Paul Lambert isn't a popular figure among Villa fans these days. Once widely thought to be the man to bring Aston Villa back to the top six he's now up against it with fed up fans. His team hasn't been playing a very attractive style of football this season and injuries, though plentiful, aren't cutting it as an excuse.
Thankfully, the team was able to stop the bleeding however temporarily with a critical win at 20th place Sunderland. It's worth noting that the fans were not pleased with the way the points were earned. The blame for the style of play can be attributed to any number of reasons but Randy Lerner and Paul Faulkner aren't visible once or twice a week so Lambert receives the brunt of the fans' displeasure. This will continue until they either find good form via player acquisition or Lambert is relieved of his position.
That may be oversimplifying things a lot but that's the crux of it. And so, as a man who can't really afford to do anything other than take his own advice and put his head down and give it a right go it seems Lambert put his head into his own butt instead.
To summarize, when asked if the FA Cup (Villa take on Sheffield United in the 3rd round this weekend) was a distraction he said it was and that most managers would agree. He feels his squad is too thin to focus on anything other than staying up. This upset plenty of Villa fans who still feel that the FA Cup is a competition that should be held in high regard as one of the oldest and most entertaining parts of any football campaign. To win the FA Cup is generally considered a great achievement and certainly ticks off the "have you won anything lately" box that most fans crave to hold above the heads of their rival fans.
It's important to note the dissonance in fan reaction. English fans are understandably more bothered by this than some of the Villa fans on the American side of the Atlantic. For young kids in England the FA Cup is ingrained as a tournament where anything can happen and even the tiniest of minnows can get their shot at glory. Some lower league clubs end up hosting Premier League giants and making enough cash to keep their team out of administration. That's wonderful.
But the FA Cup can mean different things to different clubs and these things need to be put into context. Aston Villa may sit in 11th place but their grip on top flight safety is tenuous at best. Their next four league games are against Arsenal, Liverpool, West Brom, and Everton. There's not an easy point to be had. Perhaps there's another four game losing streak in there. If Paul Lambert is right about one thing it's this: Villa simply cannot afford to allocate important resources anywhere other than the league. If anyone can be rested against Sheffield United he's going to have to rest them.
In the modern era of gigantic television deals and oil barons and Vincent Tans, Aston Villa simply cannot afford to go down. If they did, expecting a quick season long saunter around the Championship followed by a glorious return would be foolish. The amount of money they'd lose would be staggering.
Did Lambert err by speaking honestly about his feelings on the competition? I'd argue that riling up the same fans that would have happily seen him sacked a couple of weeks ago isn't the smartest thing he could have done. At the same time, fans have been begging for the man to give a real answer to any question asked of him since his tenure began. I suppose if it's not the answer they want to hear it's meaningless.
The answers we all want to hear are these: Randy Lerner has opened up his checkbook and plans to pay for me to bring in all of your favorite players from Barcelona and Bayern Munich. My style has been dreadful this season and I plan to change that. We will focus on possession and lovely passing. You will all ooh and ahh as we whip the ball around the park with stunning accuracy and score tons of goals. We will stop losing at home and I will play the lineup you tweet out a few hours before the match while you stuff fried breakfast foods into your head.
Let's be real - Paul Lambert is never going to say that (especially the thing about breakfast). And it's highly possible we put way too much stock in his soundbites which are generally throw away nonsense. He deals with his players behind closed doors and we don't hear much about it. Since results have been less than ideal lately we assume his dealings with the players are bad and he's wrong.
While I do think Lambert could have chosen a better time to come out and give a real, genuine thought I do appreciate his candor and I think he's correct in his assessment. Survival is more important than silverware when you're a club in Villa's position. As I write this we learned that Libor Kozak is going to be lost for the season with a broken leg. There's more depth Lambert can't rely on unless he, as rumored, plans on bringing in a few new faces in the January window.
It's time for a lot of people to adjust their expectations. We've all hungered for a team that is going to challenge for a place in European competition since the end of Martin O'Neill's run as boss. It was not likely to happen this season and while a relegation scrap can still be avoided, it's probably best to direct all energy to that aim. Silverware probably isn't in the cards for this version of the claret and blues. It'd be great if it were - but much like Paul Lambert, I'm not sure some Villa fans are playing with a full deck.