Unless you are a fan of either team, Sunderland Vs Aston Villa was not a fixture that would have stood out at the weekend. Both teams have been struggling of late and more unappealingly the pair has only mustered a scantily clad 13 goals between them this season. But for those willing to look for beauty on the inside, rather than instantly discarding the immediate outer aesthetics, then there was plenty in this fixture to cause arousal.
Paul Lambert and Martin O’Neill remain firm friends since working successfully together at Celtic, as player and manager respectively. Lambert even admits that whenever he requires managerial advice, or guidance, then it’s O’Neill’s telephone number that is activated via the speed dial function. Before Lambert took the job as Villa manager he spoke at length with O’Neill, to gain an insiders viewpoint on what to expect if he took the role on. The Northern Irishman fed Lambert with only positives regarding the ‘magnificent club’ he departed, in rather bitter circumstances, barley two years ago.
So as well as being a match up of master versus student, it was also an opportunity for Villa to get one over on their former boss. It is that disrespectful attitude that left a somewhat stale taste in my mouth. There are some sectors of Villa fans that take an openly strong disliking for O’Neill and craved to see him tactically bludgeoned to death by Lambert. Of course I wanted Villa to win, that is only natural being a fan, but I urge the ‘anti-O’Neill’ segment of Villa fans not to forget what the man did for the club.
Yes, O’Neill left the club in an untimely stubborn manner, spent a lot of money, made some poor wasteful signings, and it can be argued that his business in the transfer market has had a knock on effect for Randy Lerner becoming more stringent with his purse strings but, there were some good times. During his debut season Villa had the longest unbeaten run in the Premiership with 9 games. The following three seasons Villa consecutively finished 6th (improving his points total each year,) achieved European qualification and narrowly missed out on making it into a Champions League birth. He also took Villa to their first cup final in 10 years, unluckily losing to Manchester United 2-1.
Some Villa fans also accuse O’Neill of playing long ball football. In short it wasn’t, it was a fast direct counter-attacking style that, I for one found exciting to witness. During the 2007-08 season Villa scored 71 league goals. That figure was the highest amount of goals the club has ever scored in the Premiership, and the highest since the title winning season of 1981. It also made Villa the third highest goal scorers in the entire league that year. Boring I think not. Young, Downing and Milner were terrific under O’Neill and took me back to days when the likes of Daley, Atkinson, Yorke, Carbone or Merson would thrill me. I was gutted when O’Neill departed Villa Park and remain appreciative of what he did for the club.
The game itself between Sunderland and Villa, and two under pressure managers, would have done little to excite the neutrals. But the excitement levels of others is of little importance to the Villa faithful right now, most important was the fact that Villa came away from the Stadium of Light with a massively needed 3 points. Vlaar and Clarke looked a solid partnership, Westwood had an impressive full debut in the top flight and Bannan put forward his case to regularly start ahead of Delph. Benteke was a handful, Ireland displayed moments of creativity that have desperately been missing from Villa’s recent displays, and Gabby Agbonlahor’s solitary winning goal was his first in the league for a year. The win was by no means pretty, but there were moments of counter-attacking fluidity that ironically mimicked the days of O’Neill at Villa.
Villa still have a long way to bounce back from the lofty heights that the club flirted with before O’Neill left, but in Lambert I believe we have a similar mould. Albeit a more adaptable, more possession focused and less financially flamboyant version, but one that given time can get Villa regularly competing in European competition again. As for O’Neill and Sunderland, it is true that they are struggling at the moment but, they have far too good a manager to even consider thoughts of ‘sacking’ or ‘relegation.’
image: © vagueonthehow