This time last year, Aston Villa Football Club was starting to stagnate. James Milner was subject to a protracted and money-grubbing move to Manchester City, as we know, and has since faded into the faceless mass of entangled mercenaries (much like how a rat-king works, really) that is Abu Dhabi's finest export. Though few of us knew it at the time, those of us who caught some of the pre-season action (thinking particularly of the game against Bohemians in Dublin) suspected that something was amiss at Villa. A few short weeks later, the manager was gone; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, Milner can only be blamed for his part in the downfall, and likewise O’Neill. They were assets to the club, no doubt, but many had already started to doubt the manager’s wisdom, and Milner had only recently come to occupy a central midfield berth that was never, by rights, his. Stewart Downing – as much as the revisionists will now deny it – was the brightest spark in a dark, dark season. Ashley Young, on the other hand, faded into the background of almost every game (he improved, of course, once it was time to make his big move to the Champions).
Now, there is no doubting Young’s ability. Once upon a time, he was talismanic for the football club. The partnership he forged with John Carew was something special to behold, and who can forget that last-gasp winner at Everton? But the harsh reality is that, once Ashley Young got properly settled at Villa – once he heard he was ‘world class’ (thank Martin O’Neill for that) and realized it was much easier to draw a foul than beat a player – he lost his hunger. You could argue that playing for United will rekindle that hunger, but that will have to remain a moot point for now.
Meanwhile, one of Wigan’s prize assets, Charles N’Zogbia, seemed to never grow tired of the sub-mediocrity at WAFC. Quite the opposite, in fact: The only player who attempted more dribbles than N’Zogbia (301) in the top 5 European leagues was Messi (331). He is quick and skilful; he loves to run at defenders and get behind them, and he has a cannon of a left foot. For all their goals and assists, I do not think Downing or Young could ever be described as ‘cannons’. Maybe Stewart, given how quickly he launched himself to Anfield once Dalglish came sniffing.
Given Villa’s down-graded ambition – sorry, that is just the painful reality – it is a massive blessing that N’Zogbia wants to move down B6. Yes, you could point to the wages being lucrative (and still the best offer available to him, as he’ll get £50,000/w at Villa, which is more than Everton or Sunderland can stump for right now), but if it is were just the money he was concerned about, he could easily wait another year and join somebody else on a free for a massive sign-on fee and probably bigger wages: Another good season and Liverpool will be back in for him when Downing fails to be the difference between 6th and 4th, for instance. Even the likes of Spurs might take an interest when Harry needs new blood.
But N’Zogbia is on the cusp of signing for our great club instead. And for all the protests of the Villa fans – both physical and silent – McLeish’s role must be praised. There is a (perhaps unknown?) quality to the manager that ignites a certain excitement or attitude in the players. Ireland suddenly gives a damn, Bent is happy to talk up the club despite losing the best service he has ever had (either at club level or internationally), and Given has joined the club seeming hungrier than ever before, despite his age. The icing on the cake, given how little there is to spend, is surely Charles N’Zogbia: quick, ambitious, and most importantly – like Darren Bent but unlike Ashley Young – he is coming to us as he approaches the peak of his career.
The future is still bright. It is just a little more blurry.