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10th Aug 2019

Revisiting Aston Villa 15/16 and their disastrous relegation from the Premier League

Kyle Picknell

Three lousy wins, 17 lousy points, 27 lousy goals and the worst individual season in one historic club’s long, illustrious history: Welcome, to 2015/16 Villa, revisited

Let me take you back. The year was 2015, long before Billie Eilish was a thing, or The Athletic had launched in America, or Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Tim Sherwood was beginning his first full season in charge of Aston Villa after joining the team in February of the previous season, taking over from the hapless Paul Lambert with the club in 19th place and looking odds on for the drop. There was a smile on his face, a Gillet on his back and a warm buzz of excitement in his chest. Or maybe that was just all the coffee.

Sherwood had led Villa to five wins from their last twelve the season prior and, remarkably, to the FA Cup final after a memorable 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the semi-final at Wembley. Whilst there were obviously still doubts about the true ability of ‘Tactics Tim’ as a manager, whatever his own self-congratulatory comments about the win ratio at Spurs, he had at least instilled some sense of optimism into a team that had spent the four seasons prior to his appointment circling the drain of the Premier League.

Southampton did beat them 6-1 in the penultimate game of the 14/15 thanks to the quickest Premier League hat-trick ever scored, bagged by Sadio Mane, and Arsenal did trounce them 4-0 in the final itself.

But there was some hope that he could reverse the course of this moth of a club repeatedly banging its head against the lightbulb of relegation. Not much, but some.

Sherwood quickly went to work in the transfer window, along with chief executive Tom Fox, building a team in his own rambunctious 4-4-fackin’-2 image. The problem was that almost everything that Sherwood himself oversaw personally – signings, releases, contracts – was exactly the opposite of what Villa should have been doing.

The club’s record signing Darren Bent left the team on a free after a quite dreadful return of six goals in 31 appearances in his final two seasons at Villa Park, along with former captain and fan-favourite centre back Ron Vlaar, who quite wisely rejected a new contract offer to rejoin AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Hard-working and versatile academy graduate Andreas Weimann was moved to Derby County, star striker Christian Benteke’s release clause was activated by Liverpool’s bid of £32.5 million and even worse; club captain Fabian Delph, just days after a releasing a statement to supporters informing them that he loved the club and would be staying after a period of intense transfer speculation, then flip-flopped and did indeed move to Manchester City. Worse still, for the measly fee of £8 million due to a clause in his contract.

With the Vlaar-Delph-Benteke spine gone, three players who had carried the team the previous campaign, there was, clearly, a huge amount of work to be done. Was Tim Sherwood the man to do it?

Was he fuck.

Fabian Delph’s replacement, Idrissa Gana Gueye, was one of the few things the club got right during this period of upheaval. Purchased for £9 million from Lille in an unusually astute bit of business, he has just this summer moved from Everton (where he has played out of his skin for three straight seasons) to join Paris Saint-Germain for £30 million.

There were only two other positives, and they were both called Jordan. The acquisitions of Jordan Veretout (signed for £7 million from Nantes) and Jordan Amavi (£9 million from Nice) were, like Gueye, fairly young, talented players in positions of need with significant resale value.

If you don’t get relegated of course. They now play for Roma and Marseille respectively. Yeah.

Then there’s the bad. And oh boy, was there a lot of it. Micah Richards, fresh from a hugely disappointing loan spell with Fiorentina that consisted of just ten appearances in Serie A, was brought in on a free transfer: four years, £50,000 a week and sure, why not, fuck it, have the captain’s armband for good measure.

And to join him at the heart of a defence? Who else but his old pal Joleon Lescott, or whatever was actually left of Joleon Lescott at this point, a player so immobile he looked like a one-man recreation of the moon landing whenever he tracked back.

He was brought in from Midlands rivals West Brom for £2 million and midway through the season, immediately following a 6-0 defeat to Liverpool that left the team all but relegated, he shared a picture of a Mercedes with no caption on his Twitter account. He claimed it was an accidental tweet that happened from his pocket whilst driving.

Never has the loss of a player named ‘Ron’ been as sorely felt.

Elsewhere, the embarrassingly non-existent midfield threesome of Gary Gardner (three years), Ashley Westwood (five years) and Leandro Bacuna (five years!) were handed bumper new contracts by Sherwood. As were non-existent defensive threesome Joe Bennett (one year), Ciaran Clark (five years!) and Nathan Baker (five! years!). Bennett and Baker were then immediately loaned out, for some reason.

Rudy Gestede and Jordan Ayew were brought in to ease the considerable loss of Benteke. (Narrator: They did not, in any way, do that.)

Aly Cissokho joined Porto on loan but was recalled in January because Villa’s actual good left-back, Amavi, got injured.

Adama Traore, before anyone knew who or what Adama Traore was other than a devastatingly quick Barca B winger and Football Manager wonderkid, and therefore the single most exciting player in the world, was signed. Cue hype.

He started one game in the League Cup, scored, and frequently came on as an 82nd-minute sub in the Premier League when Villa were already something like two or three goals down to showcase his own unique interpretation of the game: “How far can I sprint up the right touchline without passing the ball?”

Matt Lowton, actually quite a good right-back, demonstrated by him, you know, still being quite a good right-back, was sold to Burnley for, er, £1 million. And was replaced by Jose Angel Crespo. Who? Exactly. Tiago Illori was also brought in on deadline day on loan despite the team having four senior, fully-fit centre backs. If you can define whatever Lescott was as ‘fully fit’. The loan was terminated four months later without him playing a single minute. Oh, and Scott Sinclair was around somewhere.

Commence football.

The first fixture of the season, a fortuitous 1-0 win away at Bournemouth courtesy of that big, lumbering carthorse Rudy Gestede powering in a header from a Veretout corner, after them playing Villa off the park for 90 minutes, proved to be something of a false dawn. They didn’t win again until – and I’m not making this up – January 12; 19 games and five months later.

It’s quite hard to pick out any highlights in that period, but if pressed, I would have to list: going 2-0 up away at Leicester before watching in abject terror as Sherwood substituted Carles Gil, who had just scored, to change the three-man midfield that was dominating the game and put Jordan Ayew on as a third forward (already two goals up, remember) and play a 20-year-old Jack Grealish who, at that point, had only ever played as a winger, in an unfamiliar central midfield position. #tactics.

Leicester – obviously, obviously they did – scored three goals in 17 minutes to win. The third goal came from Nathan Dyer (5 foot 4) beating Brad Guzan (6 foot 4) (can also use his hands) to a hopeless floated ball dinked into the box.

I have no scientific evidence for this, but I’m pretty sure that comeback is what gave Leicester the momentum and confidence to go on and win the league that season. N’Golo Kante, who came on moments before Sherwood decided to hit the self-destruct button, as though, in fact, Sherwood was actually trying to counteract the introduction of Kante by reducing (!) his numbers in midfield (!) and therefore hit it accidentally, but also somehow on purpose, became a regular starter for the Foxes after sparking the comeback.

So again, I’m pretty sure they have Villa, and Tactics Tim, to thank.

Sherwood didn’t make it through October. He was temporarily replaced by Kevin MacDonald, who has, according to a Guardian report last year, been verbally bullying Aston Villa’s players since the mid-1990s. Great stuff. Enter Remi Garde. Do you remember Remi Garde? I will forgive you if you don’t. His highlights: a 0-0 draw with Manchester City in his first game, a 4-0 battering by Everton in his second and… that’s about it.

There was a run in January, if you can call it that, which you can’t, when Garde and Villa conspired to not lose for three entire games of football on the trot, a 1-0 win at home to Palace followed by two draws against Leicester and West Brom. With, well, not quite a head of steam but maybe a small puff of smoke out of the ear, Villa went into an away game with West Ham looking bright, sharp, and playing on the front foot.

As a fan, it was the only time that season that we actually looked, and felt, like a proper football team. We should have had a penalty after a clear Michail Antonio handball and were, as is the canonic term, ‘all over them’ for the first fifteen minutes. We were going to win the match. We had to win the match to stand even the faintest chance of staying up, but we were going to. We were definitely going to.

And then Jordan Ayew elbowed Aaron Cresswell in the face and got sent off on 17 minutes. And then we lost. And that was that, even if we did somehow beat Norwich four days later.

For Villa, the season basically ended on February 14, after being thumped 6-0 by Liverpool at Villa Park, which was extra painful for the fact that each goalscorer that banged was even more rogue than the last. Daniel Sturridge 16′? Expected. James Milner 25′? Fine. Emre Can 58′? Acceptable. Divock Origi 63′? Just about palatable. Nathaniel Clyne 65′? No. Fucking no. Simply not on. Kolo Toure 71′? Are you joking. Is. This. A. Joke.

The goals themselves were farcical. Lescott didn’t bother marking Sturridge (the only player in the Villa area) therefore gifting him a completely free header for the opener. Milner scored crossing in a free-kick that both Jores Okore and Lescott decided to duck and leave for Guzan milliseconds before it reached them, which, of course, Guzan then consequently completely missed.

Can bagged after robbing Bacuna in possession because Bacuna controlled the ball with his shin. He then played a one-two with Coutinho, jogged upfield and fired into the bottom corner. Which he could do because Bacuna, after controlling the ball with his shin, decided to stroll back into position rather than, you know, try and run and win the ball back.

Origi scored literally seconds after coming off the bench and being sent clean through on goal by what can only be described as ‘a very basic pass into space’. Clyne scored because during an attack he was the furthest man forward for Liverpool, literally inside the Villa six-yard box, because he had no defending to do.

Kolo Toure scored the stupidest fucking header you will ever see, facing down at the ground and just letting it hit him on the bonce, but he could do that because, again, nobody was marking him.

See? That last part wasn’t even a joke. This is actually how he headed the ball.

Aston Villa technically had more matches after that but they didn’t even really register for supporters. There’s just no point caring when Kolo Toure is scoring goals like that against you (clearly still not over it) and Joleon Lescott is pocket tweeting pictures of his Mercedes after games. The season ended with a run of 12 defeats in 13 games, the only draw being a turgid 0-0 at home to Newcastle United which was only notable for Aston Villa supporters throwing beach balls onto the pitch in the second half.

It had been a while coming at that stage following the appointments of Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert but after a 28-year spell, Villa were finally erased from the English top-flight. They are, of course, back now with a younger, far more dynamic playing squad led by the only survivor of that fateful season.

Now is the time for Jack Grealish, Dean Smith and the rest of the hungry, new breed to permanently erase it from memory.