First of all, a happy new year to all Salut! Sunderland readers. Kevin Hughes makes* a welcome return to the Who are You? hot seat to talk about his beloved but exasperating Aston Villa …
Salut! Sunderland: It seems almost impossible that there’s a side worse than us. What has gone wrong for Villa?
Kevin Hughes: Where to start? I’m sure it’s a question I’ll answer at length over the coming weeks and when relegation is inevitably confirmed. We probably need to go back to the day Martin O’Neill left in 2010 and pick apart every major decision since then. Briefly, Villa’s demise has been a gradual process over the past four or five seasons and owner Randy Lerner has come under severe criticism for his management of the club. He must accept a large share of the responsibility for Villa’s transition from a top six team to one fighting relegation in recent seasons but I’m also genuinely surprised that this team is at the very bottom of the Premier League. Important players were sold in the summer but there was significant player recruitment and this squad should have been capable of staying out of the bottom six.
Do you blame Sherwood or was he not really gives a fair chance?
Yes, I blame him for a lot of what has gone wrong this season. I think the way he conducted himself in the final few weeks in charge of the team was nothing short of appalling. He did well last season and vowed Villa would never again be in a relegation battle; it was his job to prepare the squad over the summer to ensure that didn’t happen. Plenty of new players were signed – players he seemed happy with at the time. It was only when things started to go seriously wrong that all the reports in the media of him wanting other players surfaced and Sherwood seemed to absolve himself of any decision-making or responsibility. By the time he left, we were already in a real mess. Whatever might have happened behind the scenes my opinion is that if you have a manager who is not totally on board with what the club is trying to do, it usually makes for trouble.
And yet now you have us – is this where you finally kickstart your season?
No. Villa have a decent record at Sunderland recently but we’ve won once in 19 matches this season.
Did you see our own wretched first half of the season coming or did you think Advocaat would build on survival?
I thought you’d struggle. I guess, like Villa, if you consistently struggle every season then it shouldn’t be a surprise to do so again. And Advocaat always looked like a short-term option to me. Probably should have replaced him in the summer.
Back to Villa: are there players that you consider especially culpable (I do not mean those who try their best but simply aren’t good enough)?
Plenty. I know the majority of the national media – TV and print – have fallen for the narrative about the club’s new signings from France’s Ligue 1 being not up to the task but that’s simply lazy, lazy analysis. Jordan Ayew, Jordan Veretout and Jordan Amavi have been three of Villa’s best players this season; if the rest were up their standard technically, we’d be fine. We’ve really missed Amavi since his cruciate knee injury.
It’s many of the senior pros who have fallen short. Gabby Agbonlahor has made virtually zero impact and may be gone soon. Others, like Alan Hutton, Ciaran Clark, Kieran Richardson and Scott Sinclair have lots of Premier League experience but haven’t been good enough, often enough. Ashley Westwood’s in his fourth season at this level. Joleon Lescott signed and had a really shaky start that he’s only recently started to recover from.
And if the worst comes to the worst, what will life in the Championship be like and will it be short?
Who knows? For Villa, it really is an unknown – we’ve never been out of the Premier League. I do remember the last time the club was out of the top flight though, I was only a kid in 1987 but that single season was a lot of fun and we got promoted straight away. We can’t assume anything about the Championship. It’s a really competitive league. Some relegated clubs bounce back quickly – Newcastle, Sunderland, Palace. Others take a while – Southampton, Leicester. Some are still trying – Leeds, Forest, Sheffield Wednesday. We’ll have to see what the squad’s like next August, who the manager is, whether the club has been sold, and then we’ll have a clearer idea about what kind of shape we’re in.
Think back to happier times – your best moments as a Villa fan?
The first match I watched was in December 1982, with my Dad and Grandad, so I caught the tail end of the league title and European Cup winning side but missed out on most of it. My best moments probably revolved around the Ron Atkinson team in the early 1990s – a really exciting, attacking side that won the 1994 League Cup by beating Manchester United – and then Brian Little’s team which followed directly on from Ron’s.
I loved both of those teams. Brian’s won the League Cup too, in 1996. So my best moments as a Villa fan are 20 years ago, or older. Also, I’ll never forget watching Villa beat Inter Milan 2-0 at Villa Park in 1990. What a great night that was. We had a huge Danish centre-back called Kent Nielsen who thumped in an absolute screamer from 25-30 yards. Brilliant.
Are these the worst you’ve experienced?
Yes, they really are. As I said, I was still a kid when we were last relegated in 1987 and didn’t really feel it that much. The last four, five years have been, in the main, relentlessly miserable and embarrassing; a slow and painful decline. My two kids have only really known Villa as a team which loses pretty much every week and that’s really sad. To now be the very bottom team in the league, with one win in 19 matches, and to have everyone chuckling at your ineptitude – that’s a low point. The Villa family are hurting badly.
Who are your Villa greats – players you’ve seen or wish you had seen?
Personal favourites I’ve loved watched over the years have been Dwight Yorke, Dalian Atkinson, Tony Daley, David Platt, Paul McGrath, Ashley Young, Olof Mellberg. I wish I’d seen more of the class of 1981-82 in their prime, though I did get to witness the midfield excellence of Gordon Cowans for a while as his Villa career was lengthy. The single individual I wish I’d been able to watch regularly was Brian Little. I’ve seen highlights and he looked a super talent.
And the worst?
There have been a few below par players in recent seasons. But the one who always sticks out in my mind is Tony Cascarino. I expected a prolific goalscorer who would shoot us to the league title back in 1990 but the first time I watched him I was disappointed, and stayed disappointed. I never realised he had such issues with confidence until I read his book years later.
Name this season’s top four and bottom three
Top four: Arsenal, Manchester City, Leicester, Spurs. Bottom three: Swansea, Sunderland, Villa.
Your thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city & region, Big Sam?
I guess there are a few parallels with Villa – famous, well respected and well established club which has spent too many seasons fighting relegation and now look like it’s time to drop. Like Villa, I think Sunderland have made some questionable managerial decisions recently and that has hurt you; hiring Di Canio was a mistake, looked a mistake right from the start. I didn’t like Poyet either. Looking back, letting O’Neill go was an error. It’s a genuine shame to see Sunderland struggling; supporters, long suffering, deserve better.
I like Sam Allardyce. Always have, right from the Bolton days. If Villa had acted a bit sooner and got rid of Sherwood while Sam was available I’d have been happy to have him in charge (though I like Remi Garde). I thought he’d save you… but now I’m not so sure.
One step the football authorities could take to improve the lot of ordinary fans?
A bit more common sense on early and late kick-off times, taking the away fans’ travel into account, would help, though they are obviously dictated by TV. Don’t make supporters catch coaches at 6am to travel and make a 12 noon kick-off, basically.
Best ref, worst ref?
Mark Clattenburg is very good. Worst? Don’t have a lot of time for Mike Dean. Did you see our game at Spurs earlier this season, when he ran off with his arm in the air after Mousa Dembele scored for them? Virtually a celebration. He looked delighted. Scandalous.
Diving and other forms of cheating — so prevalent we should stop caring ? If not, how do we tackle it?
So commonplace now we barely seem to complain anymore. You get strikers skipping over a goalkeeper’s arms to win a penalty too, and that seems to be okay – doesn’t matter if the ‘keeper actually touches the player, apparently, just the action warrants a spot kick. That doesn’t make it right. Straight reds for diving might make a difference – and so too stronger retrospective punishment. One match bans for the guilty.
Will be you be at our game? What will be the score?
I won’t be travelling up there, no. You’ll win 2-0. We’ve stopped marking opposition players in our own penalty area.
Kevin Hughes on himself:
A lifelong Villa supporter, following in the footsteps of my Dad and Grandad. First game at Villa Park in December 1982. Villa have been a massive part of my life and I’ve been lucky enough over the years to cover them professionally as a sports writer as well as watching them as a fan. I’ve been ESPN’s Villa blogger for the last five seasons, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed despite the results.
Interview: Colin Randall