I remember that morning oh so well.
It was a football Saturday (of the American type) at Notre Dame, one of the most magical settings in sports. Oklahoma was in town, too, for a matchup between two of college football’s most storied programs.
I was a freshman, so when my friends were headed off to the dining hall to grab lunch a little after the second half had restarted, well, I wasn’t really trying to eat by myself. So instead, I sat down, fired up my phone and turned to the stream. Villa were 2-1 down to Manchester City. No way back, right?
Leandro Bacuna spent more than four years at Aston Villa. Yet nothing he did topped this, a wonder free kick in his fourth league game in the claret and blue colours. A couple minutes later, Andi Weimann scored my favourite goal ever, and Villa shocked the would-be champions, 3-2.
This Aston Villa team was supposed to be the one that pulled the club out of the relegation battles, survived comfortably, and then pushed on, chasing after the European spots within the next season or two. It might have been the counterattack, but there was a true identity again at Villa Park, a side that was incredibly comfortable with, and perfectly built to, the tactics it was employing.
And that day against Manchester City, a who’s who of young, promising Villans saw the pitch. Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark, 22- and 24-year-old academy graduates, helped Ron Vlaar in the centre of defence. Bacuna and Antonio Luna, both 22-year-old recent additions, played as wing backs. Fabian Delph, 23, and Yacouba Sylla, 22, played alongside veteran Karim El Ahmadi in the middle of the park. Weimann was the fifth 22-year-old in the XI that day, joined by Libor Kozak, a relative old man at 24. Paul Lambert made one sub: Jordan Bowery, 22.
Twelve Villans played a part in that great victory, nine of which were age 24 or younger. But one by one, the young men who were supposed to form a long-term core at Villa started moving away.
A lot of it started after Villa limped to the finish line to close the 2014 season. Bowery left on a permanent deal to Rotherham United that summer, while Luna and Sylla started their processes away with loan deals to Hellas Verona and Kayseri Erciyesspor. They were joined by Nicklas Helenius and Aleksandar Tonev, signed the previous summer alongside Luna and Bacuna as part of a promising set of arrivals.
The next summer, the exodus continued — after their manager was sent packing the previous winter. All four of those loanees left the club permanently in 2015, and they were joined out the door by Matt Lowton and Weimann, two players who never panned out the way we’d hoped. And the two guys who did pan out? They both left, too: Delph and Christian Benteke left Villa within five days of each other, decimating the club’s core.
Ciaran Clark, Joe Bennett and Jores Okore left before Villa’s Championship campaign kicked off last year; Ashley Westwood left in the winter.
A month ago, Villa were left with just two players who appeared in that win.
Baker left recently. Bacuna will do the same soon.
Aston Villa 3, Manchester City 2.
Go back to that day and tell yourself Weimann and Bacuna and Baker wouldn’t turn out. That in fewer than four years, the only man who made that day’s 18 left at Villa would be Jed Steer. And that we’d be sitting in the Championship, on the heels of a 13th-placed finish. (Alright, maybe that bit is believable.)
In his four years at Villa, Leandro Bacuna was a lot of things. He was a bit of a Swiss Army knife, something that almost certainly hindered his development, a free-kick specialist, but more than anything as time went on, a convenient scapegoat.
And he was also damn near the last remnant of the Paul Lambert era.
As near every other one of Lambert’s signings came, mostly flopped, then went, Bacuna was there, plugging away wherever Villa needed him, turning in bang average performances. In so many ways, he was the perfect representation of the Paul Lambert era at B6.
When Bacuna came, there were flashes of greatness; he played in all but three Premier League matches, bagging five goals in his maiden season — a great return for a midfielder/defender who cost just £800,000. But just like that Villa team, he never pushed on, the quality of performance seemingly slipping from week to week.
With Bacuna’s move, the Paul Lambert era finally, truly, disappears into the rear view mirror. What’s done is done, and what’s lost is lost. There’s too much optimism around the club right now, too talented of a squad ready to take the Championship by storm to fret about things players said or decisions managers made years ago.
As the most popular song at B6 reminds us, don’t look back in anger.
At least not today.