PL25: Bitter Tweet Symphony (2015/16)

The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. After a steady decline it looked as though Aston Villa’s time in the Premier League was coming to an end, with a string of dreadful results leaving them rock bottom of the league heading into the final months of the 2015/16 season. For many fans the attitude of the players was the root of their downfall and, after one particularly desperate performance, Joleon Lescott’s pocket helped substantiate that theory.

Life in the Premier League had, on the whole, been pretty comfortable for Aston Villa. After a topsy-turvy few seasons early on, when Ron Atkinson had taken them to within a whisker of the inaugural title before Brian Little narrowly saved them from relegation, the Villains settled into a top half groove. Eleven top 8 finishes in sixteen years, with the occasional push for Champions League football, left the Villa Park faithful with little to cheer about but, after early signs that Randy Lerner might finally provide some much needed ambition and stability for the West Midlands club following the tyrannical reign of Doug Ellis, things slowly started to go wrong. On the eve of the 2010/11 season Martin O’Neill resigned after Lerner imposed a ‘buy-to-sell’ policy at the club. The sale of James Milner to Manchester City was the final straw for the Northern Irishman, and after a brief spell under the watch of caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald, Gerard Houllier was brought in as manager. The former Liverpool manager’s time at Villa Park was mixed, as Houllier struggled to maintain the momentum generated by O’Neill, though sadly he was unable to see out the remainder of the season after being rushed to hospital with chest pains. Gary McAllister took over for the remainder of the season, and a good spell of form saw Villa finish 9th, a creditable placing after such a chaotic term. With Houllier unable to return to the club on health grounds, Lerner was forced to appoint a new manager, and his choice was spectacularly misjudged. Alex McCleish had not only just been relegated from the Premier League, but he had done so with Villa’s fierce rivals, Birmingham City. Though his part in their demotion may have earned him some goodwill with the claret and blues, the appointment lacked ambition and had the hallmarks of a club going backwards. Unsurprisingly McCleish struggled, finishing 16th in his only season at the club before reportedly being sacked whilst holding a list of summer transfer targets in his hand. Paul Lambert was then poached from Norwich City and took Villa a place higher in the league the following two seasons, but after some insipid performances and poor results in 2014/15 he was sacked, replaced by Tim Sherwood. Tactics Tim managed to cobble together enough points to save Villa from the drop, and headed into the 2015/16 season hoping to restore the club as a solid mid-table Premier League side.

Sherwood’s job was made slightly more difficult by the departures of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, two of the better players available at his disposal. On the plus side, those sales generated £40m of revenue, which Sherwood was then able to plough back into the first team squad. While the bulk of summer business included young European talent – Idrissa Gana Gueye, Jordan Ayew, Jordan Veretout and Jordan Amavi all arrived from Ligue 1 for a combined £34m – some Premier League experience was also recruited with the signings of Joleon Lescott, Micah Richards and Scott Sinclair. Rudy Gestede arrived from Blackburn with the task of filling Benteke’s shoes, and the Norwegian got off to a flyer, scoring the only goal on the opening day to burst the bubble of newly promoted Bournemouth. That win put them fifth at the close of the weekend, but unfortunately for Sherwood and Villa, that was as good as it got. Defeats to Manchester United and Crystal Palace and a draw at home to Sunderland left them midtable at the end of August, and Tactics Tim’s nadir was on the horizon. Having outplayed Leicester City at the King Power Stadium,  and found themselves 2-0 up just past the hour, Sherwood introduced Ayew (predominantly a striker) for Carles Gil (an attacking midfielder) and the change in shape opened up space for Leicester to exploit. Ritchie De Laet quickly pulled one back for the Foxes, at which point Sherwood brought on Gestede for Gabriel Agbonlahor (why?!) and within seven minutes Leicester were level through Jamie Vardy. Replacing the more attacking Leandro Bacuna for a straight up shithouse in Alan Hutton (horse, door, bolted), Sherwood was clearly hoping to get the hell out of dodge before things got worse, and three minutes later Nathan Dyer nodded the winner for the hosts. Cue a thoughtful, dignified and measured response from the Aston Villa manager: “I ain’t never felt this bad ever”.

sherwood

That was the beginning of the end for Sherwood, and five defeats later he was out on his ear, free to have absolutely nothing to do with the first team at Swindon Town. Remi Garde was brought in having gained a decent reputation at Lyon despite his spell as manager coinciding with the end of the most dominant era of their history, and despite losing his first game in charge at Tottenham Hotspur, an encouraging goalless draw with Manchester City followed. A further three draws from the next six games followed, though by now the club were rooted to the bottom of the table, and back to back defeats at relegation rivals Norwich City and Sunderland either side of New Year left them marooned at the bottom of the table, having won only eight points from twenty games, and eleven points from safety. On 12th January Aston Villa supporters were greeted by the miraculous sight of their team winning a game, with Crystal Palace the unfortunate victims, and draws in their next two outings saw them complete their best unbeaten run of the season. West Ham put paid to that the following week, but a vital win at home to Norwich City meant the table offered intriguing reading. The gap to safety had been cut by eight points, and with all three sides above them struggling, there was the smallest of chances that Villa might just get out of this mess.

Though, on the other hand, it could all get a lot worse. The following game saw Liverpool, themselves having an underwhelming season, arrive at Villa Park off the back of one win in five as Jurgen Klopp adjusted to life in front of the Kop. The Reds raced into a two goal lead by half-time with Daniel Sturridge, making his first start since October, opening the scoring before James Milner’s free-kick squirmed under Mark Bunn. Three goals in eight second half-minutes provided the cue for the home support to abandon ship, and Kolo Toure added a sixth with twenty minutes to go. Mercifully, Klopp’s side declared at six, as Remi Garde cut a lonely figure on the touchline. Still, worse was to come. Having presumably received a torrent of abuse on Twitter for his team’s capitulation, Joleon Lescott then tweeted a picture of a £125,000 sportscar with no comment. Unsurprisingly a TWITTERSTORM followed, and Lescott was forced to explain his actions, via Twitter, as he sent out the entirely unconvincing explanation that he had sent the tweet accidentally, via his pocket. Chinny reckon, Joles.

lescotttwwt

That hammering was the catalyst for an abysmal run of form, during which Villa picked up a solitary point from thirteen games, and suffered three more shoeings at the hands of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. Remi Garde was sacked with seven games of the season remaining, but caretaker Eric Black was unable to turn the team’s form around, and a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United on 16th April finally condemned them to the Championship. Having learned nothing from his transgression earlier in the season, Lescott came out after relegation was confirmed and claimed that it was ‘a weight off [their] shoulders’. The defender went on to say “[maybe] we can give these fans what they deserve, some performances”.

*Ron Howard Voiceover*

They couldn’t.

Lescott left Aston Villa at the end of the season, spending two and a half months at AEK Athens before having his contract terminated. He then signed a short-term deal with Sunderland, but left having finished bottom of the table with the Wearsiders. After Chinese businessman Tony Xia completed his takeover of the club, Aston Villa struggled in their first season in the Championship, finishing mid-table under Steve Bruce. They are currently in the mix for a play-off spot this season.

Aston Villa were joined in relegation by Norwich City and Newcastle United – the only side unable to beat Villa across the season. The 2015/16 season, though, will forever be remembered for the incredible story of Leicester City who, having made a great escape the year before, won the Premier League against all the odds under Claudio Ranieri.

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