This is without doubt a big one for both clubs. Villa seriously need a win, we can pretty much secure survival and aim for a storming finish if only the right Sunderland can turn up. We’re fortunate to have a thoroughly level-headed Villa Park view from Kevin Hughes*, Monsieur Salut’s fellow-contributor at ESPN, with fascinating thoughts on Martin O’Neill and Darren Bent – I think he identifies two DBs and at least two MoNs – as well as on cheating, those “my club’s bigger than yours” squabbles and much more besides. Kevin predicts a draw …
A lot of Villa fans came to Salut! Sunderland a while back to say the love affair with Martin O’Neill would go sour. It did, much against our collective yearning for him to succeed. What is your take on the man and why it went so badly in the end?
I thoroughly enjoyed the O’Neill years at Villa. He came into the club when the situation was pretty dismal, and dragged us into the top six. There were always questions about his tactics, which seemed to falter if Plan A failed, and his substitutions, which, more often than not, involved the same players being changed almost to the minute every week, were a running joke. He also spent heavily; my main criticism there was never the money he paid for the likes of Ashley Young and James Milner, but the investments he made on players who often got nowhere near the first X1 on a regular basis.
Ignoring all of that, under O’Neill, Villa were genuinely one of the best teams in the league for three seasons. What really hurt us fans was the manner of his departure – abrupt, on the eve of a new season. We’d come to expect more of him, as if Villa really were ‘his’ club, in the same way you believe Ferguson, Wenger and Moyes would stick with Man Utd, Arsenal and Everton, through thick and thin. It felt like a betrayal in the end.
As for Sunderland, I’m surprised the decision was made to move him on, but he did seem to be rather flat and running out of ideas. I think he deployed a couple of the traits we saw at Villa – using midfielders in the full-back roles, paying high prices for steady UK players – and I wonder whether he made Sunderland a little too predictable.
Guess the Score: The prize may not set you up for life, but enter for fun …
Few Villa fans will have expected anything from Old Trafford, and three points from our game could transform things, but do you think your fate will not now be decided until the final game versus Wigan?
Looking that way, which was a situation I was hoping Villa would avoid – Wigan have that knack of getting out of trouble and I don’t want us going to the DW needing a result. If we get four points from the games against Sunderland Norwich, it might not come to that. If we win both and get six, I don’t think it will. But it’s beginning to shape up as Villa or Wigan for that last spot.
Our game is billed as a relegation six-pointer (maybe less so for us though danger not yet gone – ed). That’s relatively familiar to us in some recent times though we did hope we had moved on. But Villa have flirted with danger, too. Are you confident of staying up and whatever your answer to that, what/whoa re needed longer term?
Not confident at all, and less so than two weeks ago. Our form is decent but that 1-1 draw with Fulham was a chance missed, as no-one ever realistically expected a result at Old Trafford. With yourselves, Stoke and Norwich all winning last Saturday, that trio have put some daylight between themselves and Villa. Our game on Monday is huge for us.
If we stay up, I see genuine reason for optimism next season. We have a good group of young players, who have all grown up significantly in the last few months. If we stay up, keep that core of players, move on the remaining big earners not involved and add a couple of more experienced types, I could see us having a more comfortable season in 2013-14. But staying up doesn’t look easy.
What are your thoughts on Lambert and Lerner?
I like Lambert. I can honestly say he was my No.1 choice in the summer (though Brendan Rodgers appealed too) because I knew where Villa would be in terms of available transfer fans and wage budget. We needed a manager who could work with players a step or below top-class, who knew a bit about talent outside the obvious Premier League pool. You have to understand, Lambert came in almost at Villa’s lowest ebb and he’s had to start the rebuilding job properly. I do think he’s been a little stubborn at times – if he only made one signing in January, it should have been an experienced central defender, and failure to do that may come back to haunt us – but on the other hand, he’s had the courage to stick to his plan. Short term pain for long term gain – hopefully.
Lerner? I don’t really know how I feel about him now. He could do no wrong when he bought the club, the sky seemed to be the limit, resources were available but it feels as if it was an all or nothing approach rather than a sensible strategy. Villa spent big, didn’t quite make Champions League, O’Neill left, and since then we’ve just heard the continued mantra of reducing wages, trimming the squad, modest transfer budget. Which would be fine, if we hadn’t spent quite so freely during his first few years of ownership. The fans never really hear from Lerner these days, so it’s impossible to know what he’s thinking, or planning.
And your assessment of Darren Bent – the signing and the return on investment? Completely overshadowed by Benteke or still got plenty to offer?
Plenty to offer, but not at Villa anymore, sadly (cue cheeky PDC bid of £2.5m?- ed). Bent was brilliant when he first arrived, the team was set up for him – centre-forward with Young and Downing supplying. Fantastic. Give him the service, and he’ll score. Don’t think any Villa fan would dispute that he saved us from relegation in Gerard Houllier’s season. But Lambert’s team is set up differently. He likes a strong CF who can really work an opposition defence, and that’s Benteke. With two wider strikers in support, both with pace, a willingness to work and reasonable versatility: Bent can’t really fit in there. So he’s been phased out, and I can’t see him staying past the summer. I must say one thing, though – Bent’s been injured for a lot of the season, so he hasn’t actually been available much of the time. He’s never really got going, and Benteke has been awesome in his place.
SAFC and Villa fans often squabble about which is the bigger club. Is it settled for you by Villa’s edge on league titles (7 vs 6), and being comfortably ahead on FA Cup wins and European competition, or does the long wait for renewed glory even it out?
Villa all the way for me, obviously! I guess both clubs are living off past glories, somewhat, but I’m influenced by the last two decades, when Sunderland have been in and out of the Premier League a couple of times and Villa a permanent fixture. I might be wrong, but I always seem to think of Sunderland struggling at the wrong end of the table, traditionally, whereas Villa have had brighter more recent times. Obviously not currently…
How do you compare Villa/Birmingham rivalries with Sunderland/Newcastle – and tell me how important is yours to you?
I’d never say one derby is bigger than another – what matters is how the fans of the teams concerned feel about these games. Both Villa/Birmingham and Sunderland/Newcastle are huge rivalries. Villa v Birmingham is a funny one. For a great deal of my life, Blues were an irrelevance, because they were always at least one league below Villa. We never played them. Then, in the early 2000s they were promoted and, under Steve Bruce, had a decent team. I’ll never forget that first game against them in the Premier League – they beat us 3-0 at St Andrews (with that goal when Olof Mellberg threw it straight past Peter Enckleman) and suddenly, these very intense emotions boiled up in me from nowhere. Proper rivalry. They beat us a couple more times, and then we started to enjoy a fair bit of success over them once O’Neill was on board. Now, of course, they’ve dropped out of the PL again and the derby rivalry has gone quiet again.
Any good, bad or amusing memories of past games between our clubs?
I remember a couple of defeats most vividly. Both 1-0 defeats, in the 2010-11 season under Houllier. Richard Dunne spooned in a ridiculous own goal at your place, and then Phil Bardsley scoring a screamer at Villa Park. Things looked grim for us after that game, but we signed Bent shortly afterwards and turned the season around.
And any thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the region, Di Canio?
Similarities with Villa, in many ways – a grand old club, long established, with a set of fans which have probably seen too much under achievement in recent years, by which I mean 20-odd. I always wonder, too, why Newcastle seem to get the more favoured media coverage as the big club of the north east – ‘brilliant fans, etc’ – when Sunderland are of the same standing. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
As for Di Canio, I’m reserving judgement. I don’t like or dislike him. He was pretty disrespectful to Villa when we played Swindon in the League Cup earlier this season though. I doubt many Villa fans have forgotten his behaviour that night.
Who are the best players you’ve seen – or wish you’d seen – in Villa colours and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
Best for Villa? Paul McGrath, Mark Bosnich, Gareth Southgate, Andy Townsend, Dwight Yorke, Ashley Young. Oh, and Gordon Cowans, though I was a bit on the young side when he was in his prime. Villa players who never really worked out would include Mark Kinsella, Steve Watson, Stephen Ireland. Habib Beye and Moustapha Salifou have been baffling recent signings.
Players I wished I’d seen… the list is long. Of current players, I’d be excited to see what Vidic, Fellaini and Dembele would bring to the present Villa team.
Bent and O’Neill, Kevin Phillips, Dwight Yorke, Gavin McCann … the links are plentiful. Do any, mentioned or not, stick out in your memory?
I forgot Yorkie played for Sunderland! He’s so synonymous for Villa that I’ve tried to block out the fact he played for anyone else. Always rated Kevin Phillips really highly and we wasted him – he had one season, didn’t play him enough, and he moved on. Continued scoring goals for years afterwards. Dropped a clanger there. Gavin McCann! The Villa player who made me scream in anguish more than anyone, ever – he’d win the ball and then give it away, win it give it away. Drove me mad.
Thomas Sorenson was a really good Villa signing from Sunderland. Very steady ‘keeper, unfairly treated towards the end by O’Neill, really.
What have been your highs and lows of supporting Villa?
Winning the 1996 League Cup; watching Villa walk out at the old Wembley for the 2000 FA Cup Final against Chelsea; winning at the Emirates a couple of times; Old Trafford in 2009; beating Birmingham 5-1 a few seasons back. Plus a couple of quite personal highs: my first ever game at Villa Park, in 1982 as a seven-year-old, going with my Dad and Grandad. Watching Villa beat Inter Milan in 1989, there with Dad and Brother. Special times.
Lows – losing that FA Cup Final was definitely one, the journey home was awful, the sense of regret that we never really turned up. Selling some of my favourite players, over the years, has been tough. One or two results this season – beaten by Bradford in the League Cup semis, losing 8-0 at Chelsea. Tough when your club is being widely mocked and laughed at.
What will be the top four in order and who, sparing no Villa or SAFC feelings, is going down?
Really not that interested in top four! I’ll go: Man Utd (obviously), Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea. Though I wouldn’t mind Spurs sneaking in. Going down… QPR, Reading and Wigan.
Is cheating a dead issue, so commonplace that we may as well accept it as part of the modern game – or which form angers you most and how do we stamp it out?
I can’t even get irked by diving these days, happens so often, every game it seems. I get more wound up by players getting booked for taking their shirt off while celebrating a goal. How does that hurt anyone?
Club versus country: who wins for you and why?
Club. Every time. Not even close. I just feel a disconnect with the England side. Apart from anything else, most of the Villa players who’ve played for England recently have all coincidentally fairly quickly moved to ‘bigger’ clubs.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
I’ll be there. Villa haven’t been great at home all season, Sunderland have some impetus. I think 1-1.
* Kevin Hughes on himself: I covered Premier League football for over a decade working for a national football magazine, and was later deputy editor of the London-based weekly sports magazine, Sport. I’m currently ESPN’s Villa blogger – read my work at espnfc.com/blog/-/name/astonvilla and follow me on Twitter @KevHughesie. I’m a Villa fan since childhood and attended my first match in 1982.
Interview: Colin Randall