Aston Villa problems could get worse even if they drop into Championship
There was only one positive for Aston Villa fans last weekend: the sense that surely it is impossible for the team to get any worse. On the pitch, they were obliterated 6-0 at home by an inconsistent, injury ravaged Liverpool. Off the pitch, Joleon Lescott clashed with fans through social media. But that sense was misleading. It can always be worse.
Villa's defending on Sunday against Liverpool transcended traditional levels of incompetence. It felt insufficient to merely criticise them afterwards; it felt as if an as yet undiscovered dimension of linguistics was required to do the job properly. What can you say when Kolo Toure is allowed to stand alone in the centre of the penalty area and wait for a corner to bounce off his head and into the back of the net? There are no words. In order to adequately convey tone, the match report should have just been one long, harrowing scream.
Lescott's Twitter travails proved an unwanted emblem of Villa's relationship with their supporters. Faith is in short supply, hatred simmers, ready to boil over at the slightest excuse. And Lescott appeared to offer far more than the slightest excuse.
Like his teammates, he had played miserably against Liverpool and thus, he found a rising tide of criticism on his phone, some of it intensely personal and vicious. A picture of a luxury Mercedes sports car was posted without comment from his Twitter account shortly afterwards -- with the obvious interpretation being that Lescott was saying he was considerably richer than his tormentors. The defender later claimed that he had pocket-tweeted while driving; Lescott's brother reportedly said that the phone had been hacked. Villa's supporters were left distinctly unimpressed, though there's nothing new about that.
Villa's decline has been like a slow torture from the moment that Martin O'Neill walked out of the club in 2010, reportedly disenchanted with reduced resources from owner Randy Lerner. Gerard Houllier arrived, but never threatened to match O'Neill's three consecutive sixth place finishes. Four wins in Villa's last seven games bought a misleadingly respectable 9th place finish, but Houllier's health failed him and he left on medical advice just before the end of the 2010-11 season. That was the last time Villa won more than 10 games in a season.
Mark Hughes, David Moyes and Carlo Ancelotti were all linked with the job; Alex McLeish, freshly relegated with arch rivals Birmingham, was the board's choice. The fans were furious -- a feeling with which they would quickly become accustomed.
McLeish lasted a single season and was replaced by Paul Lambert, who tried to build a counter-attacking side with relatively unknown foreign signings and youngster from the lower leagues. There were flashes of potential, not least with Cristian Benteke's rapid development, but Villa could never sustain any form and began to circle the drain. The appointment of Tim Sherwood brought a brief burst of improvement, and an FA Cup final appearance (2015's 4-0 defeat to Arsenal), but that too was unsustainable. By the time Remi Garde appeared, Villa were fractured and demoralised, a husk of a football club.
Rich Petersson, a Villa fan for 27 years, is staggered by the decline. "The club simply were not prepared for life after Martin O'Neill," he said. "I think ultimately the owner has focused too frequently on the short term. He has been reactive, not proactive and has left the club in a complete mess. The rotten core of the club needs to be removed. I won't point fingers at individual players but something is not quite right... do they all care or are they more bothered about just earning their money?"
Fellow Villa supporter Cian Carroll has no doubt where the blame lies, saying: "In essence, it's been one mistake after the other by Randy Lerner and his associates. From putting his full trust in Martin O'Neill, to the incoherent, rambling process of managerial appointments afterwards, to the shambolic way in which the club dealt with talent acquisition. The American has had good intentions, I'm sure, but, in truth, has pretty much destroyed the club with incorrigibly stupid mistakes."
And yet, there is still a chance. Villa have 12 games left and are eight points adrift of safety. Two wins could put them within touching distance of salvation. There's just the small problem that Villa have only won three all season. Next week, they visit an inconsistent Stoke side who are still adjusting to their new signings. It's not impossible, but there is nothing to suggest that some kind of dramatic, Leicester-style recovery is around the corner.
"The majority of fans hope Remi Garde hangs around and rebuilds Villa," added Carroll. "But unless a sale is made and Lerner removes himself entirely, I'm not convinced much will change. A lot of fans are pretty scared for the club right now, and it's hard to blame them. This hasn't been an up and down decade under Lerner; this has been a yearly decline and I'm not sure where it ends."
Villa are so bad currently that the real concern now should be what awaits them after the summer. Remi Garde is rumoured to be deeply disappointed with the lack of spending in January and considering his future.
Given the poor planning that has characterised Lerner's reign so far; given that there appears to be so little fight in the first-team; given the quagmire that is the second flight, is there any reason to believe that Villa will make a swift return to the Premier League if they drop? Leeds United were a European heavyweight, but it's been 14 years since they were in the top flight; Nottingham Forest were twice European Cup winners, but they fell away in 1999.
It can still get worse for Villa. It can still get much, much worse.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.