Aston Villa: Could It Get Much Worse?

And we really do mean that in both senses of the question. Villa have a wantaway owner, a wanted-out manager and a squad that looks light on quality. Oh dear...

Last Updated: 07/08/14 at 09:52 Post Comment

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LAST SEASON
Premier League
15th, 38pts, -22 GD FA Cup Third round League Cup Third round Top league scorer Christian Benteke 10 Bookings 77 (second highest) with no red cards

Manager Paul Lambert (since June 2012; age 45 on 7 Aug) Odds on being first out of his job 10-1 (5th favourite)

Players in Joe Cole (West Ham, free), Kieran Richardson (Fulham, free), Philippe Senderos (Valencia, free, after loan from Fulham), Tom Leggett, Isaac Nehemie (both Southampton, undisc).

Players out Marc Albrighton (Leicester, free), Jordan Bowery (Rotherham United, £250,000), Nicklas Helenius (Aalborg, loan), Yacouba Sylla (Erciyesspor, loan), Nathan Delfouneso (Blackpool, free), Aidan Grant, Andras Stieber (all released)

Club turnover in 2012-13 £84m, 10th

Wage bill in 2012-13 £72m, 8th

Typing Paul Lambert's name into a popular search engine to check his age, the first three suggestions were: 'Paul Lambert'; 'Paul Lambert sacked'; and 'Paul Lambert out'. Still, amid the Aston Villa meltdown, the Scot remains one constant at the club.

As rumours of Randy Lerner's intention to sell spread last season, four points were picked up in the final nine matches. The owner wants to go, the chief executive has gone, two prominent backroom staff left after a disciplinary procedure. Lambert is understandably unpopular after two miserable seasons and he would be shorter odds for the sack if there were anyone in charge long enough to dismiss him and find a successor. But attracting a manager of the right calibre to a struggling, underachieving club is difficult, and that much harder when anyone coming in would know that they would be vulnerable to a new owner's desire to make his mark.

The Scot is clearly feeling touchy, objecting to a column Ian Taylor wrote for the Birmingham Mail, leading to the former player being warned off the US tour. At the same time, supporters' clubs have reacted angrily to a clause branch chairpersons must agree to: 'You will not partake in any abusive conversations towards anyone associated with the Club in any public forum, whether this is on a page that is personal to you and bears your name, OR on a page that bears the name of your Lions Club (including social media, Facebook, Twitter, etc).' The possible interpretations of the vague 'abusive conversations towards' led one branch chairman to call it 'like the kind of customer practice you would expect in North Korea or Russia'. It is no way to treat fans helping to pay for the division's eighth highest wage bill, on 2012-13's figures, while watching a side pick up more bookings than anyone but Stoke for the second season running.

Lambert was not a bad choice for Villa originally: in his early 40s, an achiever at Norwich, with a distinguished playing career. But a lingering smell of mediocrity going back decades became a stench under Alex McLeish and he has been unable to dispel it. No manager seems to go on to better things, or even half-decent ones, after taking on this job.

The peaks for Lambert have been illusory: last season's opening day win at Arsenal was followed by three straight defeats, setting the tone. September's win over Manchester City preceded four winless games; March's victory against Chelsea gave way to four straight defeats, the first a 4-1 home humbling to Stoke - in which Villa led for 15 early minutes.

The topsy-turvy nature of Villa's season is easy to see from their month-by-month rankings on our stats pages. While 13th in three games in August was followed by ninth over three games in September, hardly a seismic difference, the subsequent oscillations were far more marked: 18th in October then sixth in November, 18th in December then seventh in January, 20th in February then eighth in March.

At the end of that month they were 12th in the table, but then came Christian Benteke's Achilles injury. Finally Villa achieved some consistency, but of an undesirable nature, with the 17th-best record for April and 14th for May. The best that could be said was that Villa were the Midlands' top club, but that was by default rather than on merit as West Brom surrendered their 2013 prominence.

Those three wins against top-four sides, especially the ones against Arsenal and City, gave a glimpse of what Lambert wants. Perhaps there would have been more such moments if Benteke had not suffered his season-ending injury. But that may yet prove a short-term blessing because the Belgian at his best looks too good for this side and is less likely to move on when crocked. Ron Vlaar was fit for neighbouring Holland and with a touch more collective nerve could have been playing in the World Cup final; naturally he earned admirers and he has only another year on his contract. His international form was more noteworthy than that for his club but he would be hard to replace.

Such is the dire state of affairs that Darren Bent and Alan Hutton are back, along with Charles N'Zogbia after injury. Of the new arrivals, that of Roy Keane as Lambert's assistant is plainly the most attention-grabbing. In theory it could prove galvanising - that is certainly the intention - but the Republic of Ireland assistant manager is a gamble in a crisis. Shay Given was trying to be complimentary when he said: "He always gets talked about for his dark side and shouting at people but he's been very helpful for all the players," but not too many clubs benefit from having a Sith Lord on their books. At least he will be well-informed about the club from Martin O'Neill but he is on the one hand semi-detached, given his international role, and on the other an on-the-spot successor who could easily be tried out as a caretaker should Lambert go.

A trio of new players would have excited different emotions earlier in their careers. Joe Cole's injuries have given his career a twilight feel for far too long given that he is still only 32. Kieran Richardson, nine years ago a double scorer on his England debut, has just gone through relegation with Fulham, who deemed Philippe Senderos not up to the challenge and loaned him out to Valencia. Victor Moses, despite or perhaps because of his difficult season at Liverpool, could make more of an impact with supporters if a deal materialises.

Lambert has to capitalise on August's fixtures or face a September under pressure against some of the best. After travelling to Stoke on the opening Saturday, Villa host Newcastle and Hull. But after the international break they travel to Liverpool and Chelsea, either side of the visit of Arsenal.

After that trio comes the home game with Manchester City, then 14 days off for the second international break. Lambert will do well to survive an interval that would allow a new manager the maximum available time in which to bed in.

A wantaway owner, a wanted-out manager: it's difficult to know where former European Cup winners from the country's second largest city should go from here. As long as it doesn't involve derbies against Blues.

Philip Cornwall

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