When we think of the great Premier League teams, we think of the Treble-winning Man Utd side, the Arsenal Invincibles, Mourninho’s all-conquering Chelsea (the first time around). Perhaps we’ll soon be able to add this year’s vintage of Man City to that list, too.
But what about those teams who never quite hit those heights? The teams that on their day, were as good as anyone, but didn’t back it up with the silverware. Or the ones that seemed to consistently hover just below the elite.
This new feature will remember and explore those teams. The key players, the moments, the goals.
Because after all, football is about a lot more than just hyper-achievement. It’s also about hope, excitement and glorious failure.
This was a side that finished sixth for three consecutive seasons, qualifying for the Uefa Cup/Europa League each time, as well as appearing in an FA Cup semi-final and a League Cup final.
If ever there was a team not to receive its due recognition, it’s this Villa side.
It was a team built on a solid English core, with players like Gareth Barry, James Milner and Ashley Young continuing to play a pivotal role in the league for the next decade — all three winning Premier League titles at their next clubs.
Though his career may have peaked around this time, another Englishman, Gabriel Agbonlahor was key to the sustained (relative) success. He reached double figures for goals in the league in each of these three seasons, something he has never managed before or since. His pace, and pinpoint shooting, tore apart many a defence.
His strike partner, the Norwegian man-mountain John Carew, was also in the form of his life. Heading and holding up the ball as well as any target man should, like Agbonlahor, he hit double figures in each season.
Across those three seasons, between them, the two scored a combined total of 69 goals in the league.
It’s not at the same level as some of the great strike partnerships — Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke scored 92 in their peak three seasons together, Henry and Bergkamp, 95 — but for a front two playing for a team very much outside of the elite, it’s a more-than-respectable total.
At the start of the 2008 season, Brad Friedel joined the club, and the sheer impenetrable presence of the American in goal provided the solid defensive base from which Villa would build over the next two seasons.
In the season prior to Friedel’s arrival, despite finishing sixth, Villa conceded 51 goals or 1.4 a game. Two seasons later, with Friedel organising his troops, they only conceded 39 – just over 1 goal/game.
Over those three seasons of defensive improvement, eight different centre-backs of varying quality played over twenty games per season. Hardly a sign of stability. The only real constant throughout was Friedel.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Friedel to that team, and perhaps too for both the Blackburn and Spurs sides he played for before and after Villa. An imposing keeper, he exuded a calm but firm demeanour like that of a veteran school teacher, who’d been there and done it all. That kind of experience bred confidence in any defence that stood in front of him.
On top of that, he could pull off some amazing saves.
THE STAR PLAYER
Yet despite Friedel’s consistency, the relative goal-scoring abundance of Carew and Agbonlahor, and the solid English core, there is one player above all others who best defined that era of Aston Villa: Stiliyan Petrov.
He is one of those rare players who managed to become a fan favourite at two separate clubs.
Petrov’s arrival from Celtic in the summer of 2006 coincided with an upturn in the fortunes of the club.
The 05/06 season saw Villa finish 16th, and after a dismal campaign spent fighting relegation under David O’Leary, a new manager, Martin O’Neill, was brought in.
O’Neill and Petrov will forever be intrinsically linked. Petrov spent five years under O’Neill at Celtic, during one of the most successful periods the club has had in the last twenty years, when they were winning leagues, cups and reaching European finals, for fun.
He was adored by Celtic faithful, but eventually left the club, to follow O’Neill to Villa.
Petrov is the complete personification of a cult hero. An admittedly very-much-central midfielder at Villa, in seven years and 185 appearances, he only scored 9 goals.
But what goals they were. Like Tony Yeboah or Matt Le Tissier, it seemed like Petrov could only ever score 25+ yard screamers.
He experienced a difficult start to life at Villa, the Premier League defences not offering him the space he’d experienced in Scotland to operate on the edge of the area, in the way he was used to.
Instead, he had to adapt, and began to play in a much deeper role, alongside or instead of, Gareth Barry.
Soon, it was clear that Petrov’s football intelligence and professional attitude had won through, and he began to dictate many a game from the centre of the pitch, starting moves, exchanging passes with his midfield partners or pinging long balls up to the big man up top.
Organised, fluid and one-step-ahead — that was Petrov’s game.
In many ways, he was O’Neill’s lieutenant on the pitch and in 2009, he became the club captain.
That season resulted in the third consecutive 6th place finish in the league, an FA Cup semi-final and League Cup final appearance. Petrov’s contribution cannot be understated when discussing those achievements.
A real character; outspoken and lively, but a diligent and effective coach, O’Neill transformed Aston Villa from perennial underachievers, scrapping between mid-table and relegation, to a team mixing it with the big boys, and occasionally even beating them.
Across those three seasons, O’Neill’s squad twice took three points from Chelsea at home, beat Spurs home and away, and won at Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United — no mean feats.
O’Neill has always relished the underdog status. Whether during his playing career at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, as manager of his twice-league cup-winning Leicester side, or now, with the Irish national team, being the team with less to lose suits O’Neill perfectly.
But with Villa, for perhaps the first time in his managerial career, O’Neill had the opportunity to combine underdog status with real talent — a potent mix.
This Villa side was packed with talent, the longevity of Young, Milner and Barry alone is testament to this, but prior to O’Neill’s arrival, that talent was looking very much wasted.
It’s O’Neill who deserves credit for getting the best out of them, turning them into the players they are now.
In spite of this, many say, even today, that O’Neill lacks a coherent philosophy or tactical blueprint. Admittedly, his time at Villa was never defined by a specific style of play.
Instead, it was defined by a certain mentality, an attitude, a desire.
In a way, that is O’Neill’s philosophy. He brings the underdog spirit, the never-say-die, don’t-know-when-we’re-beat feeling to a club, and for a team like Villa operating just outside the upper echelons of the league, this mentality proved invaluable.
It too, was a style in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, David O’Leary.
Where O’Leary focused on detail, O’Neill saw bigger picture. Where O’Leary rightly saw an inconsistent, sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful side, his three seasons resulting in 6th, 10th and 16th place finishes, O’Neill dared to think this team could overachieve, and give out some bloody noses at the same time. And that’s exactly what they did.
Of this era, the 2009–10 season was both the most successful, and most heartbreaking for Villa fans.
Though long-term servant Gareth Barry had departed to Manchester City, Villa strengthened in the positions that most needed it.
They brought in Stephen Warnock at Left-Back, Richard Dunne and James Collins at Centre-Back, and Stewart Downing on the wing.
Decent cup runs were backed up by a real, concerted challenge for a top-four spot in the league.
Right up until the penultimate game of the season, there was hope.
Villa travelled to Man City, themselves sitting in fifth. Which ever team won had the chance to put pressure on Spurs in fourth, with City playing Spurs four days later.
This was a huge opportunity. Beat City and win their last game, and hope for a draw in the game between City and Spurs, and there was every chance Villa could claim their place in the Champions League for the first time. It was a long shot, but it was still possible.
And it all started so well. Villa took the lead after 16 minutes, through John Carew. A Stewart Downing pass found the big Norwegian in plenty of space to tuck home through the City keeper’s legs.
At 42 minutes, Stephen Warnock gave away a rash penalty, bringing down Adam Johnson, and Carlos Tevez put it away to equalise.
At 43 minutes, Johnson found Adebayor in acres of room, and the Togolese slotted the ball in to give City the lead.
With that, the game was turned on its it head. In two minutes, Villa’s dream of Champion’s League football was crushed.
The game finished 3–1 to City, and despite coming so close, Villa had to concede defeat in the race for the top four.
Probably out of sheer disappointment from that result, they then succumbed to defeat against Blackburn in the final game of the season, to finish in 6th place.
We must put this all into perspective.
This team never won a trophy, and never finished above sixth across those three seasons. By most standards, this isn’t a success.
And yet… the level of consistency, and the football they played, was only beaten by the truly elite teams of that time.
Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal were still very much the big four, separate beasts from the rest of the league. Then came Tottenham, the burgeoning moneyed force of Man City, and Aston Villa.
There is a case to be made that from 2007–2010, Villa was the best, and most consistent of those latter three teams.
Though they never had the highs of Champions League qualification or a trophy win, they didn’t drop into the bottom half (like Spurs) or lose motivation and simply finish comfortably mid-table (like City). For three seasons, they hit their highest possible level, and stayed there.
Was this a great team? Probably not, no. But it was, in many ways, a very good team, and more importantly, a very consistent team.
Other sides that will feature in this column, will often do so because of their highs. The out-of-the-blue 3rd place finishes, the sublime football they played.
The Villa team from 07–10 features here because of its stable and admirable consistency.
A team with solid, somehow both over and underachieving players that contributed to English football for the next decade (perhaps just not at Villa).
This wonderful game is not only about the trophies and the millions of pounds and the biggest stages; it’s about the goals, the moments and the hope.
Aston Villa, 2007–2010, embodied all of this as much as any team in the Premier League era. And we should remember them for what they did achieve, not what they didn’t.
Written by Jackson Rawlings. Twitter: @jacksonhraw