Last week, in the absence of The Championship, we investigatde the League One leaders Scunthorpe United and their marvellous form that, while fully deserved, has exceeded the expectations of a few people. This week, another team defying expectations somewhat – lowly Aston Villa. While they weren’t favourites for the title, they weren’t 20th on that list either and that’s where they stand after their draw with Wolves this weekend.
Since winning the 1982 European Cup, The Villains have had just one season away from the big boys in 1987/88, coming second and bouncing straight back up. In this time they’ve also taken two League Cups from three finals, playing two more FA Cup finals and, with consistent diaspora, have featured in the Uefa Cup/Europa League. The Birmingham club were, until this year, one of the remaining seven Premier League originals. They came second in the very first PL season in 1992/93 and finished in the bottom half just four times in the following 19 years.
Since the departure of Martin O’Neill, however, they’ve only once finished above 15th, which incidentally came the following season before another manager had the chance to dismantle the brilliant work he’d done. Under the Northern Irishman, Villa won 42.1% of their games and lost 50 out of 190. Tony Barton only led them to winning 44.62% on the way to the European Cup, and lost almost as many games (48) despite being manager for far fewer (130).
Since O’Neill, the club’s downward spiral has been characterised by the destruction of the team’s identity, the disenchantment of the club’s fans and the thoroughly unsuccessful ownership of the club by Randy Lerner. American Lerner argued with O’Neill over the former manager’s net spend in his time at the club (£82m) and O’Neill left in fairly acrimonious way the day before the 2010/2011 season following what can probably be described as ‘handbags’. A look at some of the facts in his time there tell you Lerner might not have gone any further than taking the face value of that net spend to look at how his manager’s transfer dealings had actually benefited the club immensely.
In spending this money, O’Neill was able to build a great squad and finished 6th three years in a row. He never spent more than £13m on one player – an amount that wouldn’t get you much these days – and three of his signings, Stewart Downing, James Milner and Ashley Young, left for more than double what he spent on them after he quit. This trend for exodus continued as the occasional top-notch talent came and went all too quickly, disrupting the squad and making it difficult to build a ‘team’. Seven different managers in six years hasn’t helped matters.
The appointment of Roberto Di Matteo seemed a pretty solid coup this summer. Miraculously a Champions League winning manager, the Italian found Championship life unfamiliar, unpredictable and difficult though, and lasted just 122 days with one win under his belt. However, he was always going to need time to get the hang of it and his three defeats are the same as title faves Newcastle, which is an accomplishment of some form at least.
This kind of impulsive sacking is, as we seem to learn endlessly, is not going to make Lerner popular with the fans nor give the side chance to build a squad rapport, an identity and any kind of form. He’s made himself the Villain of Villa and the club need a serious helping hand to get out the mess they’re in. Steve Bruce, though, should be the man for the job. He’s proven his ability to steady rocky ships by gaining promotion twice with both Hull and Birmingham. Particularly impressive is his ability to rebound from relegation from the Premier League.
Many in football consider him a true footballing gent, proof that no one is necessarily “too nice” to manage a team (I’m looking at you Gareth Southgate), and that will do a lot to boost the low confidence of a squad of players punching below their weight. Not only that, but his success in the division mean he knows a lot of the teams, managers and players much better than Di Matteo could possibly have done. His familiarity with its expectations and the style and standard of football in today’s second tier will go a long way, and this early in the season the play-offs wouldn’t be the most outrageous ambition. Roy Keane, remember, oversaw promotion with Sunderland in his first ever managerial role in 2008/09, taking them from 23rd to Champions in his first season with them.
In their draw at home to neighbours and rivals Wolves, Villa struggled to get a hold of the game and faced 12 shots to the four they had themselves. Bruce has already cited a lack of squad fitness as a huge factor in their struggles and, as someone who likes to build energetic, physical and intense teams, will know how to rectify this.
Despite struggling against Wolves, they still came out with a draw – a testament to his ability to grind out results and make his teams very competitive and hard to beat at this level. This result and his sparkling personality with quickly give the players belief and I expect a real upturn in form from them soon.
Elsewhere in The Championship
Former leaders Huddersfield rounded up the weekend’s games on Sunday 16th October with a 1-0 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday (7th), whose five wins in seven have them just two points from 4th. Top of the pile for now are Norwich, one of the pre-season favourites and 3-1 winners at home to Rotherham (24th) this weekend.
The Millers are having a torrid time at the moment. They’ve concede five more goals than anyone and have just two points from six games, with six points in all. Draws for Wigan (22nd) and Blackburn (23rd) have seen the two North-West clubs creep away from Rotherham as well, and the side from Yorkshire have a mammoth task ahead to stay up.
Close behind Norwich, Newcastle (2nd) continue to keep up the pace with The Canaries by beating Brentford (9th) by the same scoreline. Dwight Gayle bagged two more and is looking like a brilliant signing by Rafael Benitez, given his successful past in this division and excellent form this time around. 9 goals already is looking like smart business.
Derby (19th) welcomed back Steve McLaren in one of the season’s more bizarre stories so far, but he did the job to win 1-0 against Leeds (13th) at Pride Park. Seven points from a possible nine sees them as close as one win away from the top half of the table as well, so progress is being made by The Rams.
In an infinitely more entertaining encounter than Pride Park’s bore-fest, Fulham (10th) twice came back from behind to win 4-2 at Barnsley (11th), who eventually finished with ten men on the field. After a fast start, Barnsley are winless now in 5 games, while Fulham’s first victory in six skips them a point ahead of the day’s opponents.
Aston Villa 1-1 Wolves
Barnsley 2-4 Fulham
Blackburn 0-0 Ipswich
Brighton 2-2 Preston
Cardiff 2-1 Bristol City
Derby 1-0 Leeds
Huddersfield 0-1 Sheff Wednesday
Newcastle 3-1 Brentford
Norwich 3-1 Rotherham
Nott’ham Forest 3-1 Birmingham
QPR 1-1 Reading
Wigan 0-0 Burton
Biggest climbers: Fulham (4 places)
Biggest droppers: Huddersfield and Brentford (2 places)
Table-toppers after GW12: Norwich City (26pts)
Table-proppers after GW12: Rotherham United (6pts)
Best team performance: Dominant Fulham showing serious steel to come from behind twice to beat Barnsley 4-2
Goals goals goals!: Barnsley 2-4 Fulham
At the top of League One, Scunthorpe United (1st) took their unbeaten run into double figures with a tense victory over MK Dons (16th). Despite a fast start, The Iron didn’t make everything easy for themselves when poor defending on 36 minutes sent them 1-0 down.
They struggled to get one over their lowly opponents but what happened on the hour is a testament to the strength in depth of England’s highest scoring side. Just one so far this season but a proven talent and popular figure at Glanford Park, Paddy Madden came off the bench to bag the two goals that gave Scunthorpe yet another win.
Beneath them, Bradford (2nd) conceded the only goal of the game to Oxford (10th) in the 91st minute and Bury (6th), 2-0 losers to Rochdale (4th), were leapfrogged by their opponents after the visit to Spotland Stadium.
Bury have gone from challenging for top spot to being one point away from dropping out the playoffs after three straight defeats, while Dale’s 6 league wins in a row have seen them climb quickly up the table.
Not much good news down the bottom, as Coventry (24th), Shrewsbury (23rd), Oldham (22nd) and Chesterfield (21st) lost 3-0 to Charlton (15th), 3-2 at Walsall (14th), 2-0 to Bolton (3rd) and 1-0 to Southend (19th). With three of them losing to bottom-half opposition, a significant chunk of the group above them have pulled away while they fall further behind. They should be looking to do better against those around them to stay up.
Millwall (17th) and Northampton (9th) provided the surprise of the day. The Lions climbed from the edge of the relegation zone with a 3-1 win away at the playoff residents who, just last week, nicked a point against leaders Scunthorpe and slip heavily down a very tight top half of the table.
Wimbledon 0-0 Swindon
Bolton 2-0 Oldham
Bristol Rovers 2-1 Gillingham
Charlton 3-0 Coventry
Fleetwood 2-0 Peterborough
Northampton 1-3 Millwall
Oxford 1-0 Bradford
Rochdale 2-0 Bury
Scunthorpe 2-1 MK Dons
Sheff Utd 4-0 Port Vale
Swindon 1-0 Chesterfield
Walsall 3-2 Shrewsbury
Biggest climbers: Charlton, Bristol Rovers, Rochdale, Southend and Sheff Utd (3 places)
Biggest droppers: Northampton and MK Dons (4 places)
Table-toppers after GW12: Scunthorpe United (28pts)
Table-proppers after GW12: Coventry City (9pts)
Best team performance: Sheffield Utd thrashing Port Vale 4-0 to move ahead of The Valiants into the playoffs.
Goals goals goals!: Walsall 3-2 Shrewsbury
Plymouth Argyle (1st) continued their unbeaten run by salvaging a 2-2 draw at home to Portsmouth (5th) with an 89th minute goal from Connor Smith. However, victories for Doncaster (2nd), Carlisle (3rd) and Luton (4th) closed the gap at the top, as Pompey slipped deep into the playoffs.
Still all to play for at the summit for now though, but just 2 wins in six for the South-coasters is some way short of the form expected of them. Credit to Plymouth, who seem to come up with some form of answer to every test thrown at them – second best this weekend, but there’s only one statistic that matters after the game and they’ll be satisfied with a point.
Newport County’s (24th) season isn’t getting any better as they fell to another narrow defeat to Yeovil (16th), who climb again with a second victory in a row, their fourth in six in total. They weren’t the biggest climbers of the day though. Accrington Stanley (7th) Morecambe (10th), Notts County (12th) and Grimsby (6th) all climbed four places, while man others climbed three – proof this is still a spectacularly tight division.
Exeter (20th) escape the drop-zone with an emphatic 4-1 win at Barnet (23rd). Such a brilliant and well-deserved victory against relegation rivals will do the world of good for their confidence and results like this could make a real difference at the end of the season.
Stevenage (18th), Cheltenham (19th) and Exeter’s victories pull them back up the table but it’s still incredibly tight at the bottom. Discounting Newport, there’s just four points between the rest of the bottom half of the table. Yeovil’s five place climb in two weeks is proof that a couple of good games can change everything, as they’ve gone from a point from relegation to level on points with 13th placed Colchester.
Accrington 2-1 Blackpool
Barnet 1-4 Exeter
Cambridge 0-1 Grimsby
Carlisle 3-2 Hartlepool
Cheltenham 2-1 Crawley
Doncaster 1-0 Colchester
Leyton Orient 1-2 Luton
Mansfield 1-1 Wycombe
Morecambe 0-2 Stevenage
Notts County 1-1 Crewe
Plymouth 2-2 Portsmouth
Yeovil 1-0 Newport
Biggest climbers: Accrington, Morecambe, Notts County and Grimsby (4 places)
Biggest droppers: Cambridge and Barnet (4 places)
Table-toppers after GW12: Plymouth Argyle (29 points)
Table-proppers after GW12: Newport County (7 points)
Best team performance: Exeter City’s 4-1 win over relegation rivals Cambridge was nothing short of sensational and fully deserved
Goals goals goals!: Carlisle 3-2 Hartlepool & Barnet 1-4 Exeter