I DON’T know how much time David Cameron spends awake in bed at night worrying about his favourite football team, as I’m not married to him. (We dated briefly, years ago, but I really don’t want to talk about it.) I suspect, though, that he devotes more time to fretting about Abu Qatada than Aston Villa.
But even if fuel shortages matter more than goal droughts to the Prime Minister, he might just ponder the similarities between his own plight and that of Villa. Both are floundering as they struggle to manage financial cutbacks, and are hanging on to their Premier status largely thanks to ineffective opposition.
Both have seen their leadership questioned. Villa manager Alex McLeish has faced chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” from his own fans, while Cameron has had to put up with similar stuff from Nick Robinson.
And both, perhaps, could be forgiven for looking back to the early 1980s as a time when things were a little more straight-forward. For those of you who haven’t noticed, this year is the 30th anniversary of everything that happened in 1982. For the Conservative party, this was a time when Margaret Thatcher was enjoying a surge in popularity following a successful campaign to regain control of the Falklands. After a difficult start in office, she was well on course for a convincing General Election victory, of the sort Cameron could not possibly envisage.
And for Aston Villa, it was a time when they were champions of Europe, under the chairmanship of Cameron’s uncle, Sir William Dugdale.
For years, the North Stand at Villa Park has carried a banner from one side to the other, displaying Brian Moore’s commentary on Peter Withe’s winning goal in the 1982 European Cup final against Bayern Munich. This season, there have been further trips down Memory Lane.
The Villa match programme, for instance, has been running a feature reliving the club’s run to Rotterdam, where the cup was won. Each article so far has been rich in anecdotes, particularly a piece on a difficult quarter-final first leg away to Dynamo Kiev in early March, played while the Cold War was still at its height.
Freezing weather in Kiev forced the game to be moved 300 miles south, to the unwelcoming Crimean capital of Simferopol. As the Villa programme put it:
“The facilities were appalling. Tiny beds, filthy bathrooms and a lack of hot water hardly represented the sort of luxury you associate with hotels used by top football clubs – and early-morning calls which hadn’t been requested didn’t help the players’ frame of mind, either.”
Even so, the 0-0 draw was recalled with warm nostalgia and, perhaps, a touch of longing. Goalless stalemates for Villa these days are rather more prosaic.
Last on MOTD: Aston Villa 0 Sunderland 0
Commentator: John Roder
I don’t know how much time David Miliband has spent awake in bed at night over the last 12 months worrying about Sunderland, as I’m not married to him. (We dated, briefly, years ago, but I really don’t want to talk about it.) But given that the MP for South Shields has plenty of other paid advisory roles to keep him busy in addition to his position as non-executive vice-chairman of Sunderland, my guess would be: “Not a great deal.”
But I suppose, when you’ve missed out on the Labour leadership to your brother, you need to find something to take your mind off politics. Maybe he would have given Cameron a harder time at the despatch box. But while Miliband senior does pop up now and then to make political pronouncements, he generally seems to prefer hanging in the background and letting others do the scrapping. A bit like Sunderland these days, as it happens.
At the Stadium of Light, the season is trundling to an uneventful close. There were fears of relegation when Steve Bruce lost his job in late November, then hopes of Europa League qualification when Martin O’Neill led them to seven wins in 10 league games on taking over.
But since early February, things have slowly ground to a halt. This is not necessarily a surprise to students of O’Neill’s management career. In his four years at Aston Villa, he only won one league game in the month of March. Now he is in charge of a team who have been unable to score in April. For O’Neill, springtime regularly brings a slump.
A run of four league games without a goal – including three 0-0 draws – is no great cause for worry when you’re ensconced in mid-table, as Sunderland are. For O’Neill’s former club, the goal shortage is rather more pronounced. And it doesn’t look good for McLeish.
Put simply: McLeish’s sides don’t score much. In his last 110 Premier League matches as a manager, his teams have scored 110 goals. Under his guidance this season, an Aston Villa squad who should have been on for a top-eight finish are instead looking nervously over shoulders at the bottom three.
But don’t worry, Villa fans! You may be on the fringes of a relegation battle, playing football that is no one’s idea of a fun day out while being managed by a man who took your biggest rivals down to the Championship last season. But look! You could still win a trophy! Kind of.
Yesterday’s forgettable meeting with Sunderland was Villa’s sixth 0-0 draw of the season, and the eighth time they have appeared last on Match of the Day. With games running out, it puts them in pole position to snatch the prestigious Gubbometer trophy from Fulham. (I say prestigious trophy. I haven’t actually got round to making it yet, and I’ve been running this competition for nearly five years.)
Watching Villa appear time and again at the tail end of Match of the Day has brought, to me, the same feelings of gloom that descend whenever I see a repeat of a particularly poor comedy panel show on Dave: Perhaps the episode of Have I Got News For You guest presented by the two blokes from Masterchef, or that edition of QI where Alan Davies disappeared after five minutes.
I know straight away that it’s not going to be entertaining, and I feel the urge to change channel. Last night, I could have enjoyed the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest on BBC Two, or The Big Bang Theory on E4, or Family Guy on BBC Three, or an episode of Poiroton ITV3. Anything, anything, would have been preferable to seeing two sides edge towards stalemate. And I was only watching the highlights. Pity the poor Villa fans who have paid money to sit through this tripe all season.
Still, it does keep the Gubbometer title race fizzing along nicely. Sunderland’s recent run of goalless tedium has propelled them into the race beside Fulham and Villa. To quote another famous line of Brian Moore commentary: It’s up for grabs now.
I’ve got a sneaky feeling, though, that Villa might just edge it. And if they do, I hereby promise that I will make a Gubbometer trophy out of tin foil, paper clips and Vince Cable’s tears, and personally deliver it to 10 Downing Street.
1. Aston Villa: 8 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
2. Fulham: 8 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
3. Sunderland: 7 (2L: 7, 3L: 0)
4. Norwich: 6 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
5. Stoke: 6 (2L: 2, 3L: 8)
6. Wigan: 5 (2L: 8, 3L: 6)
7. West Brom: 5 (2L: 6, 3L: 4)
8. Swansea: 4 (2L: 7, 3L: 6)
9. QPR: 4 (2L: 4, 3L: 3)
10: Wolves: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 7)
11. Blackburn: 4 (2L: 2, 3L: 6)
12: Liverpool: 4 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
13. Tottenham: 4 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
14. Chelsea: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 6)
15. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
16. Everton: 1 (2L: 10, 3L: 4)
17. Bolton: 1 (2L: 4, 3L: 6)
18. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 5, 3L: 1)
19. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
2L = On second last (Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0)
3L = On third last (Fulham 2 Wigan 1)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on Match of the Day. 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.)