A Race to the Bottom: Villa’s Five Team Table

(Photo Credit Getty Images)

(Photo Credit Getty Images)

Another week and another much needed win for Aston Villa Football Club. The once moribund club has seen a resurgence under the eternally enthusiastic and exuberant Tim Sherwood, and it looks like Villa might just survive this season and give themselves a chance to achieve full mediocrity (good Lord what a delight that would be after this year) next season.

Over the last couple months Sherwood has taken a club which we all knew had more than enough talent to not just survive but succeed in the Premier League (but one which was horrendously devoid of confidence and energy) and finally got them to perform at the level we all knew they could. First and foremost among these player resurgences is the revival of Belgian Wunder-Striker Christian Benteke.

Benteke netted another two goals against Everton last weekend bringing his season tally to 12. This puts him staunchly in the League’s top 10 goal scorers (caught up in a 3 way tie for 8th actually) which only becomes more impressive when you realize that 9 of these have come in the last SEVEN games. Those are insane numbers. I don’t know what exactly Sherwood did, but whatever sorcery he employed on the brooding, sulky Belgian is much appreciated. Villa has gone from a team on pace to score the lowest goal total in Premier League history to a wide open flowing offence with the addition of Sherwood as manager.

And it isn’t just Benteke either. Delph’s play has shot up to top form in short order, and he currently looks like one of the best midfielders in the Premiership, and certainly the best midfielder on the English National Team. Tom Cleverley has recovered his long lost form with Sherwood’s blessing to embrace the kind of quick paced one touch football that compliments Cleverley’s game so well, and the Manchester United Loanee has netted two goals in his last two games. The defense has certainly suffered with the loss of Lambert’s discipline (along with injuries ravaging the back line) but the new Villa, Sherwood’s Villa, at least look like they want to go down swinging.

(Photo Credit: Kieran McManus via Daily Mail)

(Photo Credit: Kieran McManus via Daily Mail)

And hell, with this new style its looking more and more like they won’t go down at all at this point. Unfortunately, however, even after last weeks stellar victory, Villa don’t find themselves out of the woods just yet. Villa wasn’t the only bottom dweller to pick up points in a much needed upset last weekend as Sunderland pulled off a truly shocking upset over Southampton last weekend. This coupled with Leicester’s absolutely preposterous resurgence means that even though Villa has risen to 14th in the League Table, they’re still only 2 points out from relegation.

crappy 5 team table graphic

As my terrible MS Paint graphics will illustrate, moreover, Villa can more or less kiss an rise higher than 14th (or lower than 18th) goodbye. QPR and Burnley appear doomed to go down and Everton (in spite of the terrible form they were in last weekend) Crystal Palace (Fire Pardew!!) and sadly West Brom are all likely out of Villa’s reach now. The only thing left that matters, however, is that the Villans avoid relegation. And joining them in that endeavor, then, are apparently 4 other clubs.

Aston Villa are essentially now part of a 5 team table consisting of Villa, Newcastle, Leicester, Hull, and Sunderland. Of that bunch Villa are far and away the best team in my opinion. Leicester are certainly on a tear, and honestly I think they’ll finish ahead of us, but Newcastle is absolutely imploding, Sunderland may have dug themselves a hole too deep to crawl out of, and Hull, although not struggling per se, certainly don’t appear to be in as good of form as Villa.

In the end, then, I think (and hope) Villa will be safe this year and earn a chance to try again next season. However, I can’t help remembering that a very similar scenario was placed in front of Villa last season as well. Somehow in spite of the talent the club has been able to accumulate of late (major credit to Lambert there of course) they continually find themselves in a relegation battle to the end the season. This club is clearly sick, and while I’m certainly happy to see them turn things around at the end of the season here I can’t help but fear for the future.

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

Sherwood was undeniably the right hire to save the club this season and wake up the team’s sleepwalking locker room. However, several important roster decisions loom this offseason and Villa are new led by a man who has never once in his entire career signed a player. Lambert had undeniably lost the team and needed to go, but he was even keeled and an experienced manager on the business side of things. Sherwood is what this team needed on the field this year, but I worry that combining him with the disinterested Randy Lerner this offseason may be a recipe for disaster. Sherwood may be saving the team only to watch it fall flat next season.

Things may very well get better, but nothing will be “fixed” until Lerner manages to sell the club. Now, I’m not one of those people asking him to slash the price so that ANYONE (including someone who ALSO lacks money to pump into the roster) can buy the club, but I do hope that sooner than later this team can restore the excitement level from the top down, rather than relying on an excitable manager prone to pushing his club to simple mistakes and mental collapses. I am incredibly happy to see the way the club has come back to life to end this season, but I was equally happy to see them survive last season. I just want this attempt at redemption to stick. This season may have turned around, just like last season’s did, but if things don’t change at the top, Villa’s race to the bottom will continue in perpetuity.

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Too Good To Go Down: Dreading the Finish Line with Aston Villa

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

So my first full season following The Villa is coming to a nail-biting conclusion, and I can wholeheartedly assure you that the results have been anything but what I expected. After Villa’s excellent start to the season I was expecting a staunchly mid table performance from the club which would give me amble time to familiarize myself with the Premier League without too much tension. Instead I now find myself sitting 4 games out from the end of the season with Villa only 2 points removed from relegation. Considering the fact that to start the season one of my beloved Men in Blazers (Michael Davies) chose Villa as one of his 3 preseason picks to get relegated, I probably should have been more prepared for a rocky ride, but I wasn’t. But in spite of it all I can’t help but attach myself to one pig-headed conclusion: this team is too good to go down.

And thankfully, that seems to be a point that many pundits are making too. And don’t confuse this with the nonsensical mantra I heard from many Villa fans during the worst parts of this season; that the club is too Big to go down. Newcastle taught us that that doesn’t matter in 2009 when they were shockingly relegated. But that isn’t what we’re talking about here. Rather, this Villa team is absolutely loaded with Premier League Caliber talent as evidenced by the fact that they just beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Semi-Finals and will be taking on Arsenal May 30th at Wembley with a chance to take home the Cup.

(Photo Credit: Glyn Kirk, AFP)

(Photo Credit: Glyn Kirk, AFP)

Those late season, on the field performances justified this notion, but in all honesty this proof wasn’t even necessary for me personally. Let’s rewind for just a second and discuss. Say what you will about Paul Lambert as a coach. This season the team had clearly quit on him meaning he needed to go. However, the guy is an absolute dream when it comes to player acquisitions. Not only did Lambert have a spectacular eye for talent, he was also a shrewd business man capable of operating within Randy Lerner’s increasingly finite financial restrictions on the club. Time and again throughout his tenure Lambert brought in excellent young players or cagey veterans alike, but always on bargain deals good for the club and for the disinterested owner.

Image via Getty Images

Image via Getty Images

This season was no different as, during the January Transfer Window Lambert not only managed to bring in the electric (though now sadly unused) Carles Gil in an attempt to revitalize the Villa offense (which he temporarily did practically single-handedly), but also a versatile and much needed winger in Scott Sinclair who is still in the prime of his career. Add to that the fact that he shrewdly avoided paying an inflated fee to keep the then under-performing Tom Cleverley AND stuck to his guns to keep the price down on Sinclair as well, and you had yet another superb example of Lambert’s expert ability to bring in Premier League talent at under-market value prices. An excessively important skill at a club with an ownership situation like the one Villa has.

Now, none of that helped the team win. I understand that. This same roster which is undeniably stocked with quality players (Delph and Cleverley have earned caps for the English National team, Benteke is a beast who still hasn’t even discovered the full depth of his abilities, Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore are a talented burgeoning duo of center backs paired with the stud Ron Vlaar, and Jack Grealish has been a revelation the last few games… to name just a few…) was drastically underachieving and didn’t seem to care that they were about to get a proud club relegated. A new voice was undeniably necessary, but in spite of the team’s abysmal performance it was obvious that the talent was there. In the end, then, I was sad to see Lambert go because of all the great work he had done putting this squad together, but grateful to see a change which would hopefully reignite the club.

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

I was not, however, pleased with who the club decided to bring in to replace Lambert. In my limited time following the club I had sold myself on Lambert as an intellectual type who would be much better suited to front office jobs, player analysis and acquisition than the fiery, on pitch tasks of a manager. However, I still enjoyed the idea of having someone who I felt was ‘smart’ running my football club. So it did not enjoy the idea that my club would now employ “Tactics Tim,” a manager almost universally ridiculed for his over-enthusiasm, and simpleton’s tactics. However, what I wasn’t considering was just how demoralized and desensitized the players had become under Lambert. In truth, Sherwood was exactly what the club needed.

Screw tactics. Screw technique. Screw intelligence. This team needed some freaking passion. And that is exactly what Tim Sherwood brings.

It may look comical. We may be mocked by other fans and pundits. But screw it, if it keeps us in the League who cares. With Sherwood at the helm the players are finally playing somewhere close to their talent level, and if we’re lucky that will be enough to keep us in the League.

Certainly there are still flaws, and certainly the club has not been built back up to the form it should be at. But the talent is there. The team give a crap. The fans finally have something entertaining to watch and have hope again. We just need to get through this season at this point. If we can just avoid relegation in these next four games (still a massive feat admittedly) it will all be worth it. I see no reason Villa can’t scrap together enough points to stay ahead of Sunderland, QPR, Burney, and even a resurgent Leicester. And heck, we might even have enough life in us to overtake a floundering Hull or Newcastle. This team does not deserve to go down. They have the talent of a Premier League Side and the last few weeks they’ve finally started playing like it. Under Sherwood the seemingly moribund team found  a pulse, and now we’re inches away from staying alive for one more year.

(Photo Credit: REUTERS)

(Photo Credit: REUTERS)

There will certainly be growing pains that we have to pay for next year. Sherwood has never purchases a player before. Ever. In his entire (albeit brief) career as a Premier League manager which could really hurt this off-season when compared to the successes of Lambert’s acquisitions. However, in all honestly the team shouldn’t even need much more talent. If the team stays up we should stand a fair chance at resigning anyone we need off of this year’s roster, and will likely only lose Vlaar who has become replaceable with the emergence of Clark and Okore anyway. As long as we stay up and don’t need to initiate an immediate fire-sale we should be able to bring back the vast majority of this year’s admittedly deep team, and hopefully without the lack of motivation and enthusiasm which plagued the club for long stretches this season (I mean… we had to cancel the goal of the month contest for October because we didn’t score a single goal all month…….) we should be able to leverage that talent into a staunchly mid table performance next season (which I for one honestly welcome at this point).

This team has talent to spare this season. Villa is a big club with Premier League caliber players and now (at long last) a little freaking enthusiasm and swagger coming on the back of their FA Cup Semifinal win. The battle is far from won thus far, but there is still no doubt in my mind that this club is too good to go down. A disaster could still come, and it would absolutely devastate this club, but for the time being I feel like we need a little optimism and faith. This team and these players belong in the Premier League no matter what their abysmal record is. Now let’s just hope we go out and prove it this weekend against Everton. I don’t care if the media mock us for it, I want to celebrate every point we get from here until the end of the season like we just won the freaking League. Because if we don’t get those points, we won’t even be in the League to get mocked next year.

(Photo Credit Michael Regan)

(Photo Credit Michael Regan)

New Blood and New Hope: The Signing of Carles Gil

(Image via AVFC.com and Getty Images)

(Image via AVFC.com and Getty Images)

Amid heavy pressure from Villa fans, and threats of a Holte End protest Paul Lambert has done what he does best and bring new, cheap talent into the club by purchasing former Valencia and Elche man Carles Gil for a price somewhere around £3.2 million. But before we get into this let’s start with why the move was necessary.

First and foremost, Villa can’t score goals. They are on pace to be a historically low scoring team. They have only scored 11 goals all season and are on pace for 20 goals all season if this keeps up. That would tie the Premier League record for fewest goals in a season, and to make matters worse, no club in BPL history has ever scored fewer than 28 goals and avoided relegation. So that’s cheery. And this whole “lack of goals” things sure makes it hard to win. Villa are win-less in their last 6 matches, and in that stretch lost games to midlands rival West Bromich Albion (a team flirting with relegation all year) and Leicester City (when they were bottom of the table no less). So clearly, as things currently stand Villa are flirting with disaster and relegation. Time for change then, yes? Yes.

Yup, definitely time for change.

Yup, definitely time for change.

But what kind of change? Well, Villa’s defense is clearly not the problem, and is in fact and massive, Herculean strength. The fact that they have only scored 11 goals all year, and are somehow in 13th place is absolutely astounding. The two teams with the next lowest scoring totals are Sunderland and Burnley with 18 and 19 respectively, so it isn’t even close. Aston Villa is the worst offensive team in the League by far, and yet Burnley is in 17th place and Sunderland is in 16th place (just outside of the relegation zone) while Villa sit (relatively) safe from relegation (for now) in 13th place. This shouldn’t even be possible, but thanks to Villa’s spectacular defense, it is. In fact, their 23 goals allowed number is 5th best in the League, and the only four teams who have allowed fewer goals than them this season? Are the 4 teams on top of the League. So clearly a defense this good belongs at the top of the table, not down in the basement flirting with relegation. Again, the offense is the problem.

Time to sign a flashy new striker then? That’s what struggling offensive teams do right? Wrong. In this case anyone. Christian Benteke has all the talent to be one of the ten best goal scorers in the Premier League. The guy is amazing. Seriously. Just check him out.

He basically just embarrassed the entire Crystal Palace team by himself there. And if you noticed there wasn’t a single other Villa shirt nearby helping him there. And then of course there’s the fact that he’s capable of this…

So clearly, the issue isn’t our Striker. The problem is that no one can ever find him with the ball. We have apparently 0 setup men on this team. Its the midfield where our offense stalls. Enter: Carles Gil. A natural central attacking midfielder, the hope is that Gil will be able to get the ball up to our freak of nature finisher and generate some goals. We’ll find out if that’s how this game-plan plays out tomorrow when Villa take on Liverpool, but from what I understand of the guy that shouldn’t be an issue. Gil’s main issues in Spain were playing time related, not talent related, so as long as Lambert gives him consistent time on the pitch (something he hasn’t been kind enough to do for other players in the past) things should work themselves out.

So… that’s how we ended up in this predicament of fan rage and potential protests, and Lambert’s plan to fix the problem. Honestly I have a fair amount of confidence that Gil will be a success. This is due to the fact that Lambert’s best attribute, as far as I can tell, appears to be finding quality talent at bargain prices.

(Photo Credit: Chris Brunskill, Getty Images Europe)

(Photo Credit: Chris Brunskill, Getty Images Europe)

Aly Cissokho (another signing from Valencia) has been great for Villa all season, and Lambert dug him up for only £2 million. Philippe Senderos was a great plug in for the injured Ron Vlaar early in the season until he himself went down, and Lambert brought him in off a free transfer. He also brought in Jores Okore (along with Ciaran Clark one of the two young players Villa fans hope will be the core of their defensive back line for a decade) last year for only £4 million. And let’s not forget that during his first year with the club Lambert brought in Benteke, Westwood, and Vlaar… three of the core components to this club. And Lambert has done all this without the budget of an Arsenal or a Chelsea. The man is clearly good at scouting talent and paying the right price for them, and under his reign Villa’s roster may be more talented than its been for years. So why aren’t they winning?

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

Villa fans, in my opinion, have every right to be angry. Villa is a big club. A huge club. They have more rich history than nearly any club in England, and are even the oldest club in the country. They’re a founding member of the Premier League, and they don’t deserve this. They are not a 13th place club. They are not a club that should score the fewest goals in Premier League history. And they are certainly not a club that should be worried about relegation.

I, however, still have mixed feelings. To put things in American terms, I have to assume that Lambert simply isn’t a good coach. He can’t make his players perform on the pitch no matter what his talent pool looks like. He has never succeeded at Villa (unless you consider avoiding relegation success… which at this point I almost do…) no matter how much talent he brings in. However, whatever his shortcomings may be in terms of on field tactics, his marketplace tactics are absolutely superb. He finds players who are undervalued by other clubs and swoops in for bargain deals on Premier League caliber plaeyrs. He has done this so consistently that it is obvious to me that, again in American terms, he is the best General Manager in the BPL. And for that reason I would be incredibly unhappy to see him go.

Image via Getty Images

Image via Getty Images

I feel like I’ve seen the reverse of this situation many times in American sports. A guy will be a great coach and succeed so wildly that ownership let’s him be his own GM and pick his own players. Almost invariably, however, the guy ends up shooting himself in the foot and making terrible personnel decisions, signing guys to horrible contracts and wasting money left and right, drastically crippling the club. In fact a little bit of that is going on right now with my hometown Detroit Pistons where new Coach and President Stan Van Gundy made the horrendous decision to keep Josh Smith on the roster resulting in a 5-23 record to start the season. So in any event, it seems easy to me to strip a Coach of GM duties and let him keep coaching. It seems impossible (especially looking at the way the BPL and world football function) to remove coaching duties from a manager, but let him continue making personnel choices.

So in the end, I really hope this Gil signing works out. I hope Aston Villa’s offense shows stupendous promise, they avoid relegation, and everything begins to improve as we set the table for a more successful season next year. I’d love to keep Lambert on the team, and I would hope he could surround himself with enough quality assistant coaches to improve the on field product if his coaching ability is truly lacking. In the end though all I really want is for Villa to win, and I don’t really care if that is with or without Lambert. I just want the frustration to end, and to get some hope back. So Carles Gil, welcome to Birmingham. I hope you’re ready to create some goals.

Image via Valenciacf.com

Image via Valenciacf.com

So You Say Football is for Feets

Barclays+Premier+League

So … I appear to have become a fan of the British Premier League. In truth I’m quite pleased with this reality. I’ve wanted to get into the Premier League for quite some time now, and even tried picking a few teams, but it never stuck. For the last three World Cups (the first World Cup I watched from start to finish was the 2006 World Cup when I was 16. I believe it was the first World Cup where ESPN broadcasted all the games). In any event, after the 2006 World Cup I discovered that the sport of soccer (football… but I’m American… So these things just happen…) was really fun to watch. The lack of scoring never bothered me too much because I was used to watching hockey, and while the NHL is certainly more high paced, frantic, and prolific when it comes to goals, the rhythm and back and forth was very familiar.

However, I was completely lost when it came to trying to watch professional football at this point. This is where I developed the opinion that I simply liked watching soccer to “root for the flags.” Argentina had been my team of choice to watch during the Cup because I found them excited, thought they had a chance to win, LOVED their jerseys, and had a friend in school who was studying abroad from Argentina, so it was fun to hop on the bandwagon. Moreover, even though it seemed at the time like Argentina was Tevez’s team, all the announcers kept telling me how this tiny hobbit of a man, Lionel Messi, was the real star on Argentina and was going to be one of the best football players who ever lived when all was said and done.

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

So after that 2006 World Cup I decided I would try to follow Messi’s team, which I discovered was Barcelona. This was a problem, however, because you couldn’t watch ANY La Liga games on TV, at least where I was at, except El Classico, whenever it rolled around. So long story short, I because the world’s most passive Barcelona fan… I didn’t really like the team (never saw them play) but liked one player on the team… and basically just checked in on the standings one every month or so. There didn’t seem to be much competition in La Liga as it was primarily a 2 horse race with 3 or 4 other contenders injecting themselves from time to time, only to eventually fade. Moreover, I had stumbled upon Bill Simmons’ older articles on choosing a pro soccer team to root for and felt like the league I really wanted to be following was the Premier League anyway, I just didn’t know how to pick a team. So in the end, La Liga, and Barcelona never really resonated with me, and I faded on the soccer fandom, and on the attempt to pick up a professional team. I just figured maybe it wasn’t for me.

And then 2009 rolled around and it was back in the saddle. Bill Simmons started dragging a cavalcade of soccer guests across my face on his BS Report Podcast in preparation for the 2010 World Cup, and I began to get incredibly excited again. Whether or not I would ever be able to become a pro soccer fan I knew I loved World Cups, and it helped that I was in college now (hotbed for pretentious (often but not always) dudes who love soccer and even more so that one of my good friends Tyler was a non-pretentious version of a soccer fan. We worked together and began talking about the World Cup every day at work, building excitement. And in order to keep up with Tyler in conversation (a real soccer fan whereas I considered myself only a passive one) I started following different soccer podcasts, and reading up on ESPNs soccer coverage.

(Photo Credit: Ross Kinnaird - Getty Images Europe)

(Photo Credit: Ross Kinnaird – Getty Images Europe)

More importantly perhaps though were the Simmons podcasts because I already listened to him. He was pushing the Jozy Altidore thing and I thought I had a real opportunity here. Altidore was all hyped up to be a big American star in World Football, and what was more important for me, he was currently on loan to Hull City in the British Premier League. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to start rooting for a team. Their jerseys were cool. Rooting for them wouldn’t be a bandwagon move. I would have a REASON to root for them (I was already an American Soccer fan, and this would let me bridge to British Soccer). Unfortunately he did not play great and the team go relegated, quickly ending that attempt.

However, I watched that 2010 World Cup and loved it even more than the 2006 iteration. I knew I needed to figure out a way to become a football fan year round, but I just hadn’t figured it out yet. I knew the Premier League was the League for me (especially after my La Liga attempt) I just needed a team so after that 2010 World Cup I decided to sit down and think these things through in earnest.

New-York-Post-USA-002

That 2010 World Cup was just too fun for me to let soccer pass me by again. In 2006 I had barelyl any idea what a World Cup was and got drawn in, but this time I had been preparing for over a year, and just couldn’t imagine letting go of soccer for another 4 years.

Now, I really like hopping into new leagues and over agonizing over choosing a team to follow. As such I’ve developed somewhat of a system or method for when I pick teams. But before I go on I want to point out that my fandom didn’t stick after this 2010 World Cup either, but this is where I first starting thinking these things through for the BPL.

I tend to favor a specific kind of sports franchises. I like sleeping giant types or at any rate I like to get in on the ground floor with a team. This probably comes most specifically from my Detroit Lions fandom where it felt like I earned my fandom through years of torment. I never “just hopped on a bandwagon” with them. Conversely, I never felt truly passionate rooting for the Red Wings. I do love the team. I love the history, the tradition, the fans, everything. But I wasn’t alive during the “Dead Wings” era. I only ever saw them winning and felt like I didn’t EARN a right to root for them. That’s a large reason why I practice Sports Bigamy with the NHL and root for the Nashville Predators, but that’s another story for another time. When I was younger (like… elementary school young which makes this even more ridiculous) it always bugged me when my friends would say they were Denver Broncos fans or Green Bay Packer fans instead of Minnesota Vikings fans. I’m a massive proponent of proximity playing a major roll in sports fandom (you should root for the nearest team to you, and to do otherwise makes you a traitor to your homeland)  Or that’s what 3rd Grade Rick thought anyway… (Yes… I have been neurotic from a young age… lets move on…) Now, that specific example wasn’t even the most egregious because at least Green Bay, Denver, and Minnesota are actually the nearest(ish) teams to North Dakota (where I grew up) but it was absolutely disgusting to me when people if Fargo decided they were LA Lakers fans, UNC basketball fans, New England Patriot Fans… basically all the disgusting bandwagon movements they could choose. So long story short I never wanted to be that guy.

Former Lions GM Matt Millen has far better fashion sense than player scouting... and yet look at that sweater... that should tell you all you need to know about the Millen Years for the Lions. But either way, sitting through those miserable years made me feel like I earned the right to be a Lions fan, and thats a feeling I now desire from all my sports teams.

Former Lions GM Matt Millen has far better fashion sense than player scouting… and yet look at that sweater… that should tell you all you need to know about the Millen Years for the Lions. But either way, sitting through those miserable years made me feel like I earned the right to be a Lions fan, and thats a feeling I now desire from all my sports teams.

In any event this same mentality has been very much present in my varied attempts to become a BPL fan.

So in any event I wanted to root for a big club, with a relatively large and well developed fan base that had stuck with them through major struggles. I’ve already tried the “small club” thing in the NHL with the Nashville Predators, and I love it, but its just too hard to watch them trade off key players for young pieces year after year. I can’t knowingly walk into that situation again in another sport. Especially one where I’m hoping to stick to a team so badly this time.

SO ANYWAY in 2010, following the World Cup, I decided I wanted to be a Newcastle fan. They’re a big club, they have a lot of history and are a Premier League stalwart. They have great fans and really feel like a unique culture exists behind them to drive them. Moreover, there was very little bandwagon feel, but this appears to have been too early yet again for anything to stick. It didn’t help that Newcastle is in a lot of turmoil these days, but perhaps more damaging was the fact that American coverage of the sport just wasn’t up to snuff yet. Fox was still in charge of soccer coverage in the US and they seemed to treat the sport like some sort of backup plan. As if they had lost out on bidding for the NBA, and this was them trying to scramble and pick up the pieces. I don’t think it was until NBC took over BPL games recently that the ground was really stable enough for me to find and stick with a club.

Breakthrough:

(Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri)

(Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri)

So let’s fast forward quick to this years World Cup. Again a lot of excitement, but this time there were a few factors had changed around me leading up to it.

logosmall

 

The first, and definitely the biggest factor was the Men in Blazers Podcast with Roger Bennett and Michael Davies. These guys are absolutely fantastic. They are both Englishmen who moved to America, and have adopted the USMNT as their second home team for World Cups. I started listening to them in hopes of being more prepared than ever to follow the US in the World Cup, but along the way was exposed to their spectacular (and hilarious) coverage of the Premier League. I tuned in for the World Cup, but they ended up hooking me on the BPL. I cannot imagine a more perfect scenario as their podcast allowed me to follow the Premier League for a full year without the need to pick a team first. Before I was overwhelmed with the idea of trying to watch every single game and keep up with all the teams and storylines of the League by myself. Thats why I wanted to pick one team. I wanted to be able to zoom in on “my team” and follow them, and learn about hte rest of the league through them. That just hadn’t worked though. Now, with the Min in Blazers I got a chance to follow the whole entire League and become a fan of the entire BPL (just like I became a fan of the entire World Cup before I started to watch the USMNT or Argentina back in 2006) before worrying about picking a team. The League became so easily consumable that I couldn’t help but start to like it, for real this time. It wasn’t just that I WANTED to like it. I ACTUALLY liked it.

fifa3

Moreover, in preparation for the 2014 World Cup I finally went out and bought a copy of FIFA. Sports video games have been ridiculously helpful to me in the past in adopting new sports Leagues (worked for me with the NFL and NHL both). Playing FIFA helped familiarize me with the major players in the world, the big clubs, the structures of the League systems in Europe, promotion, relegation, how deep or shallow various nations’ top leagues were. It taught me what POSITIONS existed on a soccer field, different formations, different roles for different players. How to qualify for the Champions League or the Europa League. Who gets in from what leagues and what countries and how the leagues are structured. It taught me how TRANSFERS worked which was infinitely helpful. There is so much about top level soccer abroad that is different from how American Franchise-based sports leagues work. It has always been completely alien to me. There are just so many things I didn’t know which were barriers to me loving world football that were now finally unlocked for me. FIFA let me pretend to be a manager or owner of a football club of my own and learn the system from top to bottom.

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Then, as previously mentioned, NBC has been a major help as well. They play every game meaning I can watch all the big games of the week, and every match for my chosen club. Moreover, they’ve thrown together a great group of individuals to cover soccer for America and Americans who do not patronize the audience at all, but still cover it in an intelligent and easily understood manner. (Moreover, it helped me personally that their brought the Men in Blazers into the fold). They have experience grabbing a whole League of a niche sport in America hoof and horn and trying to make it consumable to the American public from their excellent work with the NHL, and that really shows with how they are now handling the BPL.

I absolutely love waking up and spending my Saturdays with these guys.

I absolutely love waking up and spending my Saturdays with these guys.

Also, the BPL is the first time in my life I’ve loved the presence of a time difference with sports. Most Premier League games are on at 10am on a Saturday in the Eastern Time Zone where I’m at. First and foremost this means that none of the games conflict with other American sporting events I may want to watch. Sure I don’t get to watch ESPN’s College Gameday anymore, but I can still tune in to see whatever school is hosting it for 20 or 30 minutes through the day. The damn thing is on for 4 hours anyway. But it doesn’t conflict with any College Football games even though it shares Saturdays with them here in the US. It doesn’t have to compete with the NFL at all, as they never play Saturdays. The NHL, NBA, MLB, and College Basketball will never play a game before noon. Its as if this time slot was built PERFECTLY for me to fit soccer into my life. Plus the particular time slot meshes so well with one of the major things I love about soccer. Soccer can be very intense and physical, but a lot of the time it has a beautiful rhythm. Its incredibly relaxing for me to watch an evenly matched soccer game (as long as I don’t have a rooting interest). This means even for the select games that are on at 7 or 9am I still have no problem watching it. Its not like watching the brutal physicality of an NFL game or the crushing hits of a hockey game first thing in the morning. Its exactly the right speed for me to start off my Saturday mornings. Moreover, the time never seems to be an issue for Sunday or Monday games either. Now the only thing for me to do was go the rest of the distance, and pick a club of my own.

Picking a Club:

Here was the tricky part. I had tried this multiple times before, but never with any success. In either event I knew a few clubs I didn’t want to root for and I knew I wanted to have a real case for picking whoever I did (besides the ol’ “they were good” … if NBC is goign to play every game then there is no reason to simply select a good team who will make the prime time slot every week). So of course first I thought about the big time powers.

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I used to like Chelsea because I loved Didier Drogba, and those Kentucky Blue jerseys. Also, they were Michael Davies’ team so I knew I’d get a lot of insight into them from my beloved MiB show. But I should couldn’t stomach hopping on a club that (although it has tons of wonderful history) had come out of thin air to rise to the top of the league. Plus it just felt too horrendously bandwagony. So they were out.

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Manchester United was never even a consideration. The Bandwagon-y-est of the Bandwagon Teams.

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Liverpool was my friend Tyler’s team, but for some reason I could never make myself hop on with them. Maybe its because I wanted to root for a different team from him to be different, but for whatever reason, Liverpool never felt like the club for me (even though those jersey’s… errr… kits…. are spectacular).

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Arsenal was probably the closest I came to rooting for one of the Big Four. They haven’t had a ton of success lately so I wouldn’t feel like I hopped on a bandwagon of recent times anyway. I liked their jerseys, their history, their fans. It was cool that they were a big London club. But it still felt like I was just picking a big winner. There is just too much depth to English Football for me to just grab one of the 4 most successful clubs. So out they went.

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Manchester City feels like the kind of team I would have happily picked if I had been able to stick with a team in 2009, but now with their current success I couldn’t possibly hop on that bandwagon.

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I couldn’t make myself pick Tottenham, because they were they team Bill Simmons picked after his aforementioned article on picking up a BPL team. I had no interest in simply following his path directly, and plus they club just didn’t stand out to me in any way. So there goes the last of the Big Six as well.

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Everton seemed like almost a perfect match for me at first. Tons of history. Great fans. Forced to live in Liverpool’s shadow. Moreover, they are Roger Bennett’s team which was a huge plus. I loved the self deprecation with which he approached his love of his club. It reminded me of my own Lions fandom, and seemed like exactly the kind of familiar experience I would do so well with. Again I loved the blue kits. Plus, they had an American star, Tim Howard, playing a prominent role on the club. I even halfway adopted Everton as my surrogate team last year, living Everton’s nearly magical season through Rog’s eyes. In the end, however, I never felt like they were my own team. I felt like I was piggy-backing on Mr. Bennett and decided I really needed something that felt like I made my own decision.

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I strongly considered following Swansea, but it just seemed like I was going too far and too hipster to pick a Welsh club.

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After following last year I really liked Norwich City. I loved that their uniforms were green and yellow, two colors apparently avoided by all the other clubs. And I really thought I might just succumb and grab a small club like this as my team. And then they got relegated. Soooo that was a no go. And it furthered my resolve to avoid the smaller clubs out of fear I would just lose my team in the end anyway.

Ultimately I narrowed things down to 4 real contenders that I thought fit what I liked in a sports team. Newcastle. Hull City. Aston Villa. And West Ham United. Two of these teams were clubs I had tried to root for in the past and wanted to give a second shot. The other two were new to the agenda but clubs I really wanted to give a try.

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Newcastle ultimately didn’t make the cut because this Pardew fiasco just seemed too toxic to get involved with right now. The club has so much history and a great fanbase and such a unique and brilliant culture, but its an unbelievably toxic situation that I don’t know I can risk being a part of. I realize it would really make me feel like I owned a part of that club and earned my allegience, but after three tries with professional soccer, I really want my third attempt to stick. So I had to cut them from the list.

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Hull City was incredibly intriguing to me for several reasons. Of course I had already tried to watch them once. I loved their uniforms. Moreover, even though they got relegated, they’re back with a vengeance now. They’re the latest British club to be graced with a loaded foreign owner splurging on overseas purchases to inject new life into his club. I watched a couple of their games at the start of the season and they played a style of football that I really enjoyed watching. Even though Jozy was ancient history Nikica Jelevic and Abel Hernandez (one of those new big signings) are incredibly exciting offensive threats, and Mohammed Diame (another big signing) has been somewhat of a revelation all season. Moreover, I always loved their jerseys, and felt like they had a real passionate, blue collar fan base that would be fun to be a part of. However, the absolute disaster at Cardiff City last year both infuriated me (THEY’RE NICKNAMED THE BLUEBIRDS!!! YOU CAN’T MAKE THEM PLAY IN RED) and worried me. Obviously Chelsea and Man City are gold standards where a rich owner can come, inject money and players into the club, and benefit everyone. But Cardiff was a disaster where an owner made himself bigger than the club and is actively working to destroy the club’s tradition. Hull scares me because the stories about wanting to change “Hull City” to “Hull Tigers” feels like an owner yet again putting himself ahead of the team, actively working against club culture, and leaving fans to fight for the right to maintain cultural ownership of their club. So that scared me off Hull.

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I very nearly became a West Ham fan. They have spectacular jerseys, they’re a big club with a lot of fans, and some big time pop culture gravitas. Spectacular nickname “the Hammers”. They play football that is fun to watch, work hard, have a lot of tradition and great fan support. But ultimately they just didn’t charm me as much as the team I actually chose.

My New Club:

And that left Birmingham’s Aston Villa as the club for me.

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Now, to start things off, Aston Villa has been a club that intrigued me for a long time. To start with, way back in 2006 when I started trying to familiarize myself with the clubs of the Premier League their name stuck out. I assumed incorrectly that they were in some town called Aston Villa (they are in fact in Birmingham) and convinced myself that it must be some old former Romano-Briton town, which appealed to me infinitely being the history nerd that I am. Moreover, in 2009 when I again began to think of picking up a Premier League team I thought I might revisit them (before ultimately picking Newcastle). However, at the time I remember hearing on some podcast or another about all the turmoil the club was going through at the time and I ended up getting scared off. In the 2009-10 they were having a good season (ended up finishing 6th) but everyone seemed to be talking of looming collapse on the horizon resulting from ownership uncertainty (another red flag for me) which ultimately came to be in the form of successive 9th, 16th, 15th, and 15th place finishes where the club has been clinging to its Premier League status and threatened with relegation year after year. Now, I’ve mentioned I like the idea of following a football club that mirrors my Detroit Lions, but this was a little too close. A little too reminiscent of the Matt Millen era. And at least when the Lions suck they can’t get relegated. Moreover, while at first I thought it was cool that Villa was owned by an American, when I learned it was former Browns owner Randy Lerner an enormous red flag flew up for me. This looked like a disaster.

I cannot wait to make my first visit to Villa Park.

I cannot wait to make my first visit to Villa Park.

However, I still couldn’t help but be intrigued with the idea of following a rebuilding project like this. Villa seemed to have several key pieces already in place in Vlaar and Delph among others. They had an American keeper which was a major plus. The uniforms were always beautiful in my opinion (the Claret and Blue is just stunning). In fact, while I liked West Ham’s jerseys they always just struck me as a knock off of the Villa jerseys which I had first been attracted to. I liked that fact that they weren’t based in London so I get to avoid the ol’ American problem of assuming all BPL teams are in London. I like that they’re in Birmingham which I have learned is “England’s Second City” so its a major city but not London. Moreover, the team is absolutely rife with history. They’re one of the oldest football clubs in England. They’re a founding member of the Premier League and in spite of the last 3 seasons of serious doubt, they have yet to be relegated EVER *knock on wood*. There was just too much to like here so in spite of the struggles, in spite of the iffy ownership situation (Lerner himself with the potential for a shady Kazakh billionaire to buy the team in the near future) I just wanted to be a part of this club. I wouldn’t feel like much of a bandwagoner and would feel like I got to come in on some kind of ground floor watching the team rise from the turmoil of the last three seasons.

Beautiful grounds, beautiful kits. I'm sold. (Photo Credit: Michael Zemanek)

Beautiful grounds, beautiful kits. I’m sold.
(Photo Credit: Michael Zemanek)

Now, I’d be a liar if I said the great start to their season this year wasn’t a big factor in my choice. By all accounts that start made it look like Villa was done being a relegation risk team and would at least be able to firmly assert themselves in the middle of the table. And while recent events may shake that view I’m still confident. Their recent stretch of losses has been against the Premier League powers and considering they grabbed a win from Liverpool, anything else is just icing on the cake. In truth this stretch itself (playing all of last season’s top 5 in a row and all of the top 6 in 7 games) was a huge plus for me. It means that early in the season I get to really immerse myself in the League and really feel like I’m watching the Premier League. I get to see my club play all the big clubs, watch all the stars of the League and the sport against my new favorite players, and it really makes me feel like I’m a part of all this, more so than watching Villa play Burnley would (no offense Burnley… but … y’know…).

And now, only 7/38ths through the season I couldn’t be happier with my choice. I’ve thrown myself into the club, the history, the stadium and city. Most importantly I’ve tried to immerse myself in the bios of the players, learning their history, clubs they’ve come from, national backgrounds, and I finally feel like I’ve gotten what I wanted back in 2006. Now I have a soccer club I can root for year round, and I can enjoy the Premier League at long last. I no longer have to be just another World Cup fan.