Optimism has been in pretty short supply at Aston Villa over the past couple of years.
It seems so long ago now, but Villa actually finished sixth three seasons in a row between 2007/08 and 2009/10. Champions League football was even mentioned in dispatches back then but ultimately the club had to settle for ‘just’ Europa League qualification. The dates and times that these finishes took place do sound vaguely recent, but to Villa fans they must seem like decades ago – perhaps even alongside the club’s European Cup win in 1982. So, so much has changed.
Largely they have changed for the worse, as a season of mediocrity under Gerard Houllier was then followed by a campaign under the disliked Alex McLeish which made Houllier’s look good.
In the summer, Paul Lambert entered a club who had just finished two points and two places above the relegation zone. Had the bounce of a ball here or a shot off the post there been slightly different then the Premier League might now have only six clubs who have been ever-present during its 20 year history and not seven. Villa could have easily gone down.
They could easily go down this season if you believed what many pundits and observers were saying both back in the summer and when Lambert got off to a poor start with only one win in his first nine league games, but things were slowly starting to take a turn for the better before Saturday’s trip to Anfield where they suddenly hit fast forward.
Villa’s young side were excellent at the weekend.
It is no great achievement to soak up the pressure that Liverpool’s frequently toothless side put on you on their home ground, but to combine that with the attacking prowess that Villa showed in scoring three goals showed that things are beginning to come together for Lambert’s men.
Whilst a young back four of Matthew Lowton, Ciaran Clark, Eric Lichaj and Nathan Baker did excellently at one end to shackle Luis Suarez and company, it was left to Andreas Weimann and the brute force of Christian Benteke to flatten Liverpool at the other. This wasn’t a smash and grab, it was far more perfectly executed than that.
And the key thing about it was that it was achieved with such a young team. Take out the goalkeeper Brad Guzan and the average age of Villa’s outfield players was under 23. In a season when we have heard much about Liverpool’s youngsters here were Villa’s flattening the Reds on their own ground.
As with all young teams there will be the bad days as well as the good – with Sunday’s visit to Chelsea hardly one to look forward to – but Villa will take confidence and belief there following a run of five league matches unbeaten since they were hammered 5-0 by Manchester City last month. Throw in a 4-1 Capital One Cup win over an in-form Norwich and suddenly Lambert might be targeting a positive result at Stamford Bridge.
Wins like that can wait though, especially with such a young side, and whilst caution should be urged given that Villa are still just three points off the bottom three and facing Tottenham after they play Chelsea those first flickers of optimism should be returning to supporters’ faces.
This will still be a slow process no matter how many times they can pull off wins like Saturday’s, how many goals Benteke scores or how many blocks their fearless back four can make, but at least Villa fans can acknowledge that it is finally a process. After a couple of years of stagnation things appear to be moving again.
Whether Villa will get to the heights they used to reach remains to be seen, but it promises to be fun watching them try.