Gregg Davies looks back on Aston Villa's season which started so well at Arsenal, but rarely got anywhere near as good again...
A season that began with elation in north London and ended with despair in the same part of the world; bringing the curtain down on another depressing nine months at Villa Park.
It had all started so well. In what would prove to be Arsenal’s only home defeat in the league all season, Villa fans left the Emirates salivating about what Paul Lambert’s young side might achieve having ended the previous campaign positively with five wins from their final 10 games.
But in fact it was the start of a season-long trend of performing admirably against the big guns but failing to follow it up against sides they were expected to turn over. Manchester City and Chelsea were both put to the sword on home soil, while Villa took a two-goal lead at Anfield before being pegged back to draw 2-2.
And having lost nine home matches in 2012/13, Villa managed to go one better this term; one of only three sides (with Fulham and Sunderland) to rack up double figure defeats, to ensure the atmosphere in the Midlands remained moribund for much of the season.
Bad defending and bad injuries more than played their part, with Villa’s goals against column bettered only by the three relegated sides. Danish duo Jores Okore and Nicklas Helenius were hoped to add steel to the defence and presence up front but managed just six league outings between them, while talisman Christian Benteke suffered a 12-game goal drought before an Achilles injury crocked him at the end of March.
A (rare) home win against Hull dragged Villa over the safety line with two games to spare, and an uncertain season on the pitch is expected to continue off it in the coming months with owner Randy Lerner looking to end his eight-year association at the club by putting it up for sale.
Would they have taken this in August?
No. Having finished 2012/13 in 15th after a strong finish, Villa fans began the season full of gusto expecting at least a top-half placing and the odd bit of excitement on home soil – particularly with 23-goal Benteke opting to sign a new contract with the club despite talk of him leaving for Tottenham.
Would they have taken this in January?
No. The New Year began with Villa in 11th after a 1-0 win at Sunderland, but an FA Cup defeat to Sheffield United – their eighth loss on home soil – swiftly tempered optimism. Giving Liverpool a scare at Anfield showed what the side was capable of, but one decent display tended to be followed by three or four dismal ones.
Wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City notwithstanding, the 4-3 success over nearby West Brom provided a rare 90 minutes of thrills and spills at Villa Park to warm the cockles on a cold Wednesday night in January. The Baggies were two-up inside nine minutes courtesy of a Chris Brunt belter and Fabian Delph own goal, but it was 3-3 by the break with Delph making amends for his misdemeanour with a scorcher at the right end.
Villa 1-4 Stoke. Aside from the aforementioned cup exit to third-tier opposition, March’s home hammering by a Potters side who had never won a Premier League game at Villa Park – and not triumphed there since 1988 – would have been especially galling. Coming off the back of home wins over Norwich (4-1) and Chelsea (1-0), Villa were going in search of three successive Premier League home successes since October 2007 but collapsed after Benteke’s early opener. It sparked a run of four straight defeats.
Hero of the season
Fabian Delph was one of few Villa players whose reputation was enhanced despite the team’s travails; the youngster named supporters’ player of the season having picked up 11 man-of-the-match gongs in 2013/14.
A driving force in midfield, the former Leeds trainee had Lambert tipping him for international honours this summer. Delph’s three league goals this season may have fallen just short of his target but all of them were spectacular against Southampton, West Brom (pictured top) and Chelsea (video below).
Villain of the season
It's all doom and gloom in the Midlands, many fans of the opinion that Lerner lacks interest having seen the club go backwards in recent years. The American has plunged more than £250 million into players and facilities since arriving in 2006, helping Martin O’Neill guide the club to consecutive top-six finishes from 2007-10 and a League Cup final. But since O’Neill’s exit, the budget and the results have steadily diminished. With Lerner now keen on selling up and moving on, supporters will be hoping any new person who takes the helm has plenty of money to spend and adopts a more hands-on approach.
The season in microcosm
‘They build you up to break you down’. Villa were masters of following up a joyous win with a morale-sapping set of results. September’s success over Man City was ‘celebrated’ with a four-match winless run, while surprise successes over Southampton in December and Chelsea in March were met with four-match losing streaks on both occasions, and to the same four teams: Fulham, Stoke, Crystal Palace and Manchester United.
E. 15th, 15th, 16th is not the sort of stability Villa fans will settle for having seen three consecutive sixth-placed finishes not so long ago. Much more is expected from supporters of the former European Cup winners, who saw their team suffer 10 home defeats in a single season for the first time ever.