NOVEMBER 2012. Against all reason, ITV bosses have commissioned a 93rd series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here. And against all odds, they have assembled their most stellar cast yet: Gaz Top, Lord Birt, Daniel Bedingfield, Tiffany, the Andrex puppy, Stacy Lattisaw, Charlotte Hindle, Terry Duckworth from Coronation Street, Suzanne Charlton, Jimmy Cricket, Bill Clinton, Steve Ogrizovic and a life-size cardboard cut-out of Spike Milligan. And me.
(No, seriously, I think I would qualify as a celebrity, on the basis that I once dated a woman who had previously gone out with a bloke who has his own Wikipedia entry.)
For some reason, the viewers keep voting for me to do the bushtucker trials, which Ant and Dec seem to find hilarious. On the six or seventh day, the madcap duo come up with their most gruelling trial yet. I have to choose between eating a kangaroo’s anus (what do they do with the rest of the kangaroo?) and watching a DVD of all of Aston Villa’s goalless draws from the 2011/12 season. Baulking at this impossible choice, I decide to leave the camp. Inevitably, the Andrex puppy goes on to be crowned King of the Jungle.
OK, OK. Before I get a deluge of complaints, I’m not seriously suggesting that watching Aston Villa is as tortuous as eating the unpleasant bits of Australian marsupials. But at the same time, it’s not been much fun this season. Average attendances at Villa Park have dropped by around 3,000. High ticket prices in economically challenging times have undoubtedly been a factor, and there’s a theory too that some Villa fans have stayed away in protest at the appointment as manager of the man who got Birmingham relegated in May.
But there’s also the fact that, for significant chunks of the season, a Villa side that lost Stewart Downing and Ashley Young over the summer, led by a boss who was in charge of the Premier League’s lowest goalscorers last season, have not been great to watch.
Indeed, all the recent hoo-hah over injured striker Darren Bent’s shopping trip to Cambridge on December 18, as his team were playing Liverpool, rather masked the fact that Villa were utterly abysmal that day. If you were feeling particularly cheeky (and I do sometimes, but we won’t go into that), you might ask the question: Are Villa so boring that even their own players find it a trial to watch them?
Bent would say not, and has since apologised for popping to the shops when he really ought to have been watching his team. His manager, Alex McLeish, has dismissed suggestions that Bent has had enough of life at Villa Park and wants a move in January.
Maybe everything will turn out OK for McLeish and Villa in the New Year. It’s just that, right now, they don’t seem to have an awful lot to look forward to. At best, they might enjoy an FA Cup run and a top-half Premier League finish. At worst, if things really fall apart, they might get sucked into the kind of relegation battle that ultimately engulfed McLeish’s last club. Bent’s goals may prove crucial to avoiding that fate.
This season, Villa have scored 19 times in 18 Premier League games. It’s not the worst top-flight tally – and it does include the competition’s 20,000th goal – but it’s not great. There are five teams in the division with fewer league goals to their name this season. As it happens, one of them are Stoke.
Last on MOTD: Stoke 0 Aston Villa 0
Commentator: John Roder
Bent was still injured for last night’s non-event at the Britannia Stadium – Villa’s fourth goalless draw of the season, and a match that has moved them back to the top of the Last on Match of the Day standings. He did, though, make sure he was at the ground, watching on, thus staving off any gags about trips to the Wedgwood factory shop. (I’m not sure if it would be open on Boxing Day, anyway.)
The striker sat and suffered with the rest of the near-28,000 crowd, and a Sky Sports audience who could have been forgiven for looking at their subscription and thinking: “I’m paying how much? For this?”
Good grief, this was dire. The highlight of the first half came when Gabriel Agbonlahor accidentally ran into Mark Clattenburg, It’s A Knockout style, causing the referee to lose his pen. When Ryan Shawcross tried to return it, Clattenburg initially shooed him away, thinking the Stoke defender was approaching him for a moan.
Clattenburg, I can only assume, spent a little too much time over Christmas listening to The Referee’s Alphabet by Half Man Half Biscuit, a wonderfully wry examination of the life of a permanently-harangued official:
Sample line 1: “G is for the gnarled face of someone on £90,000 a week who reckons he should have had a throw-in.”
Sample line 2: “N is for the numbskull who asks me during the Boxing Day game what else I got for Christmas besides my whistle. An afternoon with your wife, mate.”
Sample line 3: “X represents the sarcastic kiss planted on my forehead by a swarthy Portuguese centre-half who I’ve just dismissed.”
Clattenburg and his fellow officials had only one major decision during the game. To the disappointment of all those who like to bang on about bringing TV replay technology into football officiating, they got it right. Marc Wilson’s header hit the underside of the bar and was cleared by Agbonlahor, with the ball neither crossing the line nor being handled by the Villa man. Television was forced to look elsewhere for its controversy on Boxing Day.
Otherwise, this was no fun to watch. If you stuck it out to the end, the least you deserve is a star for your camp and a good meal. Or, failing that, a shopping trip to Cambridge.
1. Aston Villa: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
2. Fulham: 4 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
3. QPR: 4 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
4. West Brom: 3 (2L: 4, 3L: 2)
5. Swansea: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 3)
6. Sunderland: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
7: Wolves: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 4)
8. Wigan: 2 (2L: 5, 3L: 3)
9. Norwich: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
10: Liverpool: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
11. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Bolton: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
13. Blackburn: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
14. Stoke: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
15. Tottenham: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
16. Everton: 0 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
17. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
18. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
19. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 3)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
2L = On second last (Sunderland 1 Everton 1)
3L = On third last (Chelsea 1 Fulham 1)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)