How have you viewed Aston Villa's season so far?
It hasn't been pleasant, to say the least. A lot of early optimism gave way to the unpleasant realization that the relegation battles were not a fact a thing of the past, and the nightmare stretch in December that began with the now infamous 8-0 loss to Chelsea quashed any emerging hopes that things had finally turned around. A lot of what's lead to the season playing out this way has been coming for some time, and if Villa can manage to stay up I think things will improve quite a bit in the next few years. But at this point, that's a pretty big if.
You're in worse position than when McLeish was sacked. Have the fans turned on Paul Lambert or are they more understanding?
A lot of people--myself included--were excited when Paul Lambert was hired, and it went beyond the fact that his name wasn't Alex McLeish. Here was a young, up-and-coming manager with a proven record of outperforming expectations, a manager that believes that teams can't succeed by ignoring the stylistic evolution of top-level football. There's something of a misconception about the reasons behind Villa supporters never embracing McLeish; the narrative would lead people to believe that he was doomed to fail because of his Birmingham City connections, and though a small minority of Villa fans felt that way, most of us didn't want him hired because his teams play horrendous football and his transfer dealings since making the move to England have been underwhelming to say the very least. The results this season haven't been any better, but at the very least watching the team play has been several steps up from last season which often felt like punishment for some unknown crime.
Folks were willing to give Lambert a much longer leash, and the positive feelings surrounding his approach lasted for quite some time. But then December happened, and the grumbling began. The small but vocal minority of Villa fans that are unwilling to accept anything less than challenging for the title began to gain some traction with their protestations, and it's fair to say that at this point there's a great deal of skepticism that Lambert is capable of turning things around. From my perspective, I think that people are quite good at ignoring the context that's lead to Villa's current state--the massive financial losses, a horrendously inflated wage bill, Lambert inheriting a piecemeal squad constructed by three different managers with very different ideas on how to play the game--but there's certainly criticism to be directed Lambert's way. As I said earlier, if the gamble pays off and Villa manage to stay up this season, I think Lambert's approach will be largely justified. But it's a very risky approach, and if it fails then he has to take a healthy portion of the blame.
What are your views on Randy Lerner, is he still the right man to run the club?
That's a really tough question and there are three or four totally different answers that I could give that would all reflect how I feel at any given time. But in the interest of brevity, I'll put it this way; the problems the club is enduring right now have less to do with Lerner suddenly becoming an incompetent chairman and uninterested owner and more to do with a lot of very severe miscalculations he made in the early days of his time in charge. Lerner is a very wealthy man, but he's also a businessman and though I don't think he expects to make a profit off of Villa he's clearly unwilling to take massive financial hits year after year. Lerner went all-in on qualifying for the Champions League and gave Martin O'Neill a very hefty transfer budget in order to get there, and when the club continued to fall short and it was apparent that a whole lot of that money had been wasted on played such as Habib Beye and Curtis Davies, a belt tightening was in order. MON wanted no part of that, and things just kind of spiraled out of control from there.
O'Neill deserves some blame for being absolutely terrible at spending money, but ultimately it was Lerner that signed the checks. I think he's learned his lesson on that front, but in other ways he still seems quite naive in the way he goes about things. CEO Paul Faulkner has been given a tremendous amount of power, and though he seems quite good at the business side of things he's terrible at the football side of things. And really, that's what it comes down to. I have little doubt that, had Lerner brought in a competent technical director and a tactically strong manager at the beginning of his time in charge, this club would be in significantly better shape. That Villa have spent as much as they have on transfer fees and wages over the years Lerner has been in charge with so little to show for it is quite frankly an embarrassment.
So is Lerner the right man to run the club? I think he can be. But so much of that hinges on whether or not he's learned the right lessons from these past few years. If this current lean period in terms of investment is temporary and he's willing to spend money again--less recklessly, of course--once the club is on more stable footing, I'm happy to see him stay. But if his first few years in charge scared him off of spending, this probably isn't the right business for him.
Villa beat Reading in a fairly dour game earlier this season. What did you make of that game and of Reading?
That was one of the more unpleasant games of the last few years, and I'm still not entirely sure why. That was actually during one of Villa's better periods of the year, but for whatever reason it seemed as though they'd completely forgotten how to play the game that night. Reading were equally bad, but I've seen enough of them to know it wasn't really a fair representation of the team. It was just one of those nights where both teams were off their game, and I really hope we don't get another one on Saturday.
Who should Reading fans be worried about on Saturday?
Christian Benteke is the obvious answer. He's inconsistent as you might expect from a player of his age in their first Premier League season, but when he's on he's absolutely unplayable. Andreas Weimann in another player to keep an eye on; this has been something of a breakout season for Andi, and though his prone to let his emotions get the better of him at times, he's absolutely tireless and is nearly as good as Benteke at producing a goal out of nothing. It's also worth keeping an eye on Charles N'Zogbia, who's had a bit of a revival of late. He had a rough game against Manchester City last week, but prior to that he was on a run of fantastic form and looked like the player he was at Wigan for the first time since moving to Villa.
Anyone Villa fans are wary of?
I think Adam le Fondre is just an absolutely wonderful player, and I've enjoyed watching him all season long. He's also the kind of player that's given Villa fits this season, so I'm not really looking forward to seeing him on Saturday. Pavel Pogrebnyak is equally terrifying so it's a good thing he's suspended! I'm also a big Adrian Mariappa fan.
After nearly every strong Villa performance against good teams this season, the mantra has been "if we can play that well the rest of the season, we'll be fine." And it's true! Villa looked quite good against Manchester City last week, and against Arsenal the week before that. Unfortunately, Villa just haven't been able to play that well consistently against the teams they actually need to beat. If Good Villa take the pitch on Saturday, I think they'll win. If it's Regular Villa, I'd consider Reading to be the favorites.
So, in order to hedge my bets, I'll go with a 2-2 draw.
Where do you think both sides will end up come the end of the season?
I think the unfortunate reality at this point is that one of these two clubs will be going down this year. I'd have preferred it not turn out that way, as I certainly don't want to see Villa relegated as well as the fact that I like Reading and would love to see them stick around. But unless Newcastle, Southampton and Sunderland all fall to pieces over the next few weeks (which is possible, to be fair) then the current bottom four is going to be that way for the rest of the season. I still think Villa have enough to stay up, but I honestly don't know if I can really justify that belief with facts. I think at this point I just don't have much of a choice.
Thanks again to Aaron and you can follow the guys from 7500 to Holte on Twitter @7500toHolte