10 April ~ Another key skirmish in what the Guardian thinks is "history’s toughest relegation battle" takes place at Villa Park today. Newcastle United are the visitors, led by a Joey Barton who has blatantly attempted to curry favour with Villa fans by slagging off Gareth Barry. Thanks Joey, but it won’t make you any more loveable. The staccato nature of Premier League fixture scheduling prolongs the tension that comes with being at the wrong end of the table. Aston Villa played just two league matches in March, and will play just once a week for the remaining seven weeks. Fans fill these yawning gaps between games with a range of emotions spanning panic and anger, fear, frustration and disbelief.
In Villa’s case, Gérard Houllier has become the focus of many of these emotions. Contrary to the simple "Houllier Out" story that parts of the media would no doubt prefer, fans are not unanimous in their opposition to the manager. The typical Villa supporter’s outlook on Houllier is shaped by their view of his predecessor’s legacy. Martin O’Neill was regarded with affection by most supporters, but there were many who didn’t care for his dogged preference of a core group of players who were over used to the detriment of squad development. These fans who welcome the emergence of new talents also tend to prefer Houllier’s less rigid and more expansive footballing ethos.
But a majority of Villans didn’t have a problem with O’Neill’s style and they are struggling to understand how the team can be in this situation after three consecutive sixth-place finishes. Houllier’s more vocal critics say that he has misjudged the fans and unsettled key players, especially those that most enjoyed the favour of O’Neill. Unfortunately for Gérard, the loudest complaints and biggest banners are coming from the Holte End, which is the first place that the snappers point their lenses.
There are, of course, some negatives that all Villa fans would agree on, such as Houllier’s ill-judged comments following the defeat at Liverpool in December and the virtual concession of the FA Cup fifth round tie at Man City before a ball had even been kicked. Houllier has been too slow to accept that Villa have been mired in trouble since Christmas, and it is generally agreed that fielding players out of position for no good reason – Agbonlahor for Albrighton on the wing, Delph for Warnock at left-back – is unlikely to yield results.
Another thing that Villa fans can agree on is that if this team ends up going down, it will be fully deserved. Newcastle may have lost on their last three visits to Villa Park but they did put six goals past Brad Friedel at St James’ in August and today's game is too close to call. Far easier to predict one less Liverpool supporter on the Villa bench next season. Colin Peel