Week 13 – Decay and renaissance in the second city (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)
During one of my brain’s rare ventures away from football this past Saturday, I stumbled across an article in The Economist that headlined Birmingham as “Second city, second class”. Alongside a picture of the neoclassical Curzon Street railway station, a striking Roman-columned structure opened for business in 1838 but essentially left derelict after falling into disuse in the 20th century, came the damning tagline: “Britain’s largest city outside London is falling behind. It is a case study in the effects of over-centralisation and poor management”.
The writer goes on to introduce the city’s latter history of misfortune – the Birmingham Blitz from the Luftwaffe in 1940-43, an ill-conceived period of urban rebuilding, and late-20th century deindustrialisation – as well as the mixed success of its attempts to reinvent itself. But the raw numbers make for bleak reading:
“Despite an efflorescence of striking architecture, both old and modern, Britain’s second-biggest city is not doing well. Some 14% of the population is unemployed, the highest level in any big city in the country. In the inner-city wards of Aston and Washwood Heath, the figure is higher than 30%. Two-fifths of Birmingham’s population live in areas classified as in the 10% most deprived parts of England.”
While the photograph of the abandoned station was intended as a metaphor for the decline of Birmingham as a city, the entire piece could well serve as a metaphor for that of its most important football team, Aston Villa.
It is probably fair to say that Villa’s genuine glory years came before their now-impoverished home of Aston was incorporated into the county borough of Birmingham in 1911. (This timescale had given way to their nearest rivals’ controversial adoption of the title Birmingham Football Club (now Birmingham City) six years earlier; resulting in the curious status quo whereby the smaller of the two clubs has the larger place name, and vice versa.) Founder members of the Football League in 1888, Villa won six of their seven championships to date between 1893/94 and 1909/10, while the sixth of their seven FA Cup successes came in 1920.
As with the city, the second half of last century delivered yo-yoing fortunes. Post-war decline led to a two-year stint in the third tier in 1970-72, before a fabulous – but brief – renaissance saw the Villains crowned as champions of England then Europe a decade later. After relegation in 1987 then top flight title challenges in 1990 and 1993, the club has generally been able to enjoy some much-needed stability throughout the Premier League era – saving face with their London and Manchester rivals by at least remaining in the mix for Champions or Europa League places.
But then, with nation and city alike in the throes of recession, Villa were plunged into turmoil by the resignation of manager Martin O’Neill – who had secured European football for three straight seasons – on the eve of the 2010/11 campaign. Talk was that the Ulsterman had experienced his own ‘financial crisis’ when owner Randy Lerner realised that only being a billionaire in US dollars no longer meant all that much in a sport of sheikhs and oligarchs, so cut funding for transfers. Either way, what followed resembled the panicked short-termism of Birmingham’s post-war town planners and the backwards incompetence The Economist suggests has dogged the city since Lehman.
Gérard Houllier arrived from three years in the managerial wilderness for a single season characterised by questionable signings like Jean Makoun and 37-year-old Robert Pirès, flirtation with relegation, and a sad recurrence of Houllier’s heart problems that led to his withdrawal in April. His successor, Alex McLeish, had previously been popular with Villa fans purely because his boring brand of football had taken rivals Birmingham City down to the Championship; it shocked everyone when he was appointed in Aston and surprised no-one when he almost repeated the trick in finishing 16th.
However, like the Big City Plan which promises to finally rejuvenate Birmingham city centre with development worth a potential £10 billion plus 50,000 new jobs over the next two decades, there are now sustainable signs of hope at Villa Park. Paul Lambert, a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund in 1997, has been brought in after three fabulously successful seasons at Norwich City. Tasked with revamping the side, the Scot possesses a keen eye for young talent and has firmly placed his faith in the excellent Villa academy (a rare criticism of O’Neill was that he did not) plus a number of other gems recruited from outside. The new team on show for Saturday’s meeting with Manchester United – this Tuesday’s featured game on Foot! – had an average age of 24 and included five players who made their debuts this year.
Early season results have been difficult, and with Manchester City and Arsenal to follow, November may well be the cruellest month. But fans have plenty of reasons for optimism – not least the fluency and understanding with which the lineup’s various mini combinations have grown into Lambert’s 4-2-3-1. Ron Vlaar marshals the back four in imposing fashion. Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood combine defensive work rate with confident passing in midfield. Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stephen Ireland appear to have finally found their niches in a fluid three with Andreas Weimann. The physicality and lateral movement of Christian Benteke make him the ideal lone forward; not least since October’s World Cup qualifiers with Belgium have reawakened his goalscoring abilities.
Earlier this year, construction was approved for the new High Speed 2 railway – which will terminate at a restored Curzon Street in Birmingham. For Villa, too, the key is to keep faith with the future.
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