Malcolm Dawson writes……less than a week ago, a somewhat panicking M Salut contacted me to say that he had failed to track down any Aston Villa fans willing provide their views for our “Who Are You” feature. So out went a post midnight e-mail to my friends in the Heart of England Branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association and next morning, before I’d even had time to microwave my porridge and brew up my pot of Rington’s finest, my marras had come up trumps with the contact details of two seasoned Villa supporters up for the task. And as is the often the case three hours later I got a third response and M Salut a fourth! Hopefully those two will still be willing when the return fixture comes around. For this first meeting I give grateful thanks to Chris Mains and Craig Hailes two long serving Villa regulars who have taken time out from their hectic Christmas preparations to provide us with their thoughts ahead of Sunday’s game.
With reports from the Hull game on Boxing Day, inevitably taking centre stage on Saturday and Villa up on Sunday, I have taken the unprecedented step of publishing this WAY ahead of schedule.
MD: A good start to the season, three wins and a draw – then a run of tricky games brought four defeats on the trot against the League’s big guns, followed by a 2-0 loss to QPR, who many expected to be this season’s whipping boys and a sixth successive defeat at White Hart Lane? How was the mood around the club then? Lambert has had his critics – is he the right man for the job?
CHRIS: To be honest I am still unsure about Lambert, his tactics sometimes leave you scratching your head, and we are in reality no better than when he joined us, but then you see how West Ham and Newcastle have improved of late by staying with their managers despite a lot of supporters calling for them to go, and you wonder if it will be the same with us. I am not convinced. He is doing what the chairman wants – keeping us in the Premier while spending small money.
CRAIG: The mood at Villa Park was grim and one of it is going to be another struggle. Despite a positive start things went downhill quite quickly and we once again became the team you could guarantee to get points off. Could not believe the result at QPR as many Villa fans thought that this would be a valuable 3 points. If you cannot get points at QPR then what is the point of being in this league? Lambert picked a very negative side for this game which actually fitted in quite nice with the negative play we had been playing the previous 4 or 5 games. Aston Villa surely must have the least amount of possession inside the opposition’s half. Villa fans were calling for a new manager but what is the point as he has just signed a new contract. However under Lambert we have taken more points away from home which is a startling statistic.
MD: If not explained in your earlier answer, has victory against sides who are bound to be in the relegation mix given you hope that the team is heading in the right direction?
CHRIS: I have always thought we would be safe, but we actually play better against the higher teams than the lower ones. I do not think we are moving in the right direction though. Our best players will, without doubt be sold and replaced with players who need time to integrate, which means we do not improve or build the team for the next level.
CRAIG: Villa do not do well against relegation sides, despite the recent victory over Leicester City. That was a game of two poor teams to be honest. And it was our lowest home attendance in the Premier League for 15 years. Remember Fulham last year, who had not won in 10 games and then along come Villa and we get easily beaten. Burnley was a valuable point but we did not do much in the second half and if Burnley had quality finishing then we would have been beaten at that ground too.
MD: The Roy Keane resignation maybe came as a shock to some, but not to me. I saw him at a reserve game threatening to fight with some railway workers outside of the ground and he came across as someone who finds confrontation difficult to handle. He resigned from Sunderland 5 days later. Was his presence at Villa beneficial do you think, or is the club better off without him?
CHRIS: At first I thought he might knock a few heads together and challenge some of the “stars” who were more than happy to not be playing and still picking up the wages, but this only works for a small time (we did improve for a bit) and then the modern day footballers realise that the power is with them not the management team (in most clubs). We have been better the last few games, which makes you think it wasn’t Lambert’s idea to have him in the first place.
CRAIG: The club are better off without him really. Unsure what he actually did for Aston Villa and at a reserve game he appeared really moody and angry. Something wasn’t right and so he resigned. Pity Lambert did not join him.
MD: Where do you see the strengths in the team and which positions still need improving?
CHRIS: We have seen of late a few players come to the front, Benteke is showing he knows where the goal is again, and when he wants to be he is very hard to defend against. Okore has come back from injury and is looking assured in defence, Hutton has been the surprise of the season, both in defence and going forward, and we cannot forget Guzan who I think is one of the top 3 goal keepers in the league, which with the way we play sometimes he needs to be. To improve we need some better wingers to get the ball into the big man.
CRAIG: The Goalkeeper has kept us from conceding lots more goals that we might have done. At the moment I would say Guzan is a major strength and quite often sees more of the ball than any other player. We have more weaknesses at the moment. We need effective wingers and another striker I’d say. Other weaknesses are defending against long shots; keeping possession of the ball; playing the ball backwards all the time; finishing scoring chances. We very rarely score from corners and are poor at aerial duels. When the ball goes in the air, we give up.
MD: Do you have any affinity with Sunderland – the club, the city, the supporters or is it just somewhere “grim up north”?
CHRIS: I have been to Sunderland a few times both with work (Nissan) and with the Villa and have always found the people to be hospitable and friendly. Also Sunderland is no more ”grim” than most of the Midlands.
CRAIG: I really enjoy Sunderland and have been to the ground 5 times to watch Villa. I missed last season because it was New Years Day. Fancy having a fixture like that on New Years Day. It is a ground we do well at too, although I do prefer the old seating arrangements for away fans. I go for the weekend and stay at the Marriott Hotel in Seaburn. The beaches are lovely and your pier makes a good walk after a heavy night out. Sunderland is actually my favourite away day and I think Sunderland voted Villa as the best away fans one season and quite right too.
MD: What have been your highs and lows in your time supporting the Villa?
CHRIS: I was lucky enough to be part of the “glory” years of the early 80`s and have been to Wembley a few times. Both good and bad. Recently I would say beating Birmingham City 5-1 was a very good day and the Semi-final home game against Blackburn, when we won 6-4 (7-4 agg). Both teams and both sets of supporters should be very proud of the way they played and supported that night. As for lows, there are too many over the last few years to mention them all, but going out of the cups to some of the “smaller” teams gets me annoyed, even now. I do not think that any club truly understands how important a good cup run is to the supporters. The best memories are always cup games.
CRAIG: Winning the League Cup in 1996. A great squad we had then. The European Cup in 1982 and the Super European Cup in 1982-83. Those were the days. Football league runners up in 1992-93. League Cup Runners up in 2010. Surprisingly we made it but we were well beaten by a better team. Unfortunately since Martin O’Neill left, the club has declined. Finishing lowly in the Premiership and 3 seasons ago really thinking about being relegated. The club also appointed an ex Blues Manager Alex McCleish in 2011 which will long live in my memory as one of the most disastrous appointments ever. Sacked the following year and quite right too. The board just don’t appear to listen to the fans which is a great shame as we are a massive club.
MD: Who are the greatest players you’ve seen – or wish you’d been around to see at Villa Park?
CHRIS: I would say the team of `81 – `82 and then selected players like David Platt, not just for his goals but also for his work rate, Juan Pablo Angel, who truly loved playing for the club and the Scandinavian pairing of Martin Laursen and Olof Melberg. I wish I had been able to see some of the Villa greats such as Charlie Aitken, some of the stories you hear are great.
CRAIG:Atkinson, Daley, McGrath, Staunton, Yorke are all great players. Would have loved Ronaldo to have played for us but we would never pay his wages. We need a few massive stars to come to the ground. Our problem is we get rid of our best ones because we cannot compete with the bigger boys!! Milner, Young, Barry have all moved on. Will Delph and Beneteke be next?
MD: And who should never have been allowed to don the Claret and Blue?
CHRIS: So many to choose from, but a few would be Bosko Balaban, David Unsworth, Sasa Curcic. All promised a lot but gave very little, although the most disappointing was Stan Collymore, the prodigal son returned….did very little and then left.
CRAIG: Alex McCleish as the Claret and Blue Manager NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Stephen Ireland NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! He was rubbish and quite often gave up.
MD: Of the current squad, Kieran Richardson, Alan Hutton and Shay Given have all plied their trade at Sunderland, the last two on loan and lest we forget Darren Bent is still officially a Villain. Gavin McCann, Craig Gardner, Tommy Sorensen, Super Kevin Phillips, and of course Roy Keane are all links between our clubs in recent times. Any thoughts on them and is there anyone notable I’ve missed off the list?
CHRIS: Some really good players there. They mostly have performed well, although I have no idea what happened to Bent, he was wonderful when he first came and then lost the plot completely, although I think that other teams may have given him more of a chance to get back to form than we did.
CRAIG: These are all great players naturally although some better than others. Darren Bent was good at the start of his move but rapidly went off. Rumour has it he went shopping one afternoon instead of coming to the ground, despite an injury. Craig Gardner – well fancy him scoring for the Baggies against us early in December! Kieran also got sent off in that game too for a challenge. Not good links so far between Sunderland and Villa. Kevin Phillips played well and then ran out of steam. That’s what happens at Villa, they come on a good record and then it all goes pear shaped. Why? Because of our negative and defensive displays!
MD: What will be this season’s top four and bottom three?
CHRIS: Top 4 is pretty predictable: Chelsea, Man City, Man U and Arsenal. Bottom 3 not so easy – I’ll go for Leicester, Burnley and Hull. I would like to say the Baggies but I think they have enough with a full team available, but 1 or 2 injuries will make it close.
CRIAG: My tips for the top 4 will be Manchester City Champions, Runners UP Chelsea then Arsenal and Manchester United. The bottom three will be Leicester City 20th, QPR 19th and C Palace 18th (TWO London clubs to go).
MD: Where will our clubs finish if not mentioned in the last answer?
CHRIS: I think we will both be safe, between 10th and 15th.
CRAIG: Aston Villa 12th and Sunderland 13th. Both safe!!!!!
MD: Diving has been an issue we have questioned opposition fans about for years now, well before Match of the Day took issue. Any thoughts on that? Is it something the game should be looking to stamp out or have things gone so far that it has become an accepted part of the modern game?
CHRIS: I hate diving, remembering we have had one of the worst ones ( Ashley Young) and I hated it then. They need to make stance and begin sending players off for it. Its blatant cheating, and there is no place for it. Mr Young was doing it again last weekend, not good!
CRAIG: Players who dive should be booked. Did you see the Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor incident when Villa played Manchester United? Shocking and totally unnecessary. Ashley is well known for that and it’s a great shame and bad sportsmanship. Referees need to come down hard on this.
MD: Can you think of one step the club or football authorities generally could take to improve the lot of supporters?
CHRIS: Standing areas in grounds again. We all stand in my area anyway, I can’t remember the last time I sat down. We have been trying to get one in our ground for a while now, I think it will happen soon.
CRAIG: It always concerns me the prices of match day tickets. Football is now a business instead of a game for the every man. Why are local derby ticket prices suddenly 10 pound more expensive? It’s nice to see some clubs agreeing the same price for an away ticket when the return game is played; eg Swansea and Aston Villa agreed the same price for both sets of fans. Shocking some of these prices are.
MD: Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
CHRIS: Yes I will be there. As for the score, it will be close. I hope for a win but would be happy for a draw.
CRAIG: I will be at the game and the score will be……… Aston Villa 2 Sunderland 1. Then Sunderland 1 Aston Villa 2. The double is looming for the Claret and Blue over the Black Cats.
Chris on himself: I have been a season ticket holder for a long, long time. Went to first match in 1980 against Spurs and we won 1-0. I was hooked from that point on.
Craig on himself: Been a villa fan since 1980 when I was 7 years of age. Used to support Pompey!!! Villa are great when it comes to Charity events and Community Events and this is what I like about them. C’mon Villa Boyssssssssss!