), yet it could have been argued that for many reasons the time had come for manager and club to part ways.
Lambert’s sacking was also something of a surprise, as it had seemed that his position was secure no matter what horrors he presided over, but was definitely overdue by at least two months, or as some would argue, two years. While Gregory’s resignation had also signalled the end of Villa’s entrenched ‘best of the rest’ status in the Premier League, hopefully this latest managerial change will end Villa’s equally lengthy position as best of the worst.
As usual at that time of the season there wasn’t a wide choice of replacements and to no-one’s real surprise Tim Sherwood arrived at Villa Park within days. He hit the club with the force of a whirlwind, reminding players that they were allowed to pass the ball forward, supporters that they could enjoy the match and the media that Aston Villa were not to be treated with scorn.
There were good performances, bad ones, a couple of the best afternoons I’ve ever known as a Villa supporter and an end to the season that turned out to have been merely a hallucination. It didn’t happen.
Modern football being what it is, Sherwood’s actions during the close-season will have little effect on how Villa perform in 2015-16. Of far more importance will be the budget he’s allowed to work with, and with a new owner seeming to be as far away as ever the signs are that the manager is going to have to work to a similar budget to that which has hampered his immediate predecessors, even if CEO Tom Fox does make regular noises about increased income being vital to success.
Whatever happens in the next two months, whoever comes and goes, we can confidently look forward to seeing more goals at Villa Park than in recent years. How many of them are at the right end remains to be seem.