Since beating Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates on the opening day of the season, Aston Villa have been at best patchy. They arrive at the Stadium of Light for the New Year’s Day fixture six points ahead of Sunderland, fourth top of the group of 11 clubs separated by just nine points. Our Villa interviewee is Tom Joliffe*, an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter found at the Heroes and Villains fan site. His script for Sunderland’s relegation scrp has no happy ending though the questions were answered before the Everton and Cardiff games …
Salut! Sunderland: Great start to the season at Arsenal, a few wobbles later but still comfortable. Happy or frustrated?
In terms of position we’re reasonably comfortable, but things can change quickly in this league. We’ve played very poorly in recent months, despite a run of five games unbeaten. We’ve lost the last two games though, so some of our good fortune previously has abandoned us. Being honest, Sunderland should have beaten us, and likewise West Brom and Southampton on another day might have turned us over. Lambert has to get a bit of experience and a bit more quality into the side in Jan. We just need to cut out silly individual errors, which we’re making a lot of (the amount of times we give the ball straight back on a throw-in is amazing) and the gaffer needs to work on the team’s organisation too. Unless our general play improves, we’re asking for trouble.
What do you reckon to Randy Lerner/Paul Lambert partnership?
In some ways it’s hard to judge. Randy keeps things close to his chest, and his chest generally happens to be in America most of the year. How much of our current ethos (buying cheap, younger players from lower leagues and abroad) is down to Randy and how much is down to Lambert is anyone’s guess. Just how much money we have in the coffers is also somewhat mysterious. Has Lambert spent most of a very tight budget he’s got? Or is he a little like Wenger, and he won’t be rushed into spending what he has? I think it’s the latter. I hope it is, because we’re crying out for a playmaker and may have to spend some money on getting one.
And what would it take, unless dealt with in previous answer, to restore glory days to Villa Park?
A bit of experience to help aid the youngsters in our squad. We also don’t want to be cashing in on star players too much. Benteke will probably leave in the summer, but players like Okore, Delph and Guzan should be kept for a good few years yet. We have to sell on our terms and not let players or rival clubs dictate us. I also think Lambert could do with a tactically astute right hand man, or director of football to help him. Tactically he leaves a lot to be desired. What he does very well though is motivate his players because they work incredibly hard. We’ve won most of our games this season through will more than skill. We look like headless chickens sometimes, but if he finds a way to harness our energy more efficiently, and gives the players a clearer game plan we’ll be top half easily.
Christian Benteke: a hero gone temporarily quiet, or not quite the player you thought he was?
Temporarily quiet. For me, in the early season he came back from the holidays looking heavier and not quite as quick as before. A summer of unnecessary distraction possibly contributing to that. He was still scoring without really being the barnstorming Benteke of last season. Since his injuries this term he’s lost another yard or two of pace, and also looks short on confidence at the moment. We were awful against Fulham, but at the same time Benteke has 2-3 chances in the game which last season he’d have buried.
Most of the links of recent years – Kevin Phillips, Tommy Sorensen. Dwight Yorke, MoN, Gavin McCann, Darren Bent and doubtless others I overlook have been and gone, leaving only Crag Gardner and Alan Hutton. Which sticks out in the memory?
I think we’ve probably done slightly better out of the trade-offs than you guys. Tommy Sorenson and Gavin McCann both came at the same time, as O’Leary’s first signings here. We had a good first season, in no small part thanks to them. They both had a couple of good seasons before tailing off. You guys never saw the best of Yorkie, he’d been well past his best by the time he joined you (and played mostly in midfield). For us he was fantastic, the best attacking player I’ve seen here. The Bent deal saved us from relegation and ruined your season at the same time. It was a strange one, both in terms of what we paid, but also in the fact you sold him mid-way through a very solid season (there seemed an underlying problem with Bruce). The less said about Hutton, the better.
What is your abiding impression Martin O’Neill and were you surprised it didn’t work out for him at Sunderland?
O’Neill had his faults but he was naively handled by Randy, who just handed him cash no questions asked. For every Ashley Young, we’d get two overpriced, overpaid (and then underused) signings like Reo-Coker and Harewood. When our plan A worked with O’Neill we played good football. The trouble was he had no plan B, and he worked his first choice 11 to the bone with no attempt at rotation. The typical O’Neill march melt down contributed to us never quite making that top 4, having been in very strong positions to do so in 3 of his seasons. He’s a nearly but not quite man. I’m surprised it didn’t work out at Sunderland, though in all honesty I think he’d have kept you up last season, and as opposed to Paulo’s 14-15 signings, he’d have (over)spent on maybe 4-5 players, and you’d probably be fairly comfortable at the moment.
Who are the greatest players you’ve seen – or wish you’d seen – in claret and blue and who should never have been allowed to wear them?
Dwight Yorke was fantastic. John Carew was unplayable on his day. Juan Pablo Angel and Savo Milosevic were hugely talented but never quite fulfilled their potential. In Pablo’s case he was top scorer in Gregory’s final season. Gregory left in Jan, at which point JPA was our top scorer. Taylor came in and didn’t really seem to rate him. He much preferred the big man/little man combo, and Japes was neither. When our team played good football we saw the best of him. When we tried using him as a target man, he was useless. I honestly think he’d have been fantastic at a club like Arsenal. That said despite that he remains hugely popular. Also I can’t not mention Paul McGrath. He was amazing. They don’t make defenders that good anymore. Also Paul Merson was a joy to watch sometimes. We’re crying out for a player like him.
As for players who shouldn’t have worn the shirt, there’s a lot to choose from. We’ve wasted millions on players who played under 10 games, sometimes less. Lamberts current buying policy is a dangerous game too. They’re almost all cheap, but I’m not sure how many will end up making it at this level. Too many look Championship standard at best. Karim El Ahmadi is a player I’m sure I’ll forget played for us in five years. He does a very good invisible man act. Jordan Bowery was also a perplexing signing. He was a 1 in 9 striker in League 2, who was in and out the side. Even he seemed a bit bewildered that we bought him, because he’s a long, long way off Premiership quality.
And what have been your highs and lows of following the club?
I’ve been a fan since 1990 odd. I’ve seen two title pushes and two league cup wins. The league cup win against Man Utd was far and away my favourite Villa memory. My worst, aside from a few relegation scraps, was probably the FA Cup final against Chelsea. We had a lot of talented footballers under John Gregory, but played quite dour football at times, however we showed absolutely no attacking intent that game and it was horrible match to watch for Villa fans, neutrals, and even Chelsea fans probably nodded off by the time their players were lifting the trophy. A really poor send off for the Old Wembley.
Any thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the region?
Decent club. Very passionate fans and generally easy to get along with. To some extent they have a similar outlook to Villa fans generally. We’re laid back, we like a bit of gallows humour, we like a bit of moan too, but we’re generally not arrogant, nor complete doom mongers. I think Sunderland have the basis to cement themselves in the Premier League. The right man at the helm and a bit of stability will eventually make that happen. Poyet could be that man, but you’ll probably have to go down, before coming up again.
Having seen us cave in so shamefully at your place last season, I suppose you weren’t surprised to see the PDC bubble burst and Sunderland plunge into serious trouble.
Di Canio is mental. He’s never, ever going to be stable enough to manage a Premiership club.
What will be the Premier top four in order and who – being as cruel as you wish – is going down?
Arsenal (I think they’ll just about hang on to it), Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool. Bottom 3 will be Sunderland (sorry- too tough an ask for Gus, but he’ll bring you straight back up), Palace, Cardiff.
If either of our clubs failed to appear in the last answer, where will they finish?
We’ll finish 13th I reckon. Underwhelming but safe, and hopefully able to invest in better quality to push top half the next season. As for Sunderland, Gus has inherited a really imbalanced squad. It’s no surprise he’s largely gone for a lot of the pre-Di Canio players too. Di Canio brought in too many players in one go, with little logic it seems. I like Poyet though, so I wish him luck (when he’s not playing the Villa!).
Tell me one thing that really inspires you about modern football, and something that appals you.
What inspires me is what Spain, Germany and most recently Belgium have been able to do with their struggling national sides. Spain turned from perennial underachievers to the best in the world. Germany had a period of transition from old players who couldn’t do the business any more to a very entertaining and young side. Belgium have come from nowhere and are producing some of the worlds best young talent at the moment. It’s a lesson England need to be taking note of.
Brazil 2014: excited already or too concerned with Villa to care yet?
I’m more concerned about Villa. I have no confidence in the current England team, it’s the most average group we’ve ever had. As I said in the last question, Belgium have shown that you can change to make up of your footballing nation, and become contenders.
Will you make it to our game and what will the score?
Unfortunately won’t make it up to the Stadium Of Light. I think it’ll be a score draw.
* Tom Joliffe on himself:: I’m a Villa fan of 23 years, and have enjoyed all the highs and endured all the lows. Like a lot of fans of whatever club you support, it’s in your blood till the day you die. When I’m not watching the Villa I’m attempting to break Hollywood as a screenwriter or finding a way to get paid in my sideline as a film critic. As for Heroes and Villains it’s a great venue for Villa fans, and the one Villa forum I’ve stuck with. We’re always ready to welcome a well behaved fan of the opposition too; it’s always good to get an outside perspective.
Interview: Colin Randall
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