16th April 2016.
For whatever reason, this past weekend's games seemed to solidify the fate of the 2015/16 Premier League. For one thing, Leicester City, spurred on by a brace from likely PFA Player of the Year winner Jamie Vardy, started to look like clear Premier League champions. Seven points clear at the top of the table with five games to play, the Foxes aren't in the clear yet but haven't seen any major threats in awhile.
Perhaps more importantly, Leicester have now won five games in a row. They've got the momentum to finish out the season strong and win their first-ever Premier League title. At very least, Leicester's win against Sunderland over the weekend guarantees the club a spot in the 2016/17 Champions League-the first time the Foxes have ever qualified for the prestigious tournament.
Aston Villa's Losing Streak
Speaking of Premier League firsts, while Leicester City were enjoying their unofficial coronation as league champs over the weekend, the final nail might have been pounded into the Aston Villa coffin. In their second game since the sacking of Remi Garde, the Lions looked as listless as they have all season. The soccer club narrowly avoided a shutout loss, when Jordan Ayew scored a goal at the 85-minute mark. Still, the game-a 1-2 at-home loss against AFC Bournemouth-leaves Aston Villa nine points behind every other team in the league and 15 points from escaping the red zone. Barring some sort of remarkable comeback under interim manager Eric Black, the Lions are headed to the Football League Championship for 2016/17.
That's right: the previously death-defying Aston Villa, a team that has managed to avoid relegation in every season since the founding of the Premier League in 1992, is finally headed to the second tier. The squad has only managed three wins all season-a dismal record that led to the sackings of both Tim Sherwood and Remi Garde. Currently, the Lions are in the midst of an eight-game losing streak.
Needless to say, things aren't exactly chipper at Villa Park. But what went wrong, and what's next for this wounded soccer organization?
What Went Wrong?
General wisdom would point to the 2010/11 season as the moment everything took a turn for the worse at Villa Park. Prior to that season, the Lions had finished sixth in the Premier League three years in a row and seemed poised to challenge for a spot in the Champions League.
Instead, things fell apart. Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner decided to curb the soccer club's spending, and manager Martin O'Neill, not appreciating the change of direction, vacated the head coaching job just five days before the start of the season. At the time, O'Neill had been Villa's head coach since 2006. Since he left, the Lions have hired and sacked five managers (not including interim and caretaker coaches).
O'Neill's departure probably would have hurt Aston Villa in the best of circumstances. His actual departure arguably left the Claret and Blue in the worst of circumstances. With just five days to go before the season opener against West Ham United, Lerner left caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald in charge. MacDonald did coach the Lions to a 3-0 at-home win in their first match, and for a moment, it seemed like the football club might just survive the departure of their manager. Then, in week two, they lost 0-6 to Newcastle United.
That season ultimately saw Aston Villa finishing ninth in the Premier League-a performance that resulted in the sacking of full-time replacement coach, Gerard Houllier. Things would only get worse from there. In 2012, 2013, and 2014, the Lions finished 16th, 15th, and 15th, respectively. Last season, they narrowly dodged relegation with a 17th place result. Managers Alex McLeish, Paul Lambert, and Tim Sherwood tried and failed to turn things around for the Claret and Blue. Now that he has come and gone, we can add Remi Garde to that list, as well.
Randy Lerner, who finally stepped down as Aston Villa's chairman in January, has blamed Martin O'Neill's sudden departure in 2010 for his soccer club's woes. The short-notice exit was a massive blow to the solid foundation that the Lions had been building under O'Neill's guidance. According to Lerner, it left the club without stability.
Add the lack of a strong star player this season-after three years as Aston Villa's top scorer, Christian Benteke transferred to Liverpool last summer-and it looks like the football club's number is finally up. Quite simply, the Lions are out of great relegation escapes.
With Lerner out of the chairman job (in favor of Steven Hollis), Remi Garde sent packing, and Aston Villa likely to play the 2016/17 campaign in the Championship, it feels like the end of an era at Villa Park. On one hand, Villa's long-suffering fans deserve better, and the club's relegation will be costly since it will mean they don't get a cut of the Premier League's big new broadcasting deal next fall. Those factors, combined with Aston Villa's long unbroken run in the Premier League, will sting the most when the football club is officially relegated in May.
On the other hand, though, the impending relegation might just be what the Lions need to rebuild a stable foundation instead of constantly playing catch up. The organization has been a mess since O'Neill left almost six years ago. Clearly the simple appointment and sacking of managers isn't enough to change the club's fortunes. Relief from the fast-paced, high-pressure environment of the Premier League could end up being exactly what the doctor ordered.
Of course, the Claret and Blue will still need a new manager-their sixth since O'Neill's 2010 exit. Interim manager Eric Black seems unlikely to be the choice-especially after he led Aston Villa to a 0-4 loss against Chelsea in his first game in charge.
With that in mind, who could be Garde's official full-time replacement? And will Villa appoint anyone before the end of the season, or simply allow Black to steer the soccer club into relegation before starting fresh this summer?
Black, who is perfectly aware that his chances of being Garde's long-term replacement are low, thinks the club should take its time finding a replacement. In an interview with The Telegraph, the interim head coach noted that "it is extremely difficult to bounce back and a massive challenge," speaking of Aston Villa's goal of earning promotion back into the Premier League next season. "You come from a base of winning three games this season and if Aston Villa are in the Championship next season, they're going to have to win a minimum of 26 or 27 to get out, which is more than the last five years."
Indeed, this hiring decision could make or break Aston Villa as they prepare for the start of a new era. The right coach could rebuild the Lions, assemble a squad of up-and-coming talents, win promotion back to the Premier League, and quickly return the Claret and Blue to the momentum of the O'Neill era. The wrong hire could lead to a middling performance in the Championship and resign the club to years in the second tier.
So who are the candidates? Reportedly, Hollis and the rest of the Villa Park organization are just starting to compile candidates, which means that a lot of names are being thrown around right now. According to football management site The Sack Race, former Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson is the most likely candidate, with 5/4 odds. Mick McCarthy (Ipswich Town), Steve Bruce (Hull City), Simon Grayson (Preston North End), and David Moyes (on sabbatical, after spells with Manchester United and Real Sociedad) are also all given solid odds. The likes of Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Steve McLaren, and Brendan Rodgers are on the list, too, but with low chances.
Who do you think should be entrusted with leading Aston Villa to a great 2016/17 season and a quick escape from the Football League Championship? And do you think the football club can turn things around next season, or will they have to languish in the Championship for a couple of years before they are ready for a Premier League resurgence? At Soccer Box, we want to hear your predictions! Find us on social media to share your thoughts. We are active on multiple platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
What Next for Aston Villa?
16th April 2016.