Andrew McQuillan is a big advocate of tough love, only with fewer whips and chains.
Aston Villa are one of the grand old dames who bestride British football. One only needs to look at the majestic red brick of Villa Park to become aware that this is a true house of football. Yet that is all in the past; the long shadows of FA Cups in the early days of the game, their European Cup victory against Bayern Munich in 1982 and the League Cup winning sides of the 1990s hang around the stadium as a reminder to fans and players of better times. That the present is improving you could argue, but only if you were being extremely flippant. A 3-0 reverse at home to Wigan Athletic is a marked improvement when contrasted to their crushing at the hands of Chelsea and when they were so comprehensively played off the park on Boxing Day at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Paul Lambert and his raft of young colts, many of whom average at around 22 years old have endured a torrid Christmas period. It could be easy for Randy Lerner to employ a U-Turn away from his young and incredibly talented manager, for it would be a fool to decry Paul Lambert in light of his achievements at Norwich City, and go for that steady hand to guide Villa away from the precipice. Yet I would call upon the American to get a bit of Thatcherite grit in his veins and shun jumping on the “boom and bust” carousel of spending his way out of trouble, as it was the vicious circle of spending and chasing a hopeless dream that got Villa in their current pickle. Don’t blame Lambert, don’t blame McLeish or even Gerard Houllier, blame what came before. The Aston Villa of Martin O’Neil came close to gate-crashing the top four, managed a cup final appearance and skimmed around the edges in Europe, only not to take a UEFA Cup tie in Moscow too seriously. In the lore of football, that is not the most impressive thing ever achieved, but when it is couched in financial terms it is absolute lunacy. O’Neil, a supreme motivator but a cheque book manager nevertheless, spent £120 million merely to be the best of the rest, with the net spend being around £81 million with nearly £39 million recouped in sales. Any enjoyment in seeing Ashley Young and a pre-malaise Stewart Downing in claret and blue was tempered by millions lavished on the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker, Marlon Harewood, Zat Knight and Curtis Davies. To spend so much to gain so little sums up the quandary facing Premier League chairmen, managers and fans outside the upper echelons of the table, yet you have to ask sincerely if it was worth it for the meagre scraps of finishing 6th and losing in a League Cup final. It is little wonder that no Villa manager since O’Neil has been able to fashion a squad in the way he has and spend the same amount of money – Houllier’s signing of Darren Bent aside. The lunacy of the Premier League’s parallel universe drove a previously proud and well run club, dare I say it, under the stewardship of Doug Ellis to pot once “Deadly” vacated this particular corner of Birmingham. Villa are a club in terminal decline and have been for some time, all because they sought to live a fool’s dream which could only be achieved by witchcraft and Lionel Messi. The harsh medicine required for Aston Villa is a season in the wilderness. One needs only look at clubs such as Norwich and a perhaps more relevant example, Newcastle United, who have done well out of the cathartic experience of relegation. At Newcastle it allowed the team to regroup, for some of the over-payed deadwood to be cut away and for the club to get the rocket up its proverbial which was so clearly needed. You would have been laughed out the drinking establishments of the Bigg Market if you had dared to suggest that Mike Ashley and Alan Pardew’s lean and fiscally competent Newcastle United would be an example to other clubs. They were only able to do that by sweeping out the manure which accrued in the St James’ Park stables under stallions such as Graeme Souness, Sam Allardyce and Kevin Keegan, and relegation forced them to “get real”. Alternatively Villa could do a Sheffield Wednesday or a Nottingham Forest and drop like a stone, but relegation need not be the end. The emotional distress of relegation would force a club like Aston Villa to discover sanity off the park and find a collective purpose on it to recover – the game’s equivalent of electroshock treatment. The fans who have endured the expensive folly at Villa Park sing a song about bells ringing. The bell tolling for Aston Villa in the Premiership could be the best thing for them, as it could liberate them from the monopolising, delusional and shamefully decadent cabal that is England’s top tier and let one of the founding fathers of football get in touch with the soul of the game once again.