It’s a shame that there was no material significance to the fixture between Wigan and Aston Villa on the final day of the season, as it would have been a gripping, all or nothing affair, between two clubs that only know how to play a positive breed of football. Yet had I written this article before last weekend, already knowing the Latics’ fate, I would have suggested that both sets of fans should stand up and applaud for a full 90 minutes.
Both clubs have been excellent value for money at the foot of the Premier League table, and apart from one team maintaning their top flight status at the expense of the other, their campaigns have been synonymous in many ways. More importantly however, there appears to have been a shared morality between the two clubs; whilst others involved in the current campaign’s relegation scrap have turned on themselves, with rumours of dressing room cliques, in-fighting and the continual sacking of head coaches, with Sunderland, QPR, Reading and Southampton all changing mangers throughout the season, Wigan and Aston Villa should be rewarded for accepting the position they found themselves in, and getting their heads down to make the best out of a bad situation rather than pointing the finger at the first opportunity to do so.
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Whilst Roberto Martinez’ tenure was always secured no matter what the outcome of the current season, Villains’ Chairman Randy Lerner pledged in January that Paul Lambert’s future at the club would not be in jeopardy even if he failed to steer Aston Villa clear of relegation. It begs the question as to whether the assurances and confidence from the board room was the biggest factor in the Birmingham-based club’s Premier League survival, and should it be a lesson in mind for other top-flight owners in the years to come?
It was an undoubtedly calming influence on the former Norwich manager during what has been a difficult period for the club. In the summer, departing gaffer Alex McLeish left behind at Villa Park a roster of over-paid has-beens, that was not only lacking in youth, legacy and longevity, but furthermore, quality. It put Lambert in a difficult situation, and the former Borussia Dortmund defender decided early on to commit to his own convictions and principles, with little room for pragmatism and every chance that the risks would quite simply not pay off.
With the transfer budget tight and the squad thin following the departures of Emile Heskey, James Collins, Carlos Cuellar, Luke Young, Steven Warnock, Jean Makoun and Alan Hutton, in addition to Stylian Petrov being out of action due to his long-term battle with acute Leukaemia, the new Villa boss invested his trust and finances in youth, signing Jordan Bowery, aged 21, Joe Bennett, Ashley Westwood and Matthew Lowton, all aged 23, from the lower leagues of English football, with the latter three becoming mainstays in the first team over the course of the season.
Similarly, Lambert showed faith in former bit-part youngsters and stand-ins such as Chris Herd, Andreas Weimann and Ciaran Clark, giving them the opportunity to make the step-up to becoming regular members of the starting XI.
The phrase ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ was once again bandied around throughout the course of the season, and many TV pundits were critical following a number of the Villains’ excessive defeats; losing 4-0 to Manchester United, 8-0 to Chelsea and 4-0 to Tottenham. The reliance on youth had come at the expense of £18million signing Darren Bent, veteran goalkeeper Shay Given and the once-brilliant Stephen Ireland, with scrutiny rife that Lambert’s failure to balance age and experience had lead to a lack of leadership on the pitch, with the players’ heads going down cited as the main cause of Villa’s heavy losses.
But through the course of the season, the risk paid off, with Aston Villa’s young cast picking up wins against the teams that truly mattered, recording victories over Sunderland, Reading, West Ham, QPR and Stoke in crucial six-point affairs. The important results have formed the bedrock of Villa’s survival bid, but undoubtedly could not have happened had Lambert not been able to maintain confidence and a cool-head following the his side’s poor displays and one-sided defeats, which is in no small part due to assurances from above that the futures of the players, staff and the manager were not on the line.
Another crucially integral factor to the Claret and Blues’ Premier League survival has been the form of Christian Benteke. The Belgium international has finished the season with 19 goals and four assists in 34 Premier League appearances, in addition to being shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
At this point, the decision to employ and entrust Benteke to lead the line for the starting XI would seem a no-brainer, but last summer it was yet another risk that Lambert had to undertake. The Villa forward was purchased from Genk for a fee of £7million – the club’s largest expenditure of the season, with a price-tag that exceeded double of their next highest inward transfer fee, £3million for Matthew Lowton.
The powerful 22 year old had been highly rated in the Belgian top flight, but Lambert was still taking a huge financial gamble on an unproven youngster, and took a further risk choosing him over a tried and tested Premier League striker with over 100 top flight goals to his name in Darren Bent, as Villa’s first choice striker.
Of course, all of these risks I’ve mentioned could easily have backfired, and Aston Villa would now be facing the prospect of playing second-tier football for the first time since 1987. But it is a testament to Lambert’s qualities as a manager that he’s made the right call on numerous occasions this season, and furthermore a testament to his leadership that he has maintained his principles, values, philosophy and ideology throughout the campaign, avoiding the distractions of the embarrassing defeats to the Premier League’s bigger clubs without questioning or compromising on his own beliefs.
But most importantly, praise should be heaped upon Randy Lerner. He could not promise his incoming manager a wealth of finance, a roster of talented players or a club in a healthy condition to move forward, but he did grant Paul Lambert his permanent loyalty and faith, as well as promising that relegation would not determine the length of his tenure. It has allowed the Villa boss to operate without fear, which has undoubtedly trickled down player level and spread the benefit of confidence throughout all areas of the club.
Next season, Aston Villa’s young cast will be all the better for their Premier League survival, and the story of the Birmingham-based club’s season should be considered in the future as a glowing, walking and talking example in the case against the ‘hire and fire’, big spending and constantly short-termist nature of the English top flight.
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