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Villa's annus horribilis could yet get much worse

Your sympathy, please, for AVFC fan and FFT contributor Ian Woodcock. It's all gone very wrong... 

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago fans and pundits alike enthused about Aston VillaâÂÂs perceived cavalier approach to modern football. With the leaping Ulsterman Martin O'Neill on the sidelines and overlapping waves of quick wingers, an even quicker centre-forward and a midfield that made the Energizer Bunny look like Dimitar Berbatov after six mugs of Horlicks, the self-appointed âÂÂpride of Birminghamâ were liked, respected and most importantly feared.

Fast forward 12 months and the picture is about as different as it possibly could be. Villa sit three points off the bottom of the Premier League table with just eight games to play. A crisis club where a spa retreat ends in the clubâÂÂs two first-choice centre-halves being fined two weeks' wages for a drunken fracas. In a season where the magic survival number is unlikely to be as few as 40 points, a huge question mark now hangs over the club. Could they be going down?

Martin OâÂÂNeillâÂÂs departure just five days before the start of the season left open wounds that show no apparent signs of healing more than seven months later. His replacement Gerard Houllier is massively unpopular with many fans and, it would seem, players. There have been high profile bust-ups with the likes of Richard Dunne â who has gone from Player Of The Year to total liability, Stephen Warnock â England World Cup squad member now training with the youth team, and John Carew â now on loan at Stoke, from where he is unlikely to return.

The damning chorus of boos that rang out from the Holte End after SaturdayâÂÂs humiliating home defeat to neighbours Wolves was a reminder of the dark days of David OâÂÂLearyâÂÂs âÂÂbabiesâÂÂ. Even if Villa do avoid the dreaded drop, many fans will still demand a regime change.

"What the flip is going on?"

While there should still be an abundance of pace in the team, the galloping flair of the last two seasons is gone. Ashley Young, now deployed in a central role, wears the look of a man expecting to move on sooner rather than later: the silence that has fallen over the player's contract negotiations has long been deafening. Although Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton have been nothing if not consistent â indeed Albrighton has had as good a breakthrough season as any Villa academy player in years â their endeavour and crosses have all too often come to nothing.

The fanfare which greeted the arrival of Darren Bent was a mixture of awe and bemusement. Bent was at a club higher in the league (indeed they had just completed the double over Villa) and with a stable manager who had the backing of his club's fans and board. Though many in the game and in the stands expressed horror that a man who offers little outside the penalty area was deemed worthy of a club record ã24 million fee, Villa fans were unconcerned: finally, they had the goalscorer they had craved.

Although three goals in eight games is not a disastrous return, it masks the fact that Bent has simply not done enough overall for the team. Little wonder: surely he must be thinking he has made a mistake.

"Where did it all go wrong?"

As for VillaâÂÂs other England striker Gabby Agbonlahor, what can be said? The first name on the team sheet under OâÂÂNeill has been transformed into a bit-part winger by Houllier. He cuts an exasperated figure playing in a foreign position, frustrated by his own mistakes, fuming at team-mates who no longer trust him with the ball.

Agbonlahor too looks destined for the Villa Park exit door â a door through which James Milner passed in August after a protracted transfer which cost the club not only one of the best players they have had in years but also one of the best managers.

Perhaps it was only the straw that broke the camelâÂÂs back, but either way OâÂÂNeill was unhappy enough to leave the club in the lurch as the transfer hung in the balance. Milner ultimately left a week later; his intended replacement, Stephen Ireland, was ultimately a complete disaster. Not match-fit, he debuted in the 6-0 away defeat to Newcastle and things only got worse from there. He fell out with the management, the fans fell out with him and in January he was shipped to St James' Park on loan, just to get him out of the way.

"Taxi to Birmingham New Street, please"

Houllier brought in Robert Pires in a desperate bid to add some flair to a lacklustre central midfield. Two good performances against a poor Blackburn Rovers aside, Pires has looked what he is â an ageing creator whose legs can not do what the brain asks of them.

VillaâÂÂs destiny will be decided in three games against fellow bottom-dwellers â West Ham and West Brom away and Wigan at home. Seven points should almost be enough to ensure survival.

However, Villa have recorded just two away league wins all season: it's a huge ask to go undefeated. The spectre of relegation is very real and it haunts Villa Park. A return to the second tier of English football for the first time in over 20 years could leave Villa, whose accounts have already begun to look creaky, in financial and footballing oblivion.

It feels like a long time since the days of challenging for the Champions League; the club's next destination looks far more likely to be the Championship.

Ian Woodcock is a freelance journalist for hire, and a steadfast Villan for his sins.