It seems a bit surreal now to look back a month or so to the pain and suffering everyone involved with our club was going through. We had been subjected to a prolonged assault on our faithfulness to a club that looked like it was slipping into the Championship without even a fight, limping with a whimper into the graveyard of many a proud midland club. We had a manager who was devoid of passion and hunger, players whose confidence was shot and who lacked unity, a fan base severely depleted and starting to lose hope of rescue from our plight. Gone was any fight at the club, from players, fans, the manager and the owner alike. Some had valiantly tried to be heard: demonstrations were organised, letters written and the faithful used their collective voice to be heard on a match day. However, still the club remained in a trance-like state of decay.
For me, it felt like I was sleepwalking; my trips to watch the Villa in the winter of 2014 were completed in a zombie-like state. Villa Park was quiet and there were empty seats aplenty. Even the FA Cup victories were hollow in some respects when I looked at our Premier League form. Slowly, we slipped from mid-table obscurity towards the danger zone and yet nothing changed. Away days, normally the last bastion of our support, started to falter, the in-fighing started and everyone who was there will remember the games at The King Power Stadium, The Emirates and The Hawthorns. Worse was the pain of being subjected to Paul Lambert’s post-match interviews: he seemed blind to everything that was wrong with his team and saw performances completely differently to the rest of the footballing world. Many of us doubted the players’ efforts and desire to perform for a club that the media called ‘proud’ and ‘historic’. So many of our stars seemed lost in a system none of us understood. Pundits were quick to see the faults too and over the winter we became the butt of everyone’s jokes. Records fell and by Christmas 2014 we were the worst-performing club in all four divisions and in the bottom two in Europe. Some would argue the lowest point in our great club’s history was reached.
When Hull away came many of us had already accepted relegation. We may not have said it – but we had. Another dire performance, Lambert’s trademark, came and went and one of our “must win” games went by without even a fight. Up went ‘that’ bedsheet and those who travelled made their feelings known louder than ever before. Whilst many of us had reached (or gone over) our tipping points with Lambert, the powers that be finally reached theirs: twenty-two hours later Lambert was gone, leading to a massive celebratory outpouring. It will be argued that Hull away was the defining moment of our season.
Eventually Tim Sherwood was appointed, the healing process started and whilst we lost to Stoke City and Newcastle United there were some signs of better performances from players. These were not massive green shoots, just hints of better effort and more unity in the team. Two more losses meant we found ourselves in the bottom three. The pain of this was evident on Sherwood’s face during post-match interviews, a honesty about our mess was apparent in his voice and it was clear that someone cared about Aston Villa.
Much has been said and written about ‘Baggies’ week’. The week started for me with nerves and concern that two losses against West Bromwich Albion would be painful in the extreme. Already suffering from defeat at The Hawthorns, another local derby defeat could have mauled our morale and sealed our fate. The Tuesday came and Villa Park was more awake: whilst many had chosen not to return to the ground, the faithful got behind the team and the magic of that night played out on the pitch and in the cold stands of Villa Park. We looked different: players who were on Lambert’s scrapheap came to life and we started to move and pass like a team wanting to survive. The last five minutes saw a team not happy to draw a game, but hungry to win. Up stepped Benteke; up stood the crowd at Villa Park.
Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final will be remembered in time for what it was and not what has been reported. Villa Park was at its best and we had a manager who showed he could change a game at half-time. What came in those dizzy forty-five minutes of football will prove to be great moments for our club, not just because we beat the Baggies and progressed to Wembley but because the healing of the wounds was accelerated. Villa Park was just amazing that day, with the noise, the scenes across all four stands, the balloons and flags but mostly because the fans and the club came together. We looked different, we were different.
So now it’s March 2015. Fresh from thumping a soulless Sunderland side, Aston Villa is a club showing all the signs we know only too well exist. While we have taken six points from our last two Premie League games, we are far from safe. Nevertheless, what we have achieved is far more than points and progression to the FA Cup semi-finals. The club feels awake again, with players who want to survive and who want to play football. We have a manager who is honest and passionate, if not overly experienced. Players are rediscovering their long gone form and those who Lambert discounted or subdued are turning out to be our playmakers. We have scored eight goals in three games, which is a massive achievement given our repulsive record under Lambert.
A long few months of football await. I’m sure there will be a few more lows along the way but we should at least now fight for our place in the Premier League and enjoy whatever the FA Cup semi-final brings us in April. We have our Villa back – and it feels damn good!
Piece written by guest blogger Jeff Goodby.