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LeBron James, Cleveland, and Aston Villa: A story to rekindle hope

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Despite suffering an unpredicted season of embarrassment and humiliation on the road to relegation and obscurity, I believe Villa fans should retain hope. The story of the Cleveland Cavaliers and fearless leader LeBron James makes me confident that Villa will return to the European nights it so deserves.

LeBron James and his teammates stand in awe of the Larry O'Brien trophy as they capture the first professional sports championship in Cleveland for 64 years.
LeBron James and his teammates stand in awe of the Larry O'Brien trophy as they capture the first professional sports championship in Cleveland for 64 years.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Just over 6 years ago, July 8th 2010, the city of Cleveland was collectively stunned. We sat betrayed and numb as the prodigal son, the man whose face once defined the city, announced on national television he was moving on. "I'm taking my talents to South Beach" were words that will still forever live in infamy in Cleveland sports. With one stinging sentence, LeBron's years of success were forgotten. At once, nobody could or would remember the incredible seasons LeBron led the Cavaliers to over the past 7 years. Born and raised within shouting distance of downtown Cleveland, LeBron became the Cavaliers; the Cavaliers became LeBron.

Aston Villa, a founding member of the original Football League and later a founding member of the Premier League, is a staple of English football. Perhaps it's no longer accurate to proclaim Aston Villa to be English football and English football to be Aston Villa, but something along those lines still holds validity. To see a Premier League table without Aston Villa seems strange and foreign just as it seemed so foreign to see LeBron don a Miami Heat jersey, not the Cavaliers script we were so used to. But, 6 years later, those struggles seem so far removed that they almost aren't worth thinking about.

4 years after the unthinkable, the Cavaliers' former identity was reestablished. LeBron had embarrassed his city only 4 years earlier, but he returned home as a god amongst men. All the dysfunction that compounded upon itself during the last few months of LeBron's first tenure in Cleveland were addressed as LeBron lived the high life in South Beach. A team structure in which LeBron was surrounded by marginal role players and expected to carry the entire load was thrown out the window. Instead, during his absence, the Cavaliers laid down the framework for a sustainable model. Most notably, this framework saw the Cavs draft Kyrie Irving, the man who made "the shot" that thrusted a championship into Cleveland's grasp. Paradoxically, if LeBron had stayed in Cleveland 6 years ago it's very likely Cleveland's drought would continue to this day. Without circumstances that forced drastic recalibration and change, LeBron would have stayed in Cleveland for a few more years, realized the model was flawed beyond repair, and left for good, never to return.

Instead, LeBron left. He matured, he let the Cavaliers get their house in order, he learned how to lead a team to its ultimate goal. Somehow, when all was said and done, the collective and unbearable pain our whole city felt that summer night 6 years ago turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Cleveland.

I think the analogy between LeBron's departure from Cleveland and Aston Villa's departure from the Premier League is clear. Just as LeBron's departure seemed like an insurmountable setback, I felt a few months ago that Villa's imminent relegation and humiliating season would be something impossible to come back from. But, a few weeks ago, my fears were eased. Downtown Cleveland gathered together and came alive one fateful Sunday night as LeBron led his men into an all-or-nothing game 7. A few days earlier, the Cavaliers had fallen into a 3-1 hole against a team that hadn't lost 3 games in a row all season, and needed just one of the next three to claim successive titles. A narrative worthy of the famous Premier League script writers unfolded that Father's Day night. All of LeBron's willpower, all of his teammates' willpower, and all of Cleveland's willpower helped the Cavaliers limp over the finish line to complete one of the greatest stories in modern sports.

Your turn, Villa. The inevitable failures of the Lerner regime are gone. The reset button has been pushed. I have confidence in the history of Villa, the culture of dominance, the legacy of Champions. Just as Cleveland was once a great sports town whose woes were only cured after the lowest of all lows, so too I believe Villa's woes of mediocrity and forgettability in the bottom half of the Premier League table will be left behind after one of the worst campaigns by any team in the Premier League era. The future is bright, Villa fans. I've seen a movie eerily similar to this before.