Right now, Aston Villa supporters all over the world are living in fear. Arguably, the two best players in the squad are leaving the club amidst the hiring of a new manager met with fierce opposition from a very vocal minority of fans. It's hard not to look at this in a vacuum and wonder how Aston Villa is supposed to compete for a place in Europe and maintain its so-called "big club" reputation when they simply can't keep hold of their best players. Even worse, these players are heading to the clubs that make up the dreaded "Big Four" - with Ashley Young off to Manchester United and Stewart Downing likely heading to Liverpool. So how are we, the fans, supposed to deal with this? Naturally, I'm suggesting a big picture approach. So breathe with me and let's try to think about this rationally.
Thankfully, it appears almost the entire fan base has to come to grips with the loss of Ashley Young. The writing's been on the wall for over a full season now. He's become a legend in his own mind and he's off to see glory with the biggest club in the world. Putting yourself in his shoes, what would you do? You're entering the prime of your career, you've had a few solid games for your country and Manchester United comes calling. It's nearly impossible to resist something like that. Barring injury, Young will play in the Champions League this season which is now the pinnacle of football competition worldwide, club or international. His new club will almost certainly be in fierce competition for another Premier League title. He may even end up going deep into the FA Cup. Let's face it, he is now in a position to add a lot of silverware to his personal accomplishments.
Without trying to tear down the club I love, Aston Villa is unfortunately not in a position right now to give Ashley those things. I think everyone knows this except the people who tried painting pretty pictures on the gates of Bodymoor Heath back on the 17th of June. When it comes down to it, Ashley Young simply doesn't have the time to wait a year or two (or more) to see it through with Villa. He's got to get his, so to speak, and lucky for him he's got it. Perhaps he'll become that much more motivated and we'll see the Ashley Young of two or three seasons ago return. With everything on the line he may revert to the focused and deadly player he was before he became complacent in Birmingham.
Stewart Downing's imminent departure is another story. It seems like a lot of piling on - especially when you consider up until about a month ago he had always declared himself willing to stay at Aston Villa and sign an extension. Suddenly, with an ailing Gerard Houllier's managerial future in doubt, when asked if he would sign to stay on at the club, the Aston Villa Player of the Year didn't sound so sure. Apparently, the Player of the Year award is a curse that can't be broken. Next year, I say we all vote for Emile Heskey since he'll be out of contract and ready to retire.
So the rumors are strong that Liverpool is about to offer Downing around £19 million to come ply his trade at Anfield. Sure, it was one thing for Ashley Young to leave for Manchester United - but this? With Young out of the picture it was going to be Albrighton finally getting his shot with Downing on the other side and Darren Bent would be the recipient of all kinds of beautiful passes. Many goals would be scored and all would be wonderful. Instead, it's back to square one.
But I ask you: is it really that unfair that he's anxious to flee? He's in the same boat as Ashley Young. He's getting into his late twenties and with European competition not exactly within arm's length right now he's got to look himself in the mirror and do what's best for him. Now, one can debate about the merits of going to Liverpool. They didn't exactly have a banner season last year and didn't qualify for Europe (thanks to a loss at Villa Park in the final week of last season). The big difference there is reputation and some stability at manager where Kenny Dalglish is going to stick around. Looking at the situation at Villa, Downing saw the writing on the wall (pun intended) and decided to explore his options.
Where does this leave Aston Villa? Rumors are swirling each and every day. We're hearing that out-of-favor defender Stephen Warnock is going to get a chance to prove his worth to Alex McLeish. We're hearing that winger Charles N'Zogbia is being hotly pursued as Ashley Young's replacement. It seems a foregone conclusion that Ben Foster will be the new keeper. There are a lot of young players that we've been clamoring for to get their chance. Perhaps now is the time for Barry Bannan to justify the love he gets from a large segment of the fan base. Maybe Marc Albrighton will continue his rapid progression into one of the better English wingers. Maybe he'll even learn how to defend a little bit. No? You're saying he'll never learn how to defend? Ok, fair enough.
It's easy to go ahead and get upset when two of the club's better players want to leave. I'm disappointed that Downing doesn't want to help get the club back to Europe. The fact is, he and Ashley have every right to feel the way they do and the bright side of it all is there is a lot of money coming back to the club because of it. Alex McLeish is a bit of an x-factor at this point because we don't know how he's going to spend a big boy budget now that's he's at a real football club. HIs record in Scotland, though, is impressive - both domestically and in European competition.
I'm not here to tell you that everything is going to be ok and that Aston Villa is going to push on for the title next season and prove those fleeing Birmingham wrong. I'm hoping to add a little perspective. When the management of a club is in as much flux as Aston Villa's has been ever since Martin O'Neill quit five days before last season, there is bound to be personnel problems. Love him or hate him, hopefully McLeish can at least build a group that wants to be here and help bring Aston Villa back to Europe sooner rather than later.
But if Darren Bent were to decide he wants out I give you full permission to burn this mother down.