Surviving the Hope

Stacy Murphy is a battle-scarred casualty of Villa.

It’s Wednesday 15th May 2024 and it’s felt as if I haven’t been able to breathe properly in months. But all of that just seemed to fall away over the last two nights. Admittedly the tightness in the head and chest had reached a crescendo around 9:15pm on Monday, just after Liverpool’s third goal went in but Jhon Duran’s two goal cameo felt like a tranquilizer designed to begin drawing out all of the tension which had built up in my psyche over the last nine months. The Manchester City win at Spurs the following night just hastened that process exponentially until I regained my inner peace but left me emotionally spent.

Not since the days of Graham Taylor and Ron Atkinson have I quite as much bought into the psychological Aston Villa rollercoaster as this season. I thought I had learned to be more sanguine about Villa’s fortunes in the intervening 30+ years after all of the promising starts and near misses interspersed with equally buttock-clenching relegation battles. The John Gregory and Martin O’Neill years taught me to expect mostly negative outcomes from good situations and I had come to terms with Villa never troubling the Champions League places reverting to the very Brummie trait of expecting the worst to avoid any disappointment. This had worked well for the last fifteen or so years but there is one man, and one man alone, I blame for resurrecting something I had tried to banish from by brain. That thing is something I will call ‘Villa Hope’ and the man is Unai Emery.

The first I noticed that Villa Hope had begun to ebb out of me was when someone born on the same day as me, Dwight Yorke, walked out of Villa Park. That was a sign we could no longer compete right at the top as we had at various points under Sir Graham, BFR and Brian Little. I had experienced the highs of the league and European title wins as well as the ignominy of relegation in the 1980s but by 1998 something felt different. Yorke leaving was a sign we had settled for almost mediocrity and was reinforced by the dramatic way John Gregory’s team fell away in the second half of that season. Grumbles about successive managers after that were drowned out by screams about the chairman. Doug’s Arkwright-like cornershop mentality was no match for the megastore approach of Manchester United, Arsenal and later Chelsea.

Suddenly in 2006 Doug was gone and a new dawn of Randy Lerner broke over B6. Ultimately a false dawn as Martin O’Neill’s team packed up and headed for the beach every March exhausted due the manager’s lack of proper preparation and so that Villa Hope was turned down a notch each time. These failures and Randy Lerner’s family trustees, alarmed at the amount of money the club was wasting, reduced the amount of cash available to subsequent Villa managers until we finally disappeared down the Premier League plughole in 2016. The odd high such as an FA Cup final during this time did nothing to stop that Villa Hope draining away.

The second and almost disastrous false dawn of Tony Xia bore all the hallmarks of a roulette player putting his mortgage on red and the wheel coming to a stop showing black. The club, much like my Villa Hope, were almost a thing of the past. Two financial saviours emerged in the shape of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens but still the needle on Villa Hope barely registered anything in the tank. Dean Smith soon followed them and the ten game winning streak which dragged us to the play-offs in 2019 did re-ignite Villa Hope but it stayed much where it was despite some spikes after penalties at The Hawthorns and the Wembley win two weeks later. Surviving relegation the following season, although a source of some pride, didn’t enthuse me to think we wouldn’t return to the battles under Alex McLeish, Paul Lambert, Tim Sherwood and Remi Garde so it was a surprise that 2020-21 saw a good if mid-table finish but any rising Villa Hope disappeared with Dean Smith after five successive defeats.

The Christian Purslow-inspired vanity appointment of Steven Gerrard did not see Villa Hope return. Openly criticising well-liked and high performing players was not something which endeared Gerrard to many Villa fans and frankly I was glad to see the back of him despite trying to find positives at the time. So who would NSWE come up with next for the Villa Park manager’s office? I have to say I was surprised by the announcement of Unai Emery. Why would he want to come to us? Surely Villarreal were in a better position than what felt like a failing (again) club like Villa.

It was with interest, but nothing more, that I sat on the Holte and watched Villa start to dismantle Manchester United as first Leon Bailey then Lucas Digne scored early goals. It was something just prior to Digne’s free kick when I noticed something different. Emi Martinez, from fifty yards away, was actively lining up a Villa screen in front of the United wall to block David De Gea’s view. Maybe this Emery guy really did know what he was doing and after Jacob Ramsey added a third to give Villa a first home win against the Salford side in 27 years I felt something vaguely familiar somewhere deep within my soul. Villa Hope had re-appeared.

Not only had it reappeared but it kept increasing. Suddenly we had a World Cup-winning goalkeeper and we were climbing the table after getting stuck in eleventh place for an eternity. By Spring we were pushing the European places after victories at Chelsea and Spurs Villa Hope was almost as high as it ever had been. Surely we couldn’t make Europe could we? But after brushing Brighton aside there we were; seventh and in European competition for the first time in thirteen years.

And so followed this season starting with a hammering at Newcastle and the loss of our talismanic centre back for the whole year after less than fifteen minutes just days after a similar injury to the waspish industry of Emi Buendia in training. It could only happen to Villa but Unai’s calm pervaded the team and fanbase so Villa Hope didn’t take the expected nosedive. Just one more defeat and a draw at Wolves in the next ten league games saw Villa challenging at the top of the league although a 3-2 reverse in Warsaw against Legia in the opening Conference League group game was a bit chastening. This came after steamrollering Hibs in the play-off round but the team, and fans, were learning the Emery way.

That run included Villa scoring goals; loads of them. Six against Brighton, four against West Ham and AZ Alkmaar and three against both Crystal Palace and Luton but a blip was probably due and it arrived at Nottingham Forest when the home side defended deep and scored twice from long range. That though was the last defeat before Christmas as Villa recovered to qualify top of their Conference League group with four wins and a draw from the remaining five games as well as beating both Manchester City and Arsenal at Villa Park in the space of a week in early December. Villa Hope was in danger of transforming into its darker, more malevolent cousin, Villa Expectation.

The two games either side of Christmas ensured that didn’t happen. An immensely frustrating 1-1 draw with doomed Sheffield United was a bit galling especially as Cameron Archer scored the Blades’ goal late on only for Nicolo Zaniolo to equalise deep into injury time. Equally frustrating was a return to our traditional capitulation from 2-0 up against the red side of Manchester at Old Trafford on Boxing Day. Villa Hope was tempered as in retrospect the club’s season had peaked.

Second at Christmas, Villa didn’t drop below fifth for the rest of the season. But a new obsession was to grip Villa fans: coefficients.

Suspensions and injuries including two of the season ending variety hampered Villa in the winter and early spring with Bouba Kamara joining Tyrone Mings and Emi Buendia in ACL treatment while Jacob Ramsey suffered a recurrence of metatarsal problem which he picked up while winning the U-21 European Championship with England last June. Pau Torres, Alex Moreno, Diego Carlos, Ezri Konsa, Matty Cash, Emi Martinez, Jhon Duran and even the seemingly perma-durable Ollie Watkins missed games through injury at this time while John McGinn and Douglas Luiz fell foul of suspensions. At one point Villa had an entire team unavailable but that Villa Hope remained. Dented a bit maybe but intact.

The unnatural interest in UEFA’s country coefficients began to take hold. Could the English clubs out-perform the German ones in Europe to nail down a fifth Champions League place? Eventually they couldn’t as first Brighton, in the last 16 of the Europa League, followed by Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and West Ham exited in their respective quarter-finals bowed out. This just left Villa, forgotten, largely unmentioned and under the radar as the last English side in Europe. Having seen off Ajax and squeaked past Lille on penalties thanks to Emi Martinez it was the lack of the world’s best goalkeeper in the semi final against Olympiacos which partly contributed to Villa’s European demise.

Having been booked twice in the away leg against Lille, but not sent off as one caution came in the penalty shoot-out (a law so obscure few knew what was happening) Martinez missed the home leg against the Greek side. It is conjecture to suggest Emi would have made a difference to the 4-2 scoreline which favoured the Piraeus club but the penalty Douglas Luiz put wide late on definitely would have done.

By this time Villa’s treatment room was beginning to resemble an overworked A&E department as Youri Tielemans and Nicolo Zaniolo joined the casualty list leaving Villa with only 14 fit senior players for the second leg and most of those looked like they were running on empty with Leon Bailey playing despite a lot of heavy knee strapping. The Greek side defended well and despite Villa having more than 80% possession scored twice more to send Villa out. The European odyssey which had begun in Edinburgh in August was over at the penultimate stage. Villa Hope receded for the first time all season. We were out of Europe, out of players and out of energy with Liverpool and Palace to come, one of which we had to win if the almost mythical Champions League place was to be attained.

No sooner than the walking wounded had walked out at Villa Park on Monday we were one down to what seemed to be on first viewing an uncharacteristic error by Emi Martinez after just over a minute. Villa’s fatigued players somehow dredged up and equaliser ten minutes later through the returning Tielemans. This was set up by Ollie Watkins who has been stuck on 19 league goals for an apparent ice age. Liverpool, though, quickly scored a disputed second and added a third a couple of minutes after half-time.

Villa Hope had started to pack its bags in my head with recriminations about why I had allowed it to re-surface but enter Jhon Duran and those two goals. Villa Hope dropped its luggage and started to work with me rather than against for the next twenty-four hours until it decided to stay for the foreseeable future because Unai Emery obviously knew what he was doing all along and neither I nor it wants to miss Villa in the Champions League.

I anticipate a zen-like Villa to travel to Selhurst Park with the mission of over forty years in the making accomplished and, at least for me, and for the first time in many years, next season can’t come around quickly enough.