A new era.
How many times have we heard that phrase over the last 10 years? David O’Leary and his new era. Martin O’Neill and his new era. Gerard Houllier and his new era. Alex McLeish and his . . . . time at the club. We Villa fans have become accustomed to false hope many times throughout our beloved club’s history. Painfully, sometimes dangerously, we stick by our team as inevitable disappointment hits.
We’ve been close to glory. We’ve been close to having truly great teams. We’ve been close to living a long forgotten dream, whether that dream be domestic silverware or competing in the higher echelons of the Premier League and Europe’s most prestigious competition, the Champions League.
Over the last ten years though, in my opinion, there’s always been one thing that has, over everything else, kept us from finally taking that step to greatness: our managers – notably Martin O’Neill. He got us the closest to the glory, on the cusp of Champions League qualification on several occasions, to an FA Cup semi-final appearance and a League Cup final.
His decision making, tactics, transfer policies and inability to create a squad that was fit enough to last 90 minutes after March cost us dearly. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. It’s fair to say for the majority of his tenure Martin O’Neill was loved by the Villa faithful, myself included. However, despite all our success on the pitch there was always that nagging little feeling that it wasn’t going to last, that we weren’t being built for the future. That nagging feeling began for me in the summer following MON’s first season when he purchased the likes of Marlon Harewood and Zat Knight for substantial amounts of money. It grew louder as each season passed; towards the end of his final season the writing wasn’t so much on the wall as on MON’s forehead.
The point I’m attempting to make, perhaps poorly, is that it never seemed like we ever looked further than the next season. There was a certain inevitability about our failures at the final hurdle each season. It was disappointing but never massively surprising.
What’s different now? Well, lots. Firstly, Paul Lambert is now the man in charge. The faith I have in this guy is unshakable. The Premier League is a different beast to what it was 5 years ago: it’s tougher, less kind. Every team around us is improving, which is shown by how far backwards we have fallen in the last 3 seasons. Not only has our deterioration been drastic, the improvement of the teams around us going in the other direction has been rapid.
Believe it or not, that should give you hope and it should strengthen your faith in Lambert like it has mine. Last season was awful, dreadful and downright embarrassing at times. Our young team was battered, destroyed, out fought and out thought on many occasions. I can’t count the number of times that this tough league we’re in pushed us down to the ground, kicked us then spat on us as it walked away. Lesser managers would have seen their team fall away and die without a fight. Lambert never lost faith though: “We’ll be fine” was the mantra he repeated after every soul-destroying last minute defeat.
Then it happened: our young, inexperienced team found themselves. In this Premier League which had tried with all its might to crush us, as we were ridiculed and written off, the lads and the manager learned, developed, each defeat made them stronger and slowly the tide turned.
One thing I noticed about last season was, despite the obvious relief at our improved form from early March onward, it wasn’t a surprise. We all, or certainly myself and a lot of Villa fans I discussed this with, knew, or at least firmly believed, that this team led by Lambert would come good eventually. Sure, in the aftermath of defeats in January and February we may have briefly thought differently. That’s football and we’re allowed to be fickle for 5 minutes after an 8-0 defeat.
Now we have the future. Is it a future to look forward to? You know what, I’ll let you make up your own mind on that. I’m nice like that. Let’s just look at, and think about, a few things. We have a young and motivated manager. Sure, he makes mistakes, it’s easy to forget that last season was only his second top flight season in management. We have a young squad who appear (for the most part) to have joined Aston Villa to be part of Lambert’s project and to take the club forward. Most importantly, as a club we seem to have a plan with a definite and sustainable direction for the future.
Paul Lambert won’t be at Aston Villa forever. We may have to accept that at some point bigger, brighter lights may call him. One thing I truly believe is that Lambert will leave this club in a far better state than when he joined, not only on the pitch but off it. It won’t take us 3 years, 3 different managers and several large steps backwards to get going forwards again.
Hopefully that is some way off yet. For now, let’s just enjoy the ride. There will no doubt be more bad days to come – that’s the nature of what Lambert is doing. Those days will become fewer and fewer though, I believe. This team is growing, getting better and although I don’t have massive expectations for next season or the following season, brighter days are coming. That’s my belief anyway.
I think the phrase ‘new era’ is finally applicable to Aston Villa Football Club.
Thanks for reading. Up The Villa!