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Tottenham’s impressive deconstruction of Stoke City was that of a team threatening to display their championship groove - this column mentioned last week the importance of Spurs overcoming nerves in order to accomplish the perfect sequence of results that would be necessary if Leicester City even achieved par with the corresponding results last season.
As it transpired, Leicester are down two points on last season’s equivalent, having drawn against West Ham on Sunday whereas they won last season. And it opened the door for Spurs to sow the seed of doubt into those minds who had already declared the most unlikely certainty.
But this past weekend saw the first certainty from this season’s utterly unpredictable timeline; Aston Villa were relegated at Old Trafford after another pretty poor display, albeit with a spirited finish. If there were ever opponents for Villa to look better than they have been this season, to look as if they were relegated with a bit of fight, then it was Manchester United - a team struggling so badly with its own identity crisis that it was hard to tell whose fans were the most disappointed leaving the ground on Saturday afternoon.
United fans are still hoping for the dismissal of Louis van Gaal despite it being almost certain he will remain until the summer at this point. Villa have joined the list of many teams who make risky managerial changes that don’t pay off; that’s not to say Tim Sherwood would have turned it around, but the appointment of Remi Garde ticked every stereotype of a team who knew they were doomed.
At one point under Martin O’Neill and Randy Lerner, there was the promise of greater things - that relationship turned sour, O’Neill left, and Lerner lost interest. Villa represent everything bad about something that is left to rot; and one cannot help but feel for supporters who have suffered continuous heartbreak this season. This feels like the inevitable conclusion of a three or four year spell where barely anything has gone right at the club.
It seems as if players have been coasting on their reputations and huge salaries; the problem with acquiring former squad players of high achieving squads in the modern era is that it becomes difficult to ascertain if they have the requisite fight for a team struggling at the wrong end of the table. What’s their motivation, their incentive, if they stand to make millions anyway? That’s why some players would be better advised to keep their counsel instead of repeatedly putting their foot in their mouth. It adds insult to injury.
The likes of Joleon Lescott will likely not be around for the fight to return and you suspect most supporters will say good riddance. He is representative of a group of players who Villa probably need to let go in order to rebuild, and, in that sense, you wonder if relegation was a necessary evil in terms of providing an opportunity to clear the deadwood and start to move forward.
Interesting parallels can be drawn with their past because if their previous two relegations are anything to go by, it actually has served as a springboard for immediately better times. The last time, they were promoted and became title challengers under Ron Atkinson in the early Premier League era.
When they were promoted in 1975, they went one (or two) better and became First Division Champions in 1981, winning the European Cup in 1982. Is it realistic to suggest a similar return to glory? Probably not, but if Leicester City have done anything for football, it’s to ignite the dreamers amongst each and every supporter in the top division, an insight into what can be achieved if the commitment levels are at 100%.
Villa were joined in promotion in 1975 by Manchester United who are in need of a similar renaissance; it may be a step too unrealistic to suggest relegation would be a good thing, but the Red Devils are also arguably in worse shape than they were when they went down in 1974 in terms of regeneration.
Back then, Tommy Docherty had most of the tools, but just needed a potent goal supply and for his team to get the confidence that is only generated by the momentum of winning.
It is easy to forget that it was only a short time ago that Manchester United would have ground out results like Saturday’s with their eyes shut; uninspiring 1-0 wins were hardly rare even in the glittering Ferguson era, but they were part of a greater routine rather than representative of a greater malaise.
Change has been necessary and overdue since Christmas and, if Jose Mourinho is to be appointed manager as expected, question marks will still remain as to why a man who has allegedly clearly coveted the managerial position at United since he was relieved of his duties at Chelsea was kept out of a job until the summer. It suggests that the men at the top were satisfied to let this season peter out from December and that provokes more than just a scratch of the head.
It also presents a worryingly familiar disconnect with the reality of the game that United fans will surely empathise with Villa supporters but what are they to do? As the movie Slacker said (and was later quoted by REM), withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy, and apathetic is probably the most accurate description of how United supporters have approached games in the second half of this season; there is no expectation that they will be entertained, no real hope of the top four despite their closeness to Arsenal and Man City, and on a game by game basis, fans spend their time tallying the oddities, such as full-back switches or bizarre substitutions.
The only hope comes in the FA Cup, where the unpredictability of United’s form counts for them in the eyes of supporters. And the identity of likely opponents, who United should be expected to beat, presents the real possibility of silverware. So, could fans then look back to the FA Cup win in 1990, as a catalyst for an upturn in fortunes? Even the win in 1977, which came soon after the relegation and promotion, which suggested greater times were round the corner.
In 1977, weeks after winning the FA Cup, United sacked Docherty and their progress stagnated. A similar situation this time around would bring as much joy as it did bring disbelief back then; and United could ironically bring in a man who is very much the modern equivalent of the Doc (though Docherty himself stubbornly rejects this idea). Mourinho is abrasive, charismatic, divisive and a winner. Docherty recalls that when he was hired at United, he walked alone onto the Old Trafford pitch and hummed the rhyme ‘you were made for me’. You could say the same for a certain unemployed Portuguese manager.
Problems will still exist at two of English football’s biggest clubs but despite the despondency that was felt collectively at the end of Saturday’s game, you have to feel that the summer will bring genuine renewed optimism.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.