Preview: Aston Villa v Norwich

Ahead of the Most Terrifying Game of the season so far, Dan Brigham talks to Aston Villa fan and writer Dan Bardell about the spectre of relegation, Paul Lambert, Ian Culverhouse, Dalian Atkinson, Nathan Redmond’s school jumper, a friendly Mike Sheron, must-win matches and how Villa are likely to set up on Saturday. Grab yourself a bottle of gin

Brigham: Hi Dan. I was going to call this match a relegation six-pointer but, well, you guys are pretty much done, aren't you? 10 points off safety with 14 games to go. Do you hold out any hope for survival, and how does it feel to have the next couple of months stretching out in front of you like a relegation wasteland, knowing that going down seems almost certain?

Is it, in some ways, healthier than being in Norwich's position which is being terrified about being relegated but hopeful you might just stay up before being inevitably crushed on the final day of the season? Or is it just a drawn-out slow death?

I promise these questions will get more cheerful. Probably. 

Bardell: I feel that I am now quite adept at being in Norwich's position, being a supporter that has watched his team fumble over the finish line for what seems like forever now! I thought the Paul Lambert years (sorry for mentioning him so early) were challenging, but this I wouldn't wish on any club. I'd trade with you in a heartbeat. I vaguely recall us going to Carrow Road on the last day in 1995 with the chance of going down, but we survived. I was too young to appreciate how close we were to dropping at that stage. I am more than au fait with it now.

In all honesty I have had no hope for a while now. I resigned myself to relegation in November, and when we lost to you after Christmas I resigned myself to finishing rock bottom. 

The coming months are going to be torture; I feel like I am travelling down out of routine and habit rather than because I expect us to do anything. Nowadays I am delighted if we have a few shots at goal, let alone score or win. The Premier League is not the be-all and end-all of football, but it is all I have ever known. I can't imagine watching Match of the Day and us not being on there, but I am going to have to get used to it.

In your position you go into every game knowing you have something to fight and play for, but in ours you just know even if you somehow manage to string a few wins together you are reliant on the other teams in trouble picking up zero points in the same spell. It just isn't going to happen. To feel like this with 14 games to go is just rank. I didn't think you guys were that great when you beat us in December, however you didn't need to be. That's the worst thing about this season: teams don't even need to play well to beat us and we are quite capable of beating ourselves.

I've sunk into a grim mood just by writing this! This is as bad as it gets or maybe next season will be even worse! 

Maybe Paul Lambert wasn't that bad after all (sorry again)…

Brigham: Wow. I'm going to stick some Radiohead on and sink a bottle of gin to cheer myself up. I almost, almost feel sorry for you. In fact, I do a bit. But... but I was there as a 13-year-old for that last day of the 1994-95 season. We'd already been relegated, and I remember the Villa fans singing “we'll see you again, don't know where, don't know when”. That really stuck with me. I was also there for the last day of the 2011-12 season, when we beat you 2-0, finished nine points ahead of you but your fans were lauding Paul Lambert (more of him later). So my sympathy extends only a few inches...

You've been in the top division since 1988-89 after Graham Taylor had brought you back up after just one short season in Division Two, so relegation is, as you suggest, probably going to be a huge culture shock. Can you see any benefit to it? There's been a bit of talk about Villa needing a bit of a clear-out, a change of atmosphere around the place since Martin O'Neill left. Is there a little part of you looking forward to the Championship, the chance for a new start, the opportunity to visit new grounds?

I should point out that, unless you're doing well in the Championship, it is a horrible, horrible league. Like, the worst. Full of former giants with half-empty stadiums and fans who still hang on to a sense of entitlement.

That's probably depressed you even more now.

Bardell: I see no good that will come from being relegated, nothing at all. Every team that makes their way to Villa Park will see it as their cup final. We are piss poor at home as it is, and that's with opposition teams playing in second and sometimes first gear.

O'Neill was the catalyst. At the time we as fans revelled in what he was doing, but he made some awful signings, put them on massive wages and wouldn't play them. He also sold Gary Cahill as we apparently didn't need him because we had Zat Knight (can I have some of your gin)?

I wouldn't foresee a clear-out as I don't envisage our players garnering much interest from other teams. We will lose those we'd like to keep and those that we'd want out we will be stuck with. With the exception of Jordan Ayew and Jack Grealish I simply don't see us receiving significant cash for our squad.

I firmly believe the manager is the most important factor in Championship football. Your board made a wildcard appointment in Alex Neill, but it turned out to be a masterstroke and he got you sorted and promoted. I hope Rémi Garde will be the man to see us back up, but am at the point where I can't see any scenario where he stays working under the current regime past this season. He simply won't need the stress and ball ache. 

Like you state, the Championship will be horrid. I worry for us

Brigham: So what went wrong with Lambert? There can't be a more embarrassing fate in football than being replaced as manager by Tim Fucking Sherwood. Lambert is, as you will know, a Norwich legend. There are those who still can't forgive him for leaving us to go to Villa but, in my eyes then, he was furthering his career by joining a bigger club. I thought he'd turn the malaise around, get you playing good attacking football like he did at Norwich and take you back into the good times. That didn't quite, erm, go according to plan.

Was Lambert solely to blame? The kids he bought seemed a bit rubbish, and then the experienced players he bought also seemed rubbish. From the outside, it appeared he struggled to find a balance, aged about 75 years and then, even weirder, fell out with Ian Culverhouse (what the hell happened there?!). Or was Lerner just as culpable?

Bardell: I was all for Lambert, and stuck with him as long as I could but he seemed to just change overnight from attacking football to pedestrian, safety-first dross. Last season I completely lost it with him. 

He obviously made a mistake, he had a good thing going with Norwich, had his own team and the fans loved him. Neither you nor him really gained from him departing. I think some managers are just suited to one club, Norwich was his club. Problem is, when managers leave Villa, they often go with their reputations destroyed and very rarely go on to have a good managerial career. Would you ever have Lambert back?

The transfer policy adopted was always going to be hit and miss, obviously it found Christian Benteke but it also found a lot of dross. Dross that has contributed to our season-by-season decline. He also had a penchant for creating a ‘bomb squad’ which alienated certain players who we then realised we couldn't shift and had to come back into the fray: Alan Hutton was banished for two seasons and is alarmingly here and part of the first team squad now.

Culverhouse was labelled a bully and a big problem, but it wasn't like we drastically improved when he left. However I must admit I never warmed to Culverhouse or Gary Karsa. They were highly rated at Carrow Road and obviously did some good for your team but no youngsters came through with their coaching and, bar Fabian Delph, no existing player really improved upon their arrival.

Lambert did age horridly didn't he, he looked young and fresh when he was managing you, but Aston Villa destroyed him. Now he's left he looks pretty young again. Alex Neil looks old doesn't he, I've just googled him and spotted that he is 34!!!! Jesus. Don't ever join Villa, Alex. 

Brigham: Lambert looks like a new man now! Like he's spent the last year cruising the Med. Hope he does well at Blackburn – I'm convinced there's still a good manager in there, even if he does seem to be exclusively signing former Norwich players. I probably would have him back at Norwich, but that’s letting my stupid heart rule my stupid head. And something will have gone very wrong for that scenario to arise.

So, looking ahead to Saturday. If we dare. Your form appears to have picked up under Garde a bit, or at least you seem harder to beat these days. Three draws in your last three league home games against West Ham, Palace and Leicester suggest that any Norwich fan thinking this will be a guaranteed three points is quite mistaken. What has Garde changed since he’s come in? 

Bardell: Lambert is probably benefitting from not having to watch players like Hutton or Kieran Richardson play anymore. I'm sure that they have aged me this season. Not watching them is the equivalent of a year in the Med I reckon.

A draw would be the most likely result on Saturday for me. We don't have Benteke to take games by the scruff of the neck anymore, so you won't have to worry about bicycle kicks out of the blue like your previous visit. 

Garde has got us playing better football in general, and depending on the centre-half partnership we look a lot more organised. Your old reserve goalkeeper Mark Bunn has made a difference, simply by not being Brad Guzan. Guzman has regressed horridly and Bunn has been surprisingly good.

I imagine Garde has had to put up with all sorts behind the scenes; we really are a broken club. Not being able to buy anyone in the transfer window will have sent him over the edge but he seems an honourable man and will give his all to restore some pride before the end of the season. 

It looks like we have one available striker, Gabby Agbonlahor; who is rarely fit so I don't see your defence being troubled as much as they would have been with Ayew in the side. From the outside looking in I have never rated Seb Bassong. I've always thought he looked suspect, but correct me if that's wrong. 

Dieumerci Mbokani is the kind of awkward striker that always seems to cause us trouble. Has he scored an easier goal all season than the second against us after Christmas? Nathan Redmond is a player I have always liked despite his Birmingham City roots; why doesn't he start every week for you? Incidentally I have run into Redmond twice in recent years. I once saw him in central London when shopping and I saw him last year in a swish Birmingham bar. He had what looked like a grey school jumper on for those interested in fashion. In my opinion I was dressed better than him.

On the subject of meeting Norwich players, my Nan's friend is married to a former director of yours Trevor Bond (I'm sure that was his name). I used to spend some time in Norfolk as a youngster and I once went to a reserve game at Carrow Road in the posh seats. I was sat behind Martin O'Neill. After the match I met Mike Sheron who scored a hat-trick in said game. He was very friendly.

Brigham: Wowsers. Seeing Mike Sheron wasn't enough to turn you into a life-long Norwich fan? Heartless. And I don't remember Trevor Bond, I must admit. You may mean John Bond or his son, who managed and played for us. Either way, that's one HECK of a story. 

Your assessment of Bassong is entirely correct, although our recent recruit Timm Klose looks a real step up in quality, with a central defender's nose which appears to have been broken in 14 places. Not sure Mbokani will start – got a feeling we may see a debut for Patrick Bamford to offer a bit more movement.

Redmond hasn't been the same since he started dressing like a schoolboy, tbh. That and he's lost his early-season form. If he's not careful he's going to waste his natural talent, much like Agbonlahor, who is carrying some excellent mid-life flabbage over his shorts these days.

I bet you wish you still had Benteke. Or Dean Saunders. Or Dalian Atkinson, who scored one of the greatest goals I've ever seen and then seemed to disappear as suddenly as Keyser Söze. Villa used to be an incredibly likeable team, with the likes of David Platt, Paul McGrath and Ray Houghton. Apart from Ron Atkinson, obviously, the big racist. 

So, to finish, give us your predicted Villa line-up and a score prediction for Saturday? 

Bardell: Bamford! Probably another that got away from us this window. At the moment I wish we had Carlton Cole or Emile Heskey, it's reached that point. I'm not sure who Keyser Söze is, but he has a stupendous name.

I'd suggest we will be unchanged from Tuesday, bar maybe Grealish or Scott Sinclair in for Ayew unless Rudy Gestede (please Lord no) or Libor Kozák return from injury. Unfortunately that means Leandro Bacuna in midfield, I don't dislike him, I just much prefer he'd exclusively play right-back when on the pitch.

Maybe this will be the game we finally get given a penalty, after having three very good appeals turned away in the last three games. I've just started to think about Sinclair running down blind alleys. I hope Grealish over him.

I'm going to sit on the fence and predict a 1-1. Your slightly fragile defence will probably get troubled, but there is simply nobody to put the ball into the net. Steven Naismith is an overpriced but good signing for you, I'm sure he's bagged against us before. He will probably do so on Saturday.

Brigham: Keyser Söze is from The Usual Suspects. If you’ve not watched it, maybe give the Norwich match a miss and put that on instead. It’s undoubtedly going to be more entertaining.

With our fragility from set-pieces, I wouldn’t be so worried about Gestede recovering his fitness – I can see him getting on the end of a couple of corners. I thought you played quite well at Carrow Road, actually. Pressed really well, looked organised but had absolutely no cutting edge, and it took the only two moments of quality in the game for us to score.

That game was labeled a must-win for us as we’d only won one in the previous six, and now we’ve lost four in a row in the league it’s become another must-win. I think the pressure of the Play-off final and the two semis against Ipswich means we’ve learned how to cope with high-pressure games so I’m going for another win here. A nervy 1-0 victory at a very quiet Villa Park. Wes Hoolahan, who was rested against Spurs for this game, will provide a bit of magic for the goal.

Anything less than a win isn’t worth thinking about, so I won’t.

Dan Bardell writes for avillafan.com and blogs for the Birmingham Mail. You can follow him on Twitter at @danbardell

 

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