There are football teams that have heart. A group of players who, for whatever reason in any given season who have done well in spite of what the pundits predicted at the start of the season.

The fairy tale run for Leicester under Claudio Ranieri was one of those feel-good movies we all like to watch. Unfortunately, it was short lived and they fell back to form the following year. Paul Lambert’s Norwich, two promotions in a row.

And now Sheffield United, with a good chance to match that feat. Heart, when everything comes together, it’s wonderful.

But there is another quality that a few football teams have, and that is soul. An almost living,  breathing entity. A quality that takes decades to develop. Soul gives teams that mystical quality of being above the others regardless of their stature in the current season. A team that players would love to play for. Arsenal have it as does Barcelona. So it begs the question, does Aston Villa have it?

To me, they used to have it. I like to think it’s lying dormant right now and has been since the early 1980’s. Since the European Champions year of 1982. George Ramsay managed for 42 years. More that enough time to develop soul. Villa were the best.

Move into the modern era and other teams caught up on the playing field. Having Doug Ellis as chairman was the start of losing that mystical feeling. Entrepreneur Ellis was poison to Villa. When he was ousted from the club, Villa got its moxie back culminating in their greatest year. Those years between Ellis’s reign were managed by Ron Saunders and Tony Barton, both strikers by trade. Villa haven’t had a striker cum manager since. Doug Ellis returned and the soul of the club was put on hold until today.

Money was always a priority for Ellis: why else would Saunders quit? His discussion regarding his wages were for naught. Ellis sold players to make a buck. Not enough to drastically harm the team but enough to sow doubt into Villa’s position as one of the top teams to play for. The slow erosion of the team would have affected players still on the books. Then the hiring of managers who were midfielders or defenders in their playing days, brought in not to win but to keep the team in the top flight. That soul slowly ebbing away with the years. Just enough success to fill the stands.

When Lerner arrived he was considered a breath of fresh air. A more attack-minded manager was hired, players brought in, , state of the art training ground developed, a rise in the table, and European football was back–Villa was back. That soul was being revived.

Then it all went sideways. Monied men moved in and bought teams, expense was no object, and players became mercenaries. Soul became “how nice” in the big-money locker rooms. Lerner, despite his wealth didn’t step up his spending. Players got sold and a more pedestrian team evolved. Enough to stay in the Premier League. Decisions that took the spark from the players and team as a whole. (Agbonlahor’s state of mind I would think). Decisions that required managers who could plug the dam and stay up.

Lerner decided to sell, and true to his word tried to sell big before his asset-stripping dropped them a league. And then, you could see it, he thought to hell with it and didn’t do anything to stay up. Hung managers out to dry and put any soul to bed. Now we have Xia.

At first blush I was enthused. A manager I liked. A guy who scored a few from a midfield position. A Champions League winner. Money spent, players brought in with credentials. A team with a chance to bring back that aura–soul. A team to play for. 13 games later, it was not the well-oiled machine that was demanded and into the dustbin it went.

Steve Bruce came in, and to date has a success rate of 41%–practically the same as Saunders.

But something is missing. The allure, the suspense of something great about to happen isn’t there. Bruce has had a lot of success but he doesn’t stir the soul. I wouldn’t sack him but I want more from my team. Is it possible to regain the feeling of a storied, great team?

PS: Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have strikers as managers.

Comments 41

  1. Ian
    You have written an awesome leader for us.
    You’d do well working with underprivileged youth, Seems you have an eye for the intangible qualities unseen but nonetheless real.
    It is true, I believe, as you said that the soul and heart of a club take years or decades to develop. Unfortunately, it was eroded at Villa over a long period of time. Steve Bruce has talked about this phenomenon. I think many Villans believe Villa has the soul you speak of and cling on to that hope. I do. However, the soul isn’t healthy. Its fruits aren’t manifest. That’ll take ages to improve. I do think because Villa has generally great fans, the heart of the club is still there, even though, the faith has been tested. If the players and club get its act together, the fans will do their bit. Steve Bruce isn’t just talking through a hole in his head when he praises the fans. The fans are needed for the heart and soul of the club. Other clubs have been similarly affected in the era of great money.
    There’s so much food for thought in your leader, but I sound like a preacher…

  2. Quite true Ian; your post made it through the snow in Magna Bay! I was only commenting to my friend Iana along similar lines recently.
    What is needed to put the soul back in is a manager who has soul himself and we missed out on him. Here’s his CV:-
    Scarborough promoted to the Football League in 2 years, Notts County 2 promotions in successive years, Huddersfield promoted, Plymouth Argyle promoted, Sheffield United promoted to Premier League and Palace saved from relegation – now he’s working his magic at Cardiff plus to follow you analogy he was a winger.
    Only problem with Neil Warnock has been his tendency to wane after a period of success. But wouldn’t we have loved to go straight back up even if we had to look for a new manager 2 years later?

  3. Excellent article Ian. I’m in full agreement with its contents. So many of the great managers in my days were forwards. Brian Clough, Don Revie, Alex Ferguson. The exception was Bill Shankley who was a half back.

    I think our soul vanished with the money. As the sums went up so the soul went down. Just take Micah Richards for example. He will continue to just take the money for another season and a half yet. Whereas in the glory years Mortimer said the team was just one happy family. That team had soul.

    Like most, when Lerner replaced Herbert I was excited, thinking nobody could be as bad. My feelings changed when I started thinking the Lerner family (coming from a credit card company background) were used to getting 18% return on their luker. Having sold the company to then buy Villa, I thought he was happy to pour money into Villa and charge them a similar percentage interest on it. I mean, where else was he going to get that kind of return on his investment? When that became a problem, everything seemed to change in a heartbeat.

    Now we have Dr X. He is no doubt also after the money. However, to get it he does need his team in the Prem and keep them there, so there is a driving force at play. And it can be achieved with a team that has soul. Which is why I bang on about playing the kids because that is where you currently find it. As a team matures it becomes a case of keeping its soul which only some teams manage.

  4. Great post, Ian, and puts the finger on what I’d been feeling and trying to articulate…A lack of spark, as you said in the previous thread.

    I really don’t know what to put it down to. I understand what the club’s gone through, and never really bought the ‘hangover’ diagnosis. Not that it didn’t have merit. Just didn’t seem to be reflected in the only players left who you would think would exhibit it most: the ‘kids’.

    But in looking at a hollowed-out club with no sense of itself, the lack of identity and belief is often palpable on the pitch. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been more inclined than any time in the past to integrate more of the young players. They have a connection to the club. To many of the ones we’ve brought in, the club is a vehicle.

    That said, Xia’s mandate has left little room for growing anything up.

  5. You’re right John. I think the reins are so tight with a short timeline and expectations that Bruce, even though he’s conservative is a bit hamstrung.

  6. Ian: “Money was always a priority for Ellis: why else would Saunders quit? …”

    Sorry, to be a pedant in bringing them up.I have to but in here on some historical issues. 🙂

    I agree with the general tenor of your argument, Ian, but as I’ve said before, there are misapprehensions about Ellis that are carried on in your interesting piece.

    The major issue is the inference that there was something that Saunders couldn’t get from Ellis that caused him to go. First thing was that Ellis was not i.c. when Saunders left! Secondly the Villa players were already on the best wages in the country at the time; thirdly that the club was moving towards a financial decline at the time (despite great success), mainly because of Midlands’ recession – *before* Eliis returned later in 1982.

    Ellis’s predecessors (the board that you applaud) also mismanaged the finances to help Villa get their success of that time, including overseeing the fiasco of the North Stand.

    And people always talk about Ellis and his control over wages! Liverpool seem to have had a worse reputation, yet they still achieved remarkable success. Their success surely proves that the wages component back in the 70s and 80s was not the main issue in achieving success. And neither were the Liverpool managers former centre-forwards!

    But Saunders was born in Liverpool, so that may explain somethingl! 🙂

    Also, Ramsay “managed” for 40 years, not 42. But it’s important to emphasise that he was the major on-going influence for 50 years, from the time he arrived in 1876. He was the great inspiration behind Villa’s success, in partnership with other generals that followed.

    Why not get a copy of my book? 😀 You might even enjoy it.

  7. Hello JL.
    Nice to see you again. Where have you been hiding? Have you been hanging out with Odd Villa, drinking fine wines and eating fine cheeses, muffin and pates in Switzerland?

  8. I remember watching Herbert roll up to VP in a big posh Bently, which he is entitled to do, just thought it looked out of place and out of touch. At least, I suppose, he attended many matches, better than Lerner. I see Chairman Xia will attend a couple of matches soon. Oh! the pressure.

  9. Excellent article Ian,
    which hits on the points that are relevant to the Villa team of today.

    Great to see you back keeping us on our toes JL.

    I feel the true Villa spirit among the players started to disappear after the Mortimer era. It has been a long time since players wanted to specifically come and play for the Villa, apart from of course the long list of over the hill players looking for a final pay day, and the odd youngster who thought he could further his career.
    Then eventually came the Lambert era, where our players, both first team and youth players, were not good enough, and any remaining soul or spirit was removed from the club, as we brought in young players that were not ready, or just not good enough.

    Any hope of salvation was gone by the time of Remi Garde, without the full backing of the CEO and the board, and now we languish as an overpaid bang average side in the Championship, having lost our one major hope of salvation in John Terry.

    I did not think that Terry would have the huge impact on the team that he has had, but did feel when it was a possibility , that he would be beneficial to Villa. We must hope and pray now that Chester can step up to the mark as captain, assisted by Terry and the Jedi. I do not want Bruce to fail, but he now has a huge task on his hands to move Villa forward.

  10. Nice article Ian thanks,
    Can’t say I Know how to put the soul back in the team but a bit of excitement and a more forward thinking direction wouldn’t go amiss. Seems like we have Bruce and should be grateful but ultimately Know he’s not likely to be here long? As he isn’t likely to survive if we don’t go up its all a bit fraught at present for him and us. All of this could improve with better use of the talent we have IMO.

  11. a well bruce has plenty excuses if we lose to qpr
    hogan injured on international duty out for a spell
    kodja who wasnt fit for last match before break gets reinjured for his country so he is out for another spell
    as terry was injured in last match bruce has not partner for chester

  12. JG
    bruce has plenty excuses if we lose to qpr

    And he won’t waste any time using them either. In my book SB shouldn’t be relying on players returning from international duty as he can’t guarantee fitness or suitable prep.

    As it stands, Codger and Hogan may not be a miss this weekend because I think he should only play 1 up front against QPR and I hope Davis is fit to last 90 mins. But they will be a miss going forward. It’s an opportunity for some of our kids to be given a chance. It’ll be interesting (and revealing) to see who he partners with Chester.

  13. It’s time to put a stop to international play. All these qualification rounds aren’t necessary. The cost of injured players screws up all league play. It’s like getting a red card with the uncertainty of 3games off. Honestly, international week just pisses me off.

    Here’s my back 4: Mercedes, Volvo, Citroen, and Blue Bird. Just have to pick a colour now.

    This beyond ridiculous (injuries) and would have me flummoxed. All of Bruce’s cards are on the floor and it’s a game of 52 pick up now. Working on excuses not game plan and this feeling will be picked up by the players.

    Don’t worry about a result and give youth and fringe players a run out in an attacking game.

  14. Yeah, Ian. Just use youth and fringe players to deliver QBR a broadside. Nevermind the timid approach.
    I think there are too many international games. I agree that tired international players should be stood down. SB has a big quality squad at his disposal.

  15. Plug
    I agree that at Loftus one up front is the way to go. Good call on the international players.

    JG- Hogan won’t score many goals under SB. While injured, he’ll need to keep the weight off, looks like body type that gains easily.
    Kodjia being injured too will mean more youth, surely. And in the mean-time, RMC is having fun in the sun.

  16. iana
    kind of scared of tomorrow line up can see bruce going
    elmo hutton chester taylor
    snodgrass whelan houriane bree adoamh
    davies [with samba at half time]

  17. JG
    That lineup wouldn’t surprise me either. O’Hare might get a run, SB seems genuinely happy with him. I’m hoping SB is thinking that draws aren’t going to cut it, even away.

  18. This is a time this weekend, when we will see the direction & potential from the management as to the limitations & positives that we will have to look forward to for the future.

    I don’t believe that we can do anything other than go positive & include the kids more in this part of the season to maintain some of the momentum & belief, without damaging the end third of the season.
    Digging in cautiously & relying on the transfer window to get momentum to gain back ground in the table would be a mistake with possibly negative results in the efforts to get promoted.

    I’m not saying to go gung ho or win or bust, but the direction should be one of positivity & of trusting the younger players in the squad, including the learning curve that may happen, as it could be more freeing than inhibiting.
    If he plays the older players who are carrying injuries instead of the younger players, then we know what to expect [again]

    I’m going to predict 2-1 to the villa with plenty of squashing the opposition involved

  19. Hello folks I think we still have more than enough to put up a fight.


    elmo Chester Samba Taylor


    Adomah hourihane Onamah Grealish


    Bench: Mckirdy Hutton Delaet Ohare Lyden steer snodgrass

    Thats still a healthy line for me and I could change that to more defensive with One sub while still having players to cover most possibilities. No Wheelan but can’t fit him in when I look at the options we have with more speed and legs than him.

  20. Ian, a wonderful leader,great writing.
    Mark are you mad?This is SB we are talking about.
    Grealish on bench until we are 1 nil down.
    A loss today I fear.
    Do I hope I am wrong?Yep,would love to be.
    Samba,a liability,injury prone.
    Mark love your selection,but too much creativity there,would be stunned if that was spot on.

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