I want to talk about derbies. "Why now?" I hear you cry. "Wasn't it bad enough that we had to watch ours last weekend?" Yeah, but I want to talk about it. Specifically, I want to talk about the one that Villa fans weren't watching. In case you still don't know, Newcastle thrashed Sunderland 5-1. Not to re-open old wounds, but I think that we're all rather familiar with Newcastle's ability to deliver a good old-fashioned beatdown, having suffered a 6-0 defeat at the very same stadium back in August. So what does Newcastle have that we don't? Goals, for one. They've got a +5 goal difference, while we're mired down at -4. They're only a couple points ahead of us, but the gap in the table tells a different story. There are 6 clubs between the two clubs. How did this happen?
Let me take you back a couple of seasons. Aston Villa was flying high, both Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor were nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, with Young actually winning the thing. Newcastle, however, were relegated in disgrace, a shambles of the great club that almost won a league title under Kevin Keegan and was a regular fixture in the Champions League around the turn of the millennium. They were stuck with a sideshow owner who was consistently acting out and trying to sell the club or fire the manager. Their biggest stars, oft-injured striker Michael Owen and stalwart goalkeeper Shay Given, both departed the club and can now be seen warming benches around Manchester. Chris Hughton, the man charged with taking Newcastle back up to the Premier League, had no real managerial experience.
Newcastle were able to find their way back up, which is great since they are a genuinely big club, but a lot of people still viewed them as a joke. But Steve Bruce sure as hell isn't laughing. Newcastle was consistently the better side, pushing forward in attack and pressing in defence. Andy Carroll, who is generally considered Newcastle's best player, harried up and down the pitch but never got on the scoresheet. Kevin Nolan, a good-but-not-great midfielder, scored three goals of genuine quality and Shola Ameobi, Carroll's thoroughly unremarkable strike partner, got two. I don't want to descend too far into what is surely an absurd comparison, but I thought there were some similarities between Newcastle's performance and Barcelona's 5-0 domination of Sevilla. Now, before you get too sceptical, I will say that Newcastle United are a far way from Barcelona in terms of quality. However, Newcastle was able to press up the pitch and spend a lot of time in Sunderland's half without seeming too troubled, which is how Barcelona worked against Sevilla.
Now, I have to ask again, what does Newcastle have that we don't? Say what you want about Gerard Houllier, but if you compare him to Chris Hughton, Houllier's accomplishments absolutely dwarf Hughton's. Ashley Young is, in my opinion, more talented than anyone at Newcastle United. He doesn't always perform to his potential, but for me there is no question that he would waltz into their starting eleven as their best player (not to tempt fate or anything.) Emile Heskey is a big target man in the style of Andy Carroll, and when he's on his game, is just as good as anyone at that particular role. The major difference for me, comes down to two factors. First is the difference between Kevin Nolan and Stephen Ireland.
Kevin Nolan is a talented midfielder. He was a staple at Bolton for a long time, and he captained Newcastle out of the Championship. However, the main difference between him and Ireland is their mentality. Let's keep in mind, Stephen Ireland was Manchester City's player of the year in 2008-09, over Brazilian internationals Robinho and Elano (who both started at the World Cup). He was nominated alongside Ash and Gabby for the Young Player of the Year award. So why isn't it all there? Giovanni Trapattoni, one of the most successful managers in the history of Serie A, has tried and failed on numerous occasions to convince Ireland to appear for the Irish national team. After our derby this weekend, Houllier expressed his frustration with Ireland. These frustrations are proof that Houllier can also see Ireland's true quality, because while he has not been good, he's been far from our worst player this season. But no one knows what to do with him. A lot of people thought that the move away from Manchester City's crowded squad would cure him of his difficulties, but it evidently hasn't changed anything. He was, at best, invisible during his debut (which was, coincidentally, the match against Newcastle), and he hasn't really progressed from there.
Building on the difficulties with Ireland, it seems like Villa has a genuine crisis of chemistry. Many pundits have pointed to Newcastle's relegation and subsequent promotion as a character-building exercise, which served to bring the club together (some more than others.) Of course I don't want Villa to get relegated, but it's looking like this club doesn't have any sort of collective spirit. The only time I've seen Villa's players look like they were enjoying their football was Milner's farewell match at the start of the season. The club has had a rough go over the beginning of the season, losing a manager and a key player, but if they can't find a way to pull together over the next couple matches (two winnable fixtures against Fulham and Blackpool), Manchester United could come to Villa Park and absolutely destroy us. And nobody wants to see that.