Weekend defeat had feeling of inevitable
22 September ~ "Hope is a dangerous thing," the wise old convict tells his struggling fellow inmate in The Shawshank Redemption. "Hope can drive a man insane." Failing to heed his advice, Tim Robbins' character insists on swimming away through a pipe filled with human excrement in a thunderstorm, losing his favourite rock hammer and abandoning a steady job in the prison library for an uncertain future in the Mexican hospitality sector. Which all goes to show that some people won't be told.
Villa fans know what it's like to swim through sewage, of course; the last three seasons have resembled nothing so much as a desperate struggle to stay afloat in a sea of bobbing turds. Some sink out of sight; others hove into view. But the struggle remains the same – and the dangerous luxury of hope has rarely been indulged.
Which made the atmosphere at Villa Park all the more remarkable as Arsenal took the pitch alongside Paul Lambert's team. After four games, Villa were still unbeaten. Victory at Anfield had launched them to a dizzying second place in the league table. Victory today would see them nosing improbably ahead of Chelsea at the front of the pack. And the supporters – who had approached the start of the season in the way that an uninsured coach driver with no brakes approaches a trip to the Grand Canyon – were beginning actually to look forward to an encounter with a side which regularly plays Champions League football.
Randy Lerner, Villa's often generous but ever enigmatic patron, had announced his desire to sell the club, but without an obvious purchaser in view, clearly decided that investment was needed to avoid a fourth successive relegation battle. Tom Fox had been hired from Arsenal's commercial department to become Villa's new CEO. Lambert was allowed liberty in the transfer window to bring in the experience his callow squad had lacked. Aly Cissokho and Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson; Tom Cleverley on loan from Manchester United; Colombian international Carlos Sánchez to add steel to midfield. Alan Hutton, rehabilitated from the "bomb squad" of out-of favour senior pros, given a new three-year contract: Lambert himself, who could have done a Reggie Perrin last May and not filled many books of condolence in B6, awarded a four-year extension on the back of three wins and a draw. Hope, as the man says, is a dangerous thing.
Arsenal of course arrived at Villa Park with their own ambitions somewhat unclear. Like Villa, they have been sad pilgrims in a drear land of mediocrity for some years now, albeit mediocrity of a less austere kind. A glass ceiling above fourth place in the league. A transfer window where the fabled war chest stayed largely under Arsène Wenger's bed. A Champions League defeat at the hands of a Dortmund side apparently playing a slightly different sport. And Piers Morgan still alive and unapprehended.
As for the football. Villa, without their first- and second-choice strikers in Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak, had recently adopted a strategy of surrendering possession, pressing opponents and hoping to sneak a goal. With a newly streetwise back four able to defend a lead, it had been at least an effective strategy, although unlikely to win many friends outside Aston. Arsenal, skilful as ever, knocked the ball to each other sideways across the field in a way that suggested that they might, one day, combine their efforts to screw in a lightbulb. Villa had their best chance when Ciaran Clark saw a close-range header saved by Wojciech Szczesny, and at that stage, having pressed with energy and confidence, you might have backed them to hang on to a 1-0 lead. Then of course, Arsenal scored three simple goals in four minutes and the game was over.
I have a friend, an Arsenal supporter, who used to invite me to Highbury to watch the Villa game with him. He would never come to Villa Park. He was always on edge, I think, anywhere he couldn't get a really good cortado or the London Review of Books. But having stood and sat beside him and seen Villa beaten by various margins from 1-0 to 5-0, eventually I realised that he wasn't inviting me to watch the football. He was inviting me to entertain him with my reaction to defeat. As the goals flew in, he would look sidelong at me with the sick, concealed joy of a PE teacher watching a fat kid fall off the wall bars.
But he wouldn't have had his money's worth if he'd sat in the Holte End. The reaction to this emphatic gubbing was so muted as to be virtually absent. No rage. No extravagant repertoire of expletives, nor the frothing jab of angry index fingers. Just another afternoon at the Aston branch of Dignitas.
Not everyone at Villa is prepared to accept defeat, of course. It's hard to imagine Roy Keane – currently rocking the Danny-McGrain-on-a-desert-island look in the dugout as Lambert's assistant – settling for zero points at home against anyone, and after what one imagines to be a fairly direct half-time address the home side at least succeeded in not conceding another goal. But many in claret and blue will be concerned that the reaction in the stands can't be interpreted as simple resignation. It was the complacency of low expectations. Defeat by Arsenal a customary event, and no disgrace. Ten points in five games still a reasonable total, and a quarter of the way to safety. Key players in Benteke, Kozak, Ron Vlaar and Jores Okore still to return. And yet. And yet.
Villa Park was full. Even a little success had brought a sudden, long-repressed flush of hope to the north of Birmingham, like the miraculous flowering of a parched desert landscape that follows the first shower of rain in years. And there they sat in silence, this crowd of 40,013, and watched the tumbleweed begin to roll again. Damon Green