“I am telling the players it’s a must-win because we need to win a game sooner or later. This is a cup final. Forget Wembley last season, this is a cup final.”
Considering Aston Villa whimpered to a 4-0 defeat in their last cup final in May, Tim Sherwood’s last missive was perhaps the most ill-advised. Packaged as a “must-win” game against Swansea, Villa looked just as lifeless and listless as they had in their previous eight Premier League games. That made it nine league games without victory.
After an insipid first half, it appeared as though a rousing half-time Timmy team-talk had inspired his players. Jordan Ayew, signed by Sherwood for £10million in the summer, stooped to head home and Villa Park erupted with relief. It was a relief that lasted six minutes. Gylfi Sigurdsson fired home a free-kick soon after, and Andre Ayew crowned another defeat for Sherwood, his 16th – and last – in 28 games with three minutes remaining.
Sherwood boasted of a fully-fit squad before the game, a statement which prompted yet more questions as soon as his starting line-up for a “must-win” game was announced.
Alan Hutton, Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott and Kieran Richardson should not have formed a Premier League defence eight years ago, never mind in 2015. Gabby Agbonlahor should not still feature in top-flight games, never mind start them. Villa’s best player in Carles Gil remains on the bench. Rudy Gestede – a man backed by Sherwood as the best header in English football – is fielded, but with no wingers on the pitch. A litany of mistakes, and that was before kick-off.
Bear in mind this is a side who spent more than every other Premier League club aside from Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United this summer. The problems at Villa run as deep as they do high in the infrastructure, but that did not excuse Sherwood’s clear unsuitability not only for the Villa job, but for any managerial post currently.
“That’s my job as a manager to take that responsibility. I’m not in the background, am I? I’m the manager, I get paid to stand at the front and take it on the chin and that’s what I’m doing.”
Now shackled by a win percentage of just 35% at Villa Park, this was Sherwood’s last defence. He is a Football Man, willing to ‘front up’ and, as the leadership cliches pour out of his mouth, “take it on the chin”.
The thing is, nobody ever doubted Sherwood’s determination. The issue is that he simply isn’t a Premier League manager; he’s a barely proved himself a Football League one.
As speculation concerning his job mounted throughout the week, Sherwood delivered a 427th embattled message: “I’m easy with it. My job doesn’t change. I still need to win a football match which I’m aware of. I’ll be taking full responsibility for the team’s performance and we’ll win tomorrow.”
Sherwood therefore took “full responsibility” for his side having fewer shots than their opponents, a lower passing accuracy, fewer passes and less possession. Oh, and fewer goals too. The end was nigh.
This was a Swansea side who had not tasted victory of any kind since August. Only two sides have been on a worse run of form that Garry Monk’s men: 19th-placed Villa and rock-bottom Sunderland. If the Black Cats extend their Wear-Tyne winning run over Newcastle on Sunday, Villa will replace them at the foot of the table.
Adamant war cries of “we’ll win tomorrow” are all well and good, and a clear staple of the Sherwood management theory. This does quite the disservice to Brendan Rodgers, but they are bosses built in a similar mould. Few are better equipped to lead a confident side in the midst of a good run of form, but both struggle to ignite that form in the first place.
Nick Miller asked a fortnight ago not only whether Sherwood was a good manager, but whether he was even a manager at all. What is clear is that at some point he has to back up the bluster. All signs suggest that he can’t.
“Am I going to be in the job next week? I’m not the person to ask. I feel like the club is in a hole,” Sherwood added after the game. What he failed to appreciate is that he was the one holding the shovel.