By Alex Netherton & Andi Thomas
Before Saturday, Aston Villa’s last victory in any competition came on 10 March, a glorious one-nil hammering of Fulham crowned in spectacular fashion by Andreas Weimann’s thunderous last-minute heroic tucking-away of a rubbish Mark Schwarzer save. Yes, there’s been a couple of months off in the middle of that run, but still, six months without a win. As if being from Birmingham wasn’t punishment enough. (For any trans-Atlantic folk reading, being from Birmingham is like being from Canada, but worse.)
It would be wrong to suggest that Villa were bad last season; “bad” is too inadequate a word. They were earth-shatteringly, sky-rendingly, cosmos-buggeringly awful. This might actually work to Alex McLeish’s advantage if and when he begins to seek another dugout to stink out: so utterly, utterly, utterly utter were they that it’s almost impossible for the human brain to recall. We asked a Villa fan to think, really hard, about McLeish’s football, and he’s been curled up in the corner ever since. He won’t touch food, his eyes have unfocused, and he keeps muttering “You don’t know, man. You weren’t there”. Blood’s coming out of one ear, ennui out of the other.
Now, though, happy days! Passing! Movement! Sometimes even both! Players looking not only like they want to win, but like they actually believe that they can. Smiling. Brett Holman sweated his literally skin off, Barry Bannan scampered about constructively, Ron Vlaar lived up to his vaguely terrifying name, and Brad Guzan nudged Shay Given one step closer to the glue factory. Swansea weren’t even dreadful, which suggests that this victory might actually be the start of something … well, “special” would be horribly premature, so let’s just go with “competent” and accept that as the step forward it is.
But the best thing about Lambert’s team is his focus on the young, the lower-league, and the hitherto unhailed and unheard of. Familiarity breeds contempt, as people keep sodding saying, and this is a league where players are inexplicably allowed to disappoint for years beyond their usefulness. So because nobody has any idea who plays for Villa anymore—for a moment on Saturday, half the internet thought that the Daily Mail‘s Matt Lawton had put them in front—it’s possible to run your eye down the Villa team-sheet and not twitch with contempt more than once or twice, a minor pleasure normally reserved for newly-promoted teams that don’t or can’t afford to sign the players that worked so hard to get the teams they’re replacing relegated.
That’s Lambert’s plan, of course: having done so well with Norwich last season, he’s trying to recreate their freshly-elevated fearlessness; “Benteke”, in Walloonian, means “the new Grant Holt”. But at least he’s got a plan. Between the fact that Villa are finally playing football that doesn’t compare unfavourably to the heat death of the universe, and the decision to list Alan Hutton for parts, he’s more-or-less worth a statue already. Well done him.
*** Offal ***
Since we’re doing unusual positivity this week, a moment for Peter Odemwingie. It was unusual to hear a footballer apologise for his having been a tit, but that’s not what we mean. We need to acknowledge the manner of the dismissal, a totally inexplicable cartoon hoof straight into Sascha Riether’s saschas. It’s a universal rule: if you’re going to be an irrationally violent buffoon, at least take the time to be funny.
Danny Welbeck. That’s two in a week. Stop it.
And that’s it. That’s literally it. Nine games of football and the most interesting things that happened was some Brummie frown-flipping, a comedy sending-off, and a dive. The hammerings were predictable (Arsenal in sunshine; Wigan at Old Trafford); the wins were comfortable (Spurs, Fulham); and the draws were so dull that even Manchester City and Chelsea dropping points didn’t feel like much of anything. Is this what we want from our Premier League? We’re blaming the international break for ruining everybody’s concentration. Hodgson out.
Actually, that’s not quite it. You will probably have heard that QPR’s Anton Ferdinand, along with his captain Ji-Sung Park, refused to shake the hands of either John Terry or Ashley Cole. You may have missed, however, a couple of evocative descriptions of said refusal. The Mirror described the non-shake as “petulant”, while The Times opted for the headline “Ferdinand keeps race row simmering”. Now. Leaving aside the question of guilt for the moment, it’s fairly clear that Ferdinand, for his part, is certain about what he thinks he heard. He said so under oath, after all. So let’s be clear: not shaking the hand of a person that you believe has racially abused you or one of your colleagues is not petulance. It’s not keeping things “simmering”. It’s common sense, it’s good taste, and it’s completely and totally justified. Allowing Sepp Blatter to guest-edit newspapers was clearly a misguided effort