One Step Forward……

Villa continue to anger and frustrate their supporters. But Dave Woodhall’s annoyance isn’t all aimed at the club.

There’s no way of dressing it up – this hasn’t been a good week for the Villa. We entered it on the back of a great performance against Blackburn that revived outside hopes of European qualification and left it peering nervously at the bottom three, with the schism between manager and supporters wide open again.

The team selection for Wednesday night was indefensible and in the context of the season, inexplicable. Just as we were starting to get things together, Gerard surrenders the chance of Wembley (because Manchester City are eminently beatable, especially at home) and in doing so incurs the wrath of many.

There’s a lot of double standards swirling around this particular furore, of course. When Martin O’Neill regularly sent out weakened sides in cup competitions there was anger but not on this scale. Equally, our sole FA Cup tie at Villa Park this season, against Blackburn, drew a crowd of 10,000 less than the corresponding league fixture. So if a lot of our supporters can’t be bothered with the competition, Houllier might argue that he shouldn’t be, either.

Of course, that’s a very simplistic argument, and flies in the face of the fact that football isn’t about logic. It was wrong not to put the strongest side out, but I’m not particularly angry about it. My own ire is saved for the conditions which make such actions possible. The FA Cup, the greatest competition in football, has been downgraded year on year. This season we had the fourth round in January and several fifth round ties not played until March. The final will take place on the day of a normal league programme, a week before the season ends. If the FA wanted their own competition to be quietly ignored, they couldn’t have made a better job if they did it deliberately.

Modern football at the top level is overwhelmingly about money, and this, too, is a factor in the lessening of the cup’s importance. If Villa had beaten Manchester City on Wednesday night and gone on to win the trophy, the total income generated – prize money, gate receipts, TV rights, merchandise – would have been less than the prize money won for getting, if the table stays the same until the end of the season, four more Premier League points. That, surely, can’t be right. It was first said when the Champions League was founded that clubs would rather finish fourth than fifth and win the League Cup. Now they’d rather finish sixth than sixteenth and win the FA Cup – and supporters have bought into the hype.

Talking of the league, Villa had a great chance to move towards safety on Saturday, but blew it spectacularly. 2-1 up at Bolton with 15 minutes to go, playing some lovely football and having won a penalty, the game should have been over. The penalty was missed, our defence worked its usual magic (ie invisibility) and three points were down the drain.

The overwhelming feeling about this season is one of frustration. Villa are not far off a good team; we’ve been in the lead in each of our last four league games and won just one, for a total of five points. There was some excuse on Saturday, with the injury problems that seem to have gone on for ever ruling out three central defenders, but that doesn’t make the table look any healthier. The sooner we’re safe and the season is over, the better I’ll like it.