LONDON: Three seasons ago Aston Villa came to the closing weeks of the Premier League season chasing the prospect of a top-four finish which would have returned them to the Champions League.
They were riding the crest of a wave having fallen narrowly to Manchester United in the League Cup Final and then to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-finals.
In the event they ended up sixth – and it has been downhill all the way since then. Three months later the astute Martin O’Neill quit as manager after a row with American owner Randy Lerner over team investment. Lerner reacted with two badly-misjudged managerial appointments of Gerard Houllier and then Alex McLeish.
Luring Lambert, one-time Dortmund midfielder, from Norwich last June appeared eminently sensible. Lambert was an up-and-coming manager who had worked impressively at a modest club with very modest ambitions (i.e. mere survival in the Premier League).
But Villa are one of the great old English clubs, one of the founder members of the original Football League in 1888, and one-time European champions. Hence the increasing concern among fans this season as Villa slid to the brink of the relegation zone.
Worse, they have succumbed to one of the most humiliating defeats in their history. This is the inevitable label attached to Tuesday’s 4-3 aggregate defeat by fourth division Bradford City in the semi-finals of the League Cup.
Villa had lost 3-1 away and won only 2-1 at home against a club 61 places beneath them in the league ladder.
Christian Benteke, Villa’s player of the season, gave them the lead after a dominant first half but Bradford responded with an equaliser from James Hanson. Substitute Andreas Weimann gave Villa late hope but Bradford survived four minutes of stoppage time to make it to Wembley.
Lambert, who has put all his faith in a policy of youth, took full responsibility, saying: “I could not repeat [in public] what was said in the dressing room. Everybody’s hurt, because we’ll never have a better chance of getting to a Wembley cup final, even the young players.
“I’m every bit as hurt as the supporters. It’s my responsibility. I know exactly how they’re feeling because that’s how I’m feeling.”
Lerner does not believe in changing a manager in mid-season, considering it a self-defeating strategy. Hence Lambert will be still be there to ‘pick up’ his players for Friday’s visit to Millwall in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Millwall, ninth in the second division and supported by notoriously ferocious fans, will approach the match far more optimistically than the 1982 European champions.
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