Restrained Hubris, and a Note on Loyalty

WIGAN ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: Villa manager Gerard Houllier salutes the fans after winning the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa at the DW Stadium on January 25 2011 in Wigan England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

For the first time all season, Aston Villa have won two games in a row. It feels pretty good, and so it should. I'm not going to kill anyone's buzz, because this is our only sustained run of form all season. Darren Bent is looking like the missing piece to our goal-scoring puzzle, with the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor plus the poacher's instinct that Michael Owen possessed during his glory years at Liverpool (which was, coincidentally, under the management of one Gerard Houllier.) Another thing I'll throw into this positive paragraph is that I love seeing Ashley Young wearing the captain's armband. Ash has really stepped his game up since Bent came to Villa Park, and he's started to look like more of a talismanic player, which is what I'd always hoped he would become. I think he knows that he wouldn't get to be a star if he moved to a bigger club, and in the case of Spurs he wouldn't even be guaranteed a starting place. I'm hoping he really values his importance for the club over the potential for filling his mantle with trophies and titles that he earned on the bench (I'm looking at you, James Milner.)

I am, however, not convinced that everything's all better for Villa yet. The last week has restored a lot of my faith in the club and in Gerard Houllier, but I don't think we're all the way there yet. One of the most important results of the Bent transfer and the two wins is that our club has regained a lot of the confidence that had been missing ever since Milner left. I wasn't able to see the full match yesterday, but between what I saw then and the weekend's big result, we aren't quite playing to our potential yet. For me, a born pessimist, that is both exciting and absolutely terrifying.

We've seen that Houllier wants to get Villa playing a different style of football then they were used to, a more technically advanced style (or in layman's terms, a better style.) Jean Makoun's spell against Wigan illustrated that, because it just seemed like he was thinking faster than everyone else on the pitch. In part, it's because Makoun is a veteran of the Champions League and is accustomed to the style of play that that competition demands. However, it's also because our players are used to playing Martin O'Neill's hurly-burly longball (and it's not like Steve Bruce had Darren Bent playing tiki-taka up in Sunderland.) I know there's a lot of love here for Richard Dunne and James Collins after they've started to restore their form, but I don't think any of us are about to call them cultured footballers.

So we may have reached the mythical "turning point" of our season, and Villa might continue to ascend the table and finish strong. I'm certainly hoping for that, not least because I'm excited to see what Houllier will do over the summer transfer window. However, what worries me is that we hit a rough patch before we're ready for it. Blackburn has been playing well lately, and Manchester United has the league title pretty much locked up (did anyone else enjoy the beating they handed Small Heath as much as I did?) Can you imagine losing to Blackburn, being knocked out of our only remaining cup competition, and then taking a trip to Old Trafford only a few days later to face the best team in the country? It could be immensely demoralising, and it scares the hell out of me.

Finally, I wanted to briefly address the concept of player and club loyalty. I've talked about it before, during Wayne Rooney's Autumn Tempest, but there has been a fair few accusations sent Darren Bent's way since he left Sunderland. I was listening to the Championship Manager podcast the other day, because I will listen to pretty much anything football-related (and I'd already heard Football Weekly and the most recent Football Ramble.) On the show, Kevin Day, a presenter for BBC's Match Of The Day Two, told Villa fans that they shouldn't get too attached to Bent, because he will eventually leave. When the other presenters on the podcast suggested that that was the way the game worked, Day got upset and suggested that it was admirable that players refuse offers from other clubs in order to stay in one place. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the players who spend their whole career as part of a club. Ryan Giggs, Paolo Maldini, et al are absolute legends in part because they became ingrained in the fabric of their respective clubs. However, the notion that players should, as a rule, reject offers from other clubs is patently ridiculous. Day was using the example of a Fulham legend who turned down better offers from bigger clubs to stay at Fulham. If anything, that seems to me like a lack of ambition. All players should seek the best for them and their careers. They should treat their fans and their clubs with as much respect as they deserve (which isn't necessarily as much as fans think they're entitled to.) At the end of their career, a footballer has to answer only to himself, and if he hasn't achieved at the highest level he could, it's hard not to see that as a bit of a failure. Darren Bent has spoken about Villa's attacking players, such as Young, Downing, and Albrighton, as a factor in his decision to come to the club. Some may see it as a sideways move, but clearly Bent thinks that Villa's future is bright. For all of our sakes, I hope he's right.

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