Jon Howe: A Time for Leaders
In his last column for leedsunited.comLifelong supporter Jon Howe watches Wednesday’s Premier League clash between Leeds United and Aston Villa.
Howe is the author of two books about the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An AZ History of Elland Road’ – which has been updated in a new version for 2021 – and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players ” in 2012. .
If I asked you to think of Aston Villa and name the first player or manager that comes to mind, you might find that there is no answer straight off the tongue. There is no one dominant personality that stands out. And that’s not meant to be an affront to the club, in fact it’s the opposite, it shows that Villa are a great club in an organic sense and whose weight, history and stature transcend anyone’s contribution, mere individual.
A natural reaction is to think of Jack Grealish or Dean Smith when asked that question, or you can look back to Dwight Yorke or Paul McGrath, and an older fan might instantly remember the league title winners led by manager Ron Saunders and featuring the likes of European Cup winners Dennis Mortimer, Gordon Cowans, Trevor Morley and Peter Withe. Brian Little was Villa’s standout player for a decade and was also manager of their last major trophy win, and therefore responsible for one of my ten most miserable occasions as a Leeds United fan at Wembley in 1996.
Somehow Ron Atkinson still comes to mind when I think of Aston Villa, even though he was only manager for three years between 1991 and 1994. But what I mean , is that Villa’s longest period of league and cup success came around the turn of the 20and century (it’s 20andstep 21st), and even though they won the trophy for the most coveted club in European football, there are no household names indelibly linked to the club’s success in the way that a neutral fan might remember. of the impact of Don Revie, Billy Bremner or Gordon Strachan on the history of a vastly underachieving Leeds United.
Any household in the Midlands might well disagree and think that’s an unfair assessment of their history, of course, and they might think the same of Leeds United. But as an outsider, that’s how I see it, and it nonetheless offers the conclusion that Villa have always been a club of size and stature that command attention and not insignificant support, but without a talismanic figure. to shape an identity or seek inspiration. of, at least in modern times. Even perhaps their most revered manager, league title winner Ron Saunders, left the following season and it was his assistant manager Tony Barton who lifted the European Cup in Rotterdam in 1982 with a 1- 0 on Bayern Munich.
But in modern football terms, individual characters reputed to possess enchanting magical powers are no more magnetizing than Steven Gerrard. While carrying Liverpool through an entire generation almost single-handedly in Roy of the Rovers fashion, he was the one ‘Golden Generation’ player you couldn’t help but admire; an undeniably brilliant player, but humble and honest with himself and somehow stripped of the self-glorification that made many of his England colleagues of the time largely loathsome.
In management, Gerrard has undoubtedly been quick to make his mark. Whatever you think of the level of Scottish football and the undeniable feeling that as manager of Glasgow Rangers you will always have a 50/50 chance of winning the title, it’s always a pressure cooker atmosphere for a rookie manager, and Gerrard won a first title in 10 years, succeeding where several others had failed.
At Villa, where Leeds visit for their first game after the mid-season break on Wednesday night, Gerrard entered a club seemingly still adrift and still on the brink of a mini-crisis. Like Leeds, Villa have flirted between the top two divisions for much of their existence and have also only plumbed the depths of the third tier once, in Villa’s case between 1970 and 1972. But the similarities between the two clubs were perhaps more important. during the last years.
In 2018/19 the two faced off as fallen giants desperate to reclaim their top-flight status, and while Leeds won the epic pre-Christmas contest at Villa Park when Kemar Roofe’s delightful stoppage-time winner introduced numerous knees and shins to obstruct the plastic seats in the Away second leg is most widely known for Mateusz Klich’s ‘ghost’ goal, and Marcelo Bielsa insists Leeds let Villa equalize unhindered. That game and the fracas surrounding ‘that’ incident added more spice to what is usually a spirited occasion, but this time around it’s hard to predict which Villa and which Leeds will come up.
Last season summed up the current stop-start trajectory for both clubs perfectly. After winning their first four games of the season, Villa then capitulated to a 3-0 home loss to Leeds and a hat-trick from Patrick Bamford. What followed was a maddening season of inconsistency summed up by a four-day spell in which an organized and accomplished Villa won a relatively comfortable 1-0 win over Leeds at Elland Road and then lost to Sheffield United, last.
Both clubs are set to have the potential to break through into the next base camp phase of the Premier League climb, where European football and routine survival are there for the taking, but this season has come to an end. again proved to be extremely frustrating. At least for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds it’s still kind of a wild ride, but Villa share similar traits of being able to beat the teams in and around them but fall short of the top teams.
Wednesday evening’s meeting is therefore difficult to predict. Certainly Villa have made some impressive signings in Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Digne, and, like Leeds, their best team can give anyone in the league a good game. It seems like you never really know when this team is going to arrive.
For Leeds, a two-and-a-half-week break should see us mentally and physically in better shape, if not in top shape. Hopefully the treatment room will be, at the very least, clear of Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo by now and possibly Patrick Bamford as well. Triple kill sessions may be the only way to bring Bamford up to speed, but even just seeing him on the Villa bench will give everyone a much-needed boost.
Now is the time for Leeds to attack the second half of the season with enthusiasm and secure the minimum five or six wins needed in the last 17 games to secure the Premier League as quickly as possible. Given how good Leeds are to get back into the squad, that’s a very achievable goal, but nothing is certain in football, not least our ability to keep players fit and available for an extended period of time.
And yet, while Villa might feel like they’ve finally landed the leader and torchbearer they’ve long needed in Steven Gerrard, and who might become the name we all remember for years to come when we think At Aston Villa, Leeds at least know they have no shortage of individuals who are already etched in the club’s modern history and are ready to stand up and be counted, both on and off the pitch. Now is certainly the time for them to do so.