Aston Villa: John Gregory wasn't so bad, eh?
By Dan Wheeler
I was speaking to an Aston Villa fan the other day told me it was time to bring back John Gregory as manager. It was a joke, of course, but you can understand the sentiment.
He is, like many other Villa fans, bemused by the current, seemingly inexorable, decline at Villa Park and a wistful yearn back to better times, even for a few fleeting seconds, seems to bring some relief.
Among the list of recent former bosses it is Gregory’s achievements in the 1998/99 season that continue to resonate most vividly with supporters. It is hard to believe but, back then, Villa were genuine Premier League title contenders. They even led the league for the first half of the campaign, topping the table at Christmas.
Their failure to complete a deal for Robbie Keane was the reason given by Gregory for their ultimate slide away from the title race (they ended up finishing fifth). While Villa baulked at adding an extra £500,000 to Keane’s £5.5m fee, Coventry City stepped in and that was that. Ancient ifs, buts and maybes, but they are memories that are only given further amplification by the current struggles this famous old club faces. Apart from a brief spell under Martin O’Neill, times have never been close to being as good since.
Saturday’s defeat to Southampton confirmed that while their shortcomings in front of goal continue (joint-lowest scorers in the division and two scored in their last five games) they are also running equally low on luck. The circumstances of Southampton’s winning penalty felt savagely unjust. Into the relegation zone. Grapefruit-and-quinine cocktails all round.
Obvious brickbats will hurl their way towards Paul Lambert and the owner Randy Lerner for putting him in the position in the first place. But any hopes the fans may have had of a change appear to have been ended by they club’s insistence over the weekend that Lambert is going nowhere.
Although endorsements from on high in football are about as reliable an indicator of real intent as Villa’s back four are at trying to keep a clean sheet at the moment, retaining Lambert appears to be the only way. Lerner has invested too much in him already to pay him off for starters.
Added to that Villa are a club with a plan and it is one that has its foundation predicated on finding or graduating young players and improving them within a rigid financial scaffolding with Lambert at the helm.
Besides, Lambert, after back-to-back promotions, clearly has something about him as a manager. He was the fans’ choice and now Lerner is effectively asking them to tow the line, even if that line takes them into the Championship.
As previously written about in these pages, Lambert will need some more money from Villa’s billionaire benefactor to stand much of a chance. What he would give to have as inform a striker as Julian Joachim or the mercurial probes of a Paul Merson, as Gregory had 14 seasons ago.
Lambert, as he has to do, remains phlegmatic about the extend of any help coming his way.
"I understand the finances of it. The club cannot go into major debt,” he said.
Lambert added: “We need a bit of strength in the middle of the pitch. Prices in January can be so inflated that you can pay through the nose for someone.
“We have to build this club and not let it go back to what has happened before."
“That” past is the financially bloated and profligate one under O’Neill. No-one hankers after that. If only they could have the “other” past, 14 seasons ago.