Throughout the storied 20+ year history of the English Premier League, only a small selection of the 45 teams that have competed can truly say that they are a mainstay of the most famous competition in world football.
The illustrious Manchester United is the obvious candidate for the definitive EPL team with a résumé including 12 (and soon to be 13, bar a miracle run from Manchester City) winners’ titles, but other teams such as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, with such monumental achievements as an undefeated streak of 49 league matches to their names, can also claim a legitimate stake at being the archetypal top-flight club.
Surprisingly then, it’s Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa, struggling in 17th at the time of writing, that is one of only seven teams that holds an undeniable fact that proves they are one of the teams in the Premiership: they have never been relegated. In fact, of the 20 full seasons in which the league has existed, the Midlands club has only finished outside of the top 8 bracket a mere 8 times, and even challenged Alex Ferguson’s United for first place in the inaugural 1992-93 season. An undeniably big club, the history of the team from Villa Park suggests that they will always be a staple of the top-flight in English football.
Cue the Barclays Premier League 2012-13 season, and Aston Villa’s increasingly nervy battle against the drop.
In truth, Villa have been in a steady decline since the close period of the 2009-10 season. Amid the turbulent move of influential midfielder James Milner to Manchester City, dismay at owner Randy Lerner’s implementation of a sell-to-buy transfer policy had created an aura of disillusionment around the club. Beginning with then-manager Martin O’Neill’s shock resignation mere days before the opening game of the 2010-11 season at home to West Ham, the emerging political unrest kick-started a series of seasons that left the Villains in pieces, both on and off the pitch.
After a short yet mildly successful stint at the helm for Gérard Houllier, the manager’s job was given to Alex McLeish in June 2011; four months after the former Scotland boss had guided bitter rivals Birmingham City to League Cup glory against Arsenal at Wembley. Doomed from the start, McLeish’s hugely unpopular rein lasted only 11 months, and saw a below-par Villa finish the season in 16th place, narrowly escaping the trap door by two points. Current manager Paul Lambert, after securing Premier League promotion and subsequent survival with Norwich City, was chosen as McLeish’s successor as Lerner and his team began the rebuilding process after a troublesome two years at Villa Park.
Unfortunately, Lambert’s proposed reversal of fortunes has failed to come to fruition so far, as the 2012-13 season has been as uninspiring for Aston Villa as the previous campaign under McLeish. Currently languishing in a relegation scrap that has effectively seen Reading and Queens Park Rangers already dispatched, Villa have spent most of the season entering dull performances at home and on the road, resulting in costly defeats such as the 4-1 loss to Southampton in late September. The Christmas period was particularly brutal for Villa, conceding 12 goals in two fixtures by suffering an 8-0 mauling at the hands of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and an emphatic 4-0 loss to Tottenham at Villa Park on Boxing Day. Combining these results with the demoralising 3-0 home defeat to Wigan at the end of December, and Villa’s season, at least by the turn of 2013, looked destined to end in relegation.
Perhaps the most telling result of Aston Villa’s current season did not occur in the Premier League, but in the final stages of the Capital One Cup. Reaching the final four through admirable wins over Manchester City and Norwich, Villa drew League Two play-off hopefuls Bradford City on the final stop towards Wembley. Inspired by the resurgent form of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, Villa seemed to have enough to brush Bradford aside, and from the offset had one eye on a League Cup final against Chelsea or Swansea. However, nights to forget at Valley Parade and Villa Park handed the Villains a shock 4-3 aggregate defeat, and the Bantams went on to face Swansea down Wembley Way.
In light of a season in which Premier League survival would be seen as a major success, what can be identified as the cause for Villa’s recent downturn?
Sam Wallace, Chief Football Correspondent for the i newspaper, claims that the English national team is “stuck between eras”, and as a result is suffering from the new crop of talent taking their time in stamping their authority. Aston Villa are in a similar scenario, but without the safety net that Roy Hodgson is currently embracing. Whilst the England manager is able to turn to the trusted old guard of Steven Gerrard (32), Frank Lampard (35) and others whilst the youngsters mature, Villa have delved straight into the deep end, perhaps to a fault, with youth dominating the regular starting XI.
Experienced heads such as Shay Given and Richard Dunne have, for varying reasons, been in and out of the side all season, leaving the younger players such as Matt Lowton and Ashley Westwood without sufficient guidance in vital periods; so much so that famous ex-Villa defender Paul McGrath has publicly stated that there is a lack of “real leaders on the pitch”. Evidence of this can be found in February’s breathless draw with Everton at Goodison Park, a game in which Villa, with captain Ron Vlaar the most experienced player in the side at 27-years-old, let a lapse of concentration gift the Toffees two late goals and, more importantly, a share of the spoils.
Whilst it is admirable that Paul Lambert is building the foundations of a Villa team for the future, it must be stressed that the changes must be gradual, and that footballing experience is vital to a team going through such a transitional period. Former Villa striker and TV/radio pundit Stan Collymore, writing for the Sunday People, noted that the “youthful exuberance” of such players as Barry Bannan and Christian Benteke is beneficial for the club in the long-term, but a team in Villa’s position needs age and experience to be able to deal with a situation the magnitude of potential relegation to the Championship.