Aston Villa prepare to face Crystal Palace on Saturday amid a season that threatens to implode.
Palace's home, Selhurst Park, has been an unhappy stadium for Villa managers past. Two of the club's former coaches, who both could rightfully claim to be among the best managers Villa have ever had -- certainly in the last 40 years or so -- oversaw their final games in charge in this south London ground.
Wimbledon, who were joint tenants for a time before relocating to Milton Keynes in 2003, were Villa's opponents on each of these occasions, so the ill-fated history is with the stadium itself rather than Crystal Palace the team. The unwanted association with Selhurst Park is likely to be lost on Villa's current manager, Paul Lambert, but it's an interesting story nevertheless.
Ron Atkinson had brought silverware to Villa Park via a famous League Cup victory over Manchester United, yet six months down the line he was sacked following a 4-3 defeat on Nov. 10, 1994. A double from Dean Saunders and another from Garry Parker wasn't enough to prevent a Dons victory. Removing Atkinson wasn’t a universally popular decision, though his record hinted at the growing belief that his team had peaked and was on the decline; losing to Wimbledon was a tenth defeat in 16 matches. Villa hadn’t won a league game for two full months.
In February 1998, Brian Little’s final game as Villa manager was in the same setting. His side were beaten 2-1 by the hosts, with a Savo Milosevic strike towards the end of the first half reducing the deficit after Jason Euell and Carl Leaburn had given Wimbledon a 2-0 lead. Like Atkinson before him -- the man he had replaced -- Little won a trophy; the 1996 League Cup Final, which is actually Villa’s last in a major competition. But that Selhurst Park defeat saw the club drop to 15th place in the Premier League and despite a UEFA Cup quarterfinal against Atletico Madrid up next, Little resigned.
Both managers were held in high regard by Villa supporters. Ron Saunders, who masterminded the club’s league title success in 1981, will probably never be usurped as Villa’s most successful manager. Credited with a huge role, too, in guiding the team to the European Cup win in 1982, for even though he wasn’t in charge for the final itself, he left with Villa in the last eight of the competition. Graham Taylor will always be rightfully revered for dragging the club up from the second division and back into the top flight in the late 1980s, transforming Villa from a near-shambles into title challengers within a couple of years.
Atkinson and Little are in the group just behind. Their teams were very different in style -- Atkinson’s full of flair and excitement, spearheaded by Saunders and his strike partner, Dalian Atkinson. Little’s more functional and compact, built around a 3-5-2 formation which utilised the combined defensive excellence of Ugo Ehiogu, Gareth Southgate and Paul McGrath, a midfield of Ian Taylor, Mark Draper and Andy Townsend, and the gifted Dwight Yorke up front.
Both were very good teams in their own right. Villa had higher standards on the field back then and higher expectations in the boardroom, too. Falling short was being in the wrong half of the league table, or bowing out of European competition. How times have changed. Only last month, Atkinson, to mark his 75th birthday, gave an interview to the Birmingham Mail in which he commented that Villa’s then-chairman, Doug Ellis, would have "had an itchy trigger finger with Paul Lambert."
He’s right, too. Lambert’s team is similar neither to Atkinson’s, nor Little’s: his Villa side is not exciting and free-scoring -- they have bursts of goals but long periods of drought -- nor are they organised and a cohesive unit, greater than the sum of their parts. They are prone to defensive error and collapse. It has to be said that Lambert’s Villa has yet to define its style.
Lambert’s remit, as far as it is possible to tell, is simply to keep the club in Premier League and no more than that. He doesn’t have a trophy in the bank and the credit that comes with that, and his popularity and ranking with supporters is dwindling by the week, but his position as manager is probably, oddly, more secure than those of Atkinson and Little. Then again, keeping the club in the league was -- in the words of the chief executive -- the marker by which Chris Hughton was to be judged at Norwich, and he was dismissed several days ago.
The Canaries are five points clear of the relegation zone, two points off Villa, and Hughton’s record as Norwich manager compares very similarly to Lambert’s at Villa -- 76 points from 71 games for the former and 75 points from 70 games for the latter. Consider that nine of Lambert’s points were gained by beating Hughton’s Norwich and in actual fact, the man freshly sacked as a Premier League manager has fared far better than the man still employed.
Still, Lambert’s position seems safe though he could use a result to change the deteriorating mood around the club and finally dispel any lingering fears of going down. He won’t get much change out of Palace, who won at Villa Park in December and have been tackling their challenge of avoiding relegation with all the hunger of a man starved for a month.
Palace have belief, desire and confidence, having beaten Chelsea and Cardiff in consecutive weeks. Tony Pulis’ side have pulled level on points with Villa and will fancy their chances of overhauling the visitors come Saturday evening. Villa’s cause will be helped by the likelihood of Gabby Agbonlahor, Fabian Delph and Karim El Ahmadi returning to fitness, and the squad.
All three were sorely missed in last Saturday’s woeful loss to Fulham; Agbonlahor’s pace and ability to make something happen from nothing, Delph’s quality on the ball -- and work rate off it -- in midfield, and El Ahmadi’s pressing. If the trio all start, Villa’s starting lineup may resemble something closer to Lambert’s choice than a week previously.
Whatever happens on Saturday, it’s highly unlikely to be Lambert’s final game in charge. But Palace are more than capable of delivering short-term pain to another Villa manager at Selhurst Park.