Winter break musings

Richard Keeling has a look round at what’s going on.

At the time of writing we are in the middle of a winter break. Prior to the inception of the Premier League in 1992, the concept of a winter break was virtually unthinkable in this country as it was considered a typical foreign gimmick. Foreigners were thought to lack British grit and determination to brave the winter weather. I was reminded of those bad old days a few weeks ago when I watched Match of the Day and the heavy Christmas and New Year schedule was discussed. Clubs had raised concern that too many matches are played over the festive period, a grumble that was exacerbated by squads being hit by Covid. Alan Shearer, who tries hard to give the impression that he is not a relic from a bygone age, reckoned that foreign managers know what they are letting themselves in for before they sign up for a job in this country and that as a result they shouldn’t complain.

‘British is best’ insular talk of this sort was rife years ago and it is a measure of the influence of foreign owners, players and managers that they have been able to win even a short break for players and staff to recharge their batteries. You could of course argue that the Premier League is rolling in money and should just get on with it like lower leagues have to, but lower leagues aren’t the football equivalent of Hollywood, with top quality entertainers performing for a huge international audience. There is also an argument that the break should coincide with the festive season for the benefit of staff and players. Christmas and New Year are a peak time for these vast international audiences though, so naturally there can be no time off for the workers.

The winter break could have been used this year for clubs to catch up with the backlog of games postponed due to the pandemic but, no, it seems a winter break is a proper break. If clubs can’t play their postponed matches over the next three months, I expect we will see the season extended again by a week or two. Whatever happens, it is beginning to look as though a winter break is here to stay. Whether it will lead to fitter, fresher players producing a higher quality ‘product’ for the benefit of international TV audiences remains to be seen.

The recent goings-on at Everton have intrigued me. It is, like Villa, a big city club that has tended to underachieve over the years and, of course, we have tended to play them quite a lot. Unlike Villa they have been unfortunate enough to be overshadowed by a more successful neighbour and their fans have been desperate for years for the club to take that step up into the top four. I was most impressed therefore when they appointed Carlo Ancelotti just over two years ago because here was a man who is a Champions League winner and who has managed at the very top level. Could he do it for them? Er, no. He walked away after eighteen months. Everton then made another adventurous signing in Rafael Benitez, particularly because of his six years with their neighbours, with whom he won the Champions League in 2004-05 and was runner-up in 2005-06. How long did he last at Everton? Just over six months.

When Villa were in the doldrums a few years ago, I used to fantasise that what we needed was someone like Ancelotti or Benitez who had done it at the top level and who could magically whisk us out of the Championship and establish us at the top end of the Premier League. Everton’s experiences have demonstrated just what a lottery appointing the right manager is. The next occupant of the hot seat is likely to be Frank Lampard, for some years a teammate of Steven Gerrard in the England squad. It will be interesting to see how these two younger managers fare, both out to prove themselves at big but rather unfashionable clubs.

Incidentally I thought it reflected very well on Wayne Rooney that he turned down the chance to manage Everton. The media and the Everton fans were disappointed of course, as it would have been a big story, but he has a huge challenge at Derby, trying to keep them in the Championship despite the 21-point deduction, and he decided not to walk away from it. The erstwhile spud faced nipper seems to be growing up.

An email arrived in mid-January asking me to sign a petition pushing for the creation of an independent football regulator. This surprised me because I remembered reading in November that the Government had already “endorsed in principle” the need for one. I signed the petition, of course, because if anything needs regulating it is top flight football, but with a hollow laugh as it was only a quarter of a century too late. The idea of regulation came to the fore after the wealthiest clubs decided in April last year that they were going to flounce off and take part in a European Super League to make even more money. There was much hand wringing and the likes of Gary Neville and Gary Lineker were suddenly in favour of regulation to prevent such a catastrophe.

Up to April 2021 it had apparently been perfectly okay for a handful of clubs to buy all the trophies and there weren’t too many complaints from the likes of Neville and Lineker. In forty-six seasons between the end of World War II and the start of the Premier League, twenty-three different teams won the FA Cup. In the subsequent thirty years, just eight teams have won it and four of those have only won it once. Likewise, the old First Division was won by fifteen different teams after the war, but the Premier League has been won by just six in twenty-nine years, and one of those, Leicester, only won it once.

A number of ex-players have, for a quarter of a century, been among those in favour of a handful of ‘elite’ clubs picking up most of the trophies. They have also been part of a conspiracy largely to ignore everybody else. I read the ‘I’ these days and I am convinced that their sports writers get a salary deduction if they mention Aston Villa. The logical outcome of the Premier League as envisaged was always that the elite it created would be in a position to move on to a European Super League. The protestations of the vested interests following the European Super League affair were therefore, in my opinion, humbug.

If an independent regulator is established, I wonder what effect it will have. The pressure for regulation follows a fan led review which produced ten main points, including more financial support for the lower leagues. I can’t help feeling, though, that the last thirty years have damaged football irreparably. Every Premier League club now needs its own billionaire(s), with or without a record of human rights abuses, and keeping the lid on the antics of a motley crew of sheikhs, tycoons and kleptocrats will need a regulator with superhuman abilities.

We are past the halfway point of the season and the Villa have lost three more matches than we have won, which means we have a lot of ground to make up if we are to finish anywhere near the Europa League places. The poor start to the season under Dean Smith is costing us because, apart from Brentford away, we have done at least as well as could be expected since Gerrard took over. The FA Cup draw was unkind to us but we only narrowly went out at Old Trafford. What is particularly galling is that the draw for the next round sees not only Manchester United but also Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool all at home to lower league opposition. The fates definitely seem to conspire in favour of the clubs that don’t need their assistance.

Villa’s January signings will hopefully improve the team further and will definitely add competition for places. Seventeen matches remain and a lot of them look winnable to me. The last match of the season is Manchester City away so we need to be where we want to be before then, though it would be good to think we can get something from the Etihad for a change. West Ham away in March looks a tough one, while Spurs and Liverpool at home in April will be difficult, as will Wolves and Leicester away, but these are the type of matches that we need to aspire to win if we want to compete with the big boys.

I would hope we will win ten of the seventeen games and maybe draw a couple of the others. That would give us fifty-eight points as compared to fifty-two last season, when we finished eleventh. If we had got fifty-eight points last season we would have finished ninth, so it is still possible for Steven Gerrard to deliver a year on year improvement. Europa League football next season is not impossible but we will need a really good run of results.

We old timers get worried by gung-ho talk like this, of course. It is only Villa’s third season back, after all, and I will definitely breathe a big sigh of relief if and when the Villa pass the forty point mark.