Well, so much for the Paolo di Canio effect. After back-to-back victories under their controversial new manager, Sunderland crashed to defeat at Villa Park and the fight to avoid relegation got really interesting. The Mackems aren’t safe. Newcastle, still smarting from their own thumping, are deep in the brown stuff. Wigan need to put the FA Cup out of their minds. Aston Villa, on the other hand, are suddenly looking buoyant. Has a policy that looked quite insane all season suddenly paid off?
When Paul Lambert first hit upon his plan of replacing a horde of bloated, well-remunerated Premier League players with an eager posse of young chancers from the lower leagues, the football world nodded approvingly. Then the season started and a flaw that should have been obvious became horribly clear. Football, as Lambert himself said on Monday evening, is about players. Suddenly, Aston Villa had an awful lot of unproven ones.
The nadir came, after a lengthy notice period, at Villa Park on January 22. Having been soundly beaten in the League Cup semi-final first leg by fourth division Bradford at Valley Parade, they blew a first half lead in the return game and even a late Andreas Weimann ‘winner’ couldn’t save them. Further defeats followed to Millwall in the FA Cup and Newcastle in the league, but they were just rabbit punches to an unconscious body. Villa were traumatised, numbed to further punishment.
Not all of this, it must be said, was the fault of Lambert’s preference for young and hungry players. Had Stilian Petrov been spared a battle far more serious than a relegation dogfight, and had Richard Dunne avoided long-term injury, those young players, those players new to England, would have enjoyed experienced guidance. Perhaps they wouldn’t have wilted at crucial time, squandering vital points.
The situation was bleak. With Birmingham at the mercy of a Hong Kong hairdresser’s courtroom battle and Wolves crashing through the divisions like a grand piano through damp floorboards, Aston Villa’s relegation would have left West Bromwich Albion isolated at the summit of West Midlands football.
But after a victory over West Ham in February, Aston Villa sparked back into life. Consecutive defeats against Arsenal and Manchester City were shrugged off as occupational hazards, the sting taken out of them by the composed, determined performances that went unrewarded. Lambert’s players couldn’t quite hold their own against the elite, but against their rivals, it was a different story. Victories over Reading, QPR, Stoke and Sunderland have given them a real chance of pulling out of this nosedive just before they plough into the ground.
If that happens, and that’s still an ‘if’ as big as Dunne’s bottom, Villa will actually be in a hugely advantageous position. Having seen their wage bill smash through the ceiling under Martin O’Neill, Lambert’s policy is set to bring the spending down to a more than manageable level. It will be even more manageable when the new Premier League TV deal spits out almost £120 every minute from the final whistle of this season to the last blast of the 2013/14 campaign. And that’s just for the team that finishes last.
Not only that, but Villa will have a team of youngsters who have come through the most testing season of their lives, written off by all but those closest to them, blooded and ready for more. Players like Matthew Lowton and Joe Bennett, weak links for so much of this season, are maturing nicely. Aston Villa are organised, they work hard for each other and they are brutal on the counter-attack.
This may not have been the most relaxing way to do it, but Villa are so close to successfully completing a crucial transitional season. It seems that all they have to do now is beat Wigan on the last day of the season. Two months ago, they’d have bitten your arm off for that.
Read the marvellous Iain Macintosh each and every week