Monday, May 17, 2004

Be thankful for small mercies

From the SWSL report of Wednesday's match with Southampton: "Two minutes into stoppage time, Robert picked out Ambrose from a corner and the youngster fired in from distance, but an equaliser wasn't what we needed or craved". In the event, that equaliser turned out to be priceless.

Going into the final round of Premiership games this season I didn't hold out much hope of us scraping into the UEFA Cup. We had to do better away to Liverpool than Villa did at home to Man Utd. Our Premiership record at Anfield is appalling, we're still suffering from something of an injury crisis and I was fully expecting Ferguson to rest players ahead of next weekend's FA Cup Final, giving Villa an easier ride.

Consequently we owe Man Utd a grudging thank you (through particularly gritted teeth in my case). Except for Roy Keane they were at full strength and set about a shellshocked Villa with more relish that we could possibly have hoped for, goals from Ronaldo and Ol' Horseface putting them two up inside the first ten minutes. That's how it stayed for the rest of the game - even though referee Rob Styles did his best to coax Villa into life by sending off Darren Fletcher and Ronaldo, the effort they (and the crowd) managed to muster up was pretty laughable given the prize at stake.

Of course, defeat for O'Leary's side would have been irrelevant if we had lost too, but Ameobi latched onto the end of a Bowyer pass to finish calmly and put us 1-0 up over Liverpool at the break. Unfortunately, in the second half Michael Owen failed to break his habit of scoring against us and made the closing stages rather cagey and nervous, but ultimately we held out to secure a draw, and relief was etched on the faces of the two embracing managers at the final whistle. The result put us level with Villa on 56 points, but our far superior goal difference took us above them into fifth. Of course, had Ambrose not snatched us a draw from the game at St Mary's we would have been the disappointed ones.

So, where does this leave us? We secured European football by the skin of our teeth, and given that we've never really hit form as a team and certain players (Jenas, Bowyer, Viana, Dyer...) have been off the pace all season, that the teams above us all have arguably better squads, and that our away record has been appalling, that outcome and the UEFA Cup run have to regarded as positive achievements. But not for long.

We simply cannot expect to finish as high up the league again whilst playing so poorly. After finishing fourth and then third in the previous two seasons, we've taken a step back in more ways than one. There's a sense of simmering unrest at the club, and that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. As Fat Freddie Shepherd has said, "A fifth place finish is not acceptable for us. Fourth place was the bare minimum. This summer we will have to look at everything from top to bottom." Not only does that mean that the future of several players is uncertain (Griffin, Caldwell and Kerr, plus reserve regulars Zola, Ferrell and Orr have all already been released), but Sir Bobby himself finds himself on shaky ground. Although UEFA Cup qualification at least means there should be some money available and some incentive to help attract the sort of big names who can take the club out of the current stagnation, it's perhaps more important that we fend off the money-laden vultures that are circling around a number of first teamers, Woodgate in particular - now arguably our most important player ahead of Shearer.

Rest assured it's going to be an interesting couple of months, but let's hope that we can learn from this season's disappointments and then come back in August reinvigorated and with renewed hope and belief.

(Read Paul's thoughts on the end-of-season climax and the prospects for this summer here.)

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