Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Long Game

Amongst the various topics I've strayed onto on this blog, I'm not sure I've ever written about football. But I can't not do at the moment. My team, Aston Villa, are about to be relegated from the Premier League, after a catastrophic season, where they have won only 3 of 33 league games all season; are 9 points adrift; and have just lost their 8th game in a row. Football is all about winning and losing, and the football league is a brilliant invention that still perplexes Americans, for instance, who don't quite get that there should be no divine right to be a member of the elite. Of course, few sports are like football, with its "pyramid" of teams, and long institutional history.

Villa are part of that long institutional history, one of the 12 teams in that first ever football league, when there was just a single division. As teams formed around the country - extending the sport's popularity from the north and the Midlands - so did the league expand, eventually to four divisions featuring 92 teams. Nowhere else in football has that pyramid been so effective. Wigan Athletic and Wimbledon, both top flight teams at some point, both came from the non-league; though its interesting that since there has been automatic promotion and relegation from the league to the non-league (surely a contradictory term?) no team has quite risen through the pyramid. But it may one day happen.

That first league was won by the invincible Preston North End, who retained it the year after, and never again. Villa were one of the big teams in the 19th century and early 20th century, though faded somewhat after the thirties. The first ever league goal was scored by a Villa player, one Gershom Cox, unfortunately it was an own goal....

So, in Kipling's words, triumph and disaster are never that far apart when you follow a football club. I was frankly surprised when I realised that Villa's last relegation was as long ago as the eighties. Surely for such a big club, with a venerable history, next season will see us bounce straight back? Not so quick. The Premier League has been dominated by four clubs, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City,  the latter two funded by billionaires - they wouldn't have been listed in any "big six" back in the mid-nineties even, despite their own long histories. This season, either Leicester (who have never won the league) or Tottenham Hotspur (who last won it in 1961), are going to break that hegemony, joining Blackburn Rovers as the only other Premier League winner. Blackburn, like Leeds, Derby, Nottingham Forest and now Villa, are a league winner who have left the top flight with no immediate sense they will return.

When I was born Villa were a club in the doldrums. They were briefly in the third division. In those days, it seems there was rarely big money changing things, rather, clubs were reliant on a clutch of players, either locally born and bred, or brought together through good management and coaching. Once at a club, players often stayed there. Before television money transformed the landscape, where you were in the league structure hardly mattered - the fans would come anyway - a cup run would allow you to dream, and occasionally your club would fall or rise. So when I was seven and started supporting Villa, we were the Midlands underdogs, in the old second division, and the year I started following Villa was the year we got promoted. WBA, Wolves, even Coventry and Birmingham were more popular clubs amongst my peer group. (Our nearest team, Walsall, was the kind of well run, but small town team that has always existed in the shadow of bigger clubs.).

The late seventies were great - we won the league cup, then, remarkably, the league, and even more remarkably the European Cup. Ron Saunders was our genius manager, and nobody really knew or cared about who ran or owned the club. That 1981 Villa team was very like the Leicester team of this season. Unfancied, with a core group of players who played every game, and had the season of their life. That year, it was Bobby Robson's Ipswich who were heralded as the new heroes, and the two unfancied teams jostled it out at the top, in a rare off-season for Liverpool. Villa spluttered over the finishing line, whereas Leicester, remarkably, seem to be keeping ahead of Spurs.

But at the bottom of the league, who cares about championships, except to remember we once had one - in my living memory. We had a couple of good seasons in the 90s, but things had fallen off by the time Doug Ellis sold the club to the American Randy Lerner. Luckily he'd also appointed Martin O'Neill as manager, who had to put together an entire team from scratch and we just missed out on Champions League football three seasons in a row. Since then there's been something rotten in the state of Villa. A succession of badly chosen and inept managers; transfer fees from players sold being wasted; good players (such as Marc Albrighton - now with Leicester) seen as surpluse to requirements; and a quality of football that can only be seen as abysmal. Even as late as last season we had an F.A. Cup final, albeit one where we were exposed by an imperious Arsenal, but the previous game, in a semi against Liverpool, we were as good as we've been in years. There's a whole team of Villa alumni playing for other top clubs - Barry, Milner, Cahill, Crouch, Albrighton, Benteke, Delph, Young - and its been a shame that in the modern game we've not been able to keep our best players.

This season, if this had been a boxing match, Villa would have been put out of our misery months ago, but we still have to limp through 38 games. I've never been a regular at the ground, having lived away so long, so can only feel sorry for those fans who go every week. Unlike other clubs Villa tend to stay loyal to the managers, and players, partly because of how low our expectations are - but partly I think, because of  a respect for the history of the institution. However badly we've been treated by poor ownership, useless management, and underwhelming players, it is that long history that matters.
Next season, in a lower league, and with a clean out of senior management already having taken place, a new Villa could rise... our history demands it, but, of course, we have been here before. Few of us think we'll just bounce back into the top flight - but hoping that we're not going to be forever isolated, like Forest and Leeds, from our golden years.

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