The two teams went into the game at Villa Park level on points, and in a season that has been usually tight at the bottom of the table, beating the teams around you will likely prove more important than ever. However, from an emotional point of view, the loss was absolutely devastating.
In recent seasons, the two clubs have sparked up a kind of new-age derby. Unlike rivalries of old, that tended to be solely dictated by the proximity of the teams, Villa and Norwich’s hostilities are founded on boardroom relations. In the money-driven world of the Premier League, it is not surprising that we have come to support of chairmen as much as our players.
It was perhaps fitting then that the man who has most recently found himself as the rag doll between the two clubs would open the scoring. Wes Hoolahan, who has been out of favour at Norwich all season and only found himself on the pitch due to the injury of Leroy Fer, found the net within the first three minutes.
As Norwich streamed forward after taking the lead, the club’s refusal to sell the 31-year-old playmaker may have seemed like a very shrewd move indeed. After all, the Canaries are in a relegation battle with Aston Villa and Hoolahan is the kind of player who can provide the creative spark needed to break teams down – something that Villa have struggled to do all season. However, in truth, it is more likely that the off-field relations between the clubs provided a bigger obstacle to the Irishman moving in January than any on-field reasons.
The roots of the feud stem back to the final game of the 2011/2012 season. Norwich hosted Aston Villa at Carrow Road, having already secured Premier League survival in their first season back in the top flight. Villa, under Alex McLeish’s stewardship, sat four points below the Canaries and could still potentially be relegated.
In this context, it is perhaps surprising that then Norwich manager Paul Lambert was being strongly linked to leaving the club to join the struggling Villians. However, just over two weeks after beating Villa 2-0, Lambert would hand in his resignation at Norwich City. Three weeks later he would be confirmed as the new manager of Aston Villa.
Norwich, having initially attempted to stop their manager leaving by refusing his offer of resignation, sought damages from the Scot for breach of contract. Lambert issued a counter-suit against his old club for unpaid bonuses. Perhaps the only civil thing in this whole dispute is that the three parties involved managed to come to an agreement before it reached a tribunal.
While some, Lambert in particular, may have hoped that this would signal the end of hostilities between the clubs, this has not been the case. Only months after settling on compensation the two teams would again engage in an off-field battle over youth goalkeeper Jed Steer. However, this time, the new-found enemies could not come to an agreement and Villa were eventually forced to pay Norwich more compensation by tribunal.
The Steer case was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. By the end of January, Norwich chief executive David McNally reportedly refused to even pick up the phone to Aston Villa in negotiations over Hoolahan. Despite the Irishman only starting six league games and turning 32 before the season ends, the Canaries were apparently unwilling to listen to any offers. One gets the impression that if any other club than Villa had come to the table, Norwich would have talked.
The pain felt by the Norwich board when they looked at the league table on Monday morning was likely far greater than teams usually experience after losing key battles. As football continues to become increasingly politicised, don’t be surprised to see more rivalries move from the terraces to the boardroom.