In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at Wednesday's Premier League clash between Leeds United and Aston Villa.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
If I asked you to think about Aston Villa and name the first player or manager who came to mind, you might find there isn’t an answer that trips straight off the tongue. There isn’t one dominant personality who stands out. And that isn’t meant as a slight against the club, in fact it’s the opposite, it shows that Villa are a big club in an organic sense and whose weight, history and stature transcends the contribution of any one, mere individual.
A natural reaction is to think of Jack Grealish or Dean Smith when asked that question, or you might cast your mind back to Dwight Yorke or Paul McGrath, and an older fan might instantly remember the league title-winners led by manager Ron Saunders and containing the likes of European Cup-winners Dennis Mortimer, Gordon Cowans, Trevor Morley and Peter Withe. Brian Little was a standout Villa player for a decade and was also manager for their last major trophy win, and therefore responsible for one of my top 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 my point is that Villa’s most prolonged period of league and cup success came around the turn of the 20th century (that’s 20th, not 21st), and even though they have won the most coveted club trophy in European football, there are no household names indelibly linked to the club’s success, in the way a neutral fan might recall the impact of Don Revie, Billy Bremner or Gordon Strachan on the history of a largely under-achieving Leeds United.
Any household in the Midlands area might well disagree and think that’s an unfair assessment of their history, of course, and they might think the same about Leeds United. But as an outsider that’s how I see it, and it does, nevertheless, offer the conclusion that Villa have always been a club of size and stature which draws attention and not inconsiderable support, but without a talismanic figure to fashion an identity or seek inspiration from, at least in modern times. Even perhaps their most revered manager, league title-winning Ron Saunders, quit the following season and it was his assistant manager Tony Barton who went on to win the European Cup in Rotterdam in 1982 with a 1-0 win over Bayern Munich.
But in terms of modern football, individual figures deemed to possess enchanting magical powers don’t come more magnetising than Steven Gerrard. While carrying Liverpool through a whole generation almost single-handedly in Roy of the Rovers fashion, he was the one player from the ‘Golden Generation’ you couldn’t help but admire; an undeniably brilliant player, but humble and honest with it and somehow shorn of the self-aggrandisement that made many of his England colleagues of the time largely dislikeable.
In management, Gerrard has undoubtedly been quick to make his mark. Whatever you think about the standard of Scottish football and the undeniable sense that, as Glasgow Rangers manager, you will always have a 50/50 chance of winning the title, it is still a pressure cooker atmosphere for a rookie manager to walk into, and Gerrard won a first title in 10 years, therefore succeeding where several others had failed.
At Villa, where Leeds visit for their first fixture after the mid-season break on Wednesday night, Gerrard walked into a club seemingly always drifting and always on the verge of a mini-crisis. Like Leeds, Villa have flirted between the top two divisions for much of their existence, and have also plumbed the depths of the third tier just once, in Villa’s case between 1970 and 1972. But the similarities between the two clubs have perhaps been more prominent in recent years.
In 2018/19 the two clashed as fallen giants desperate to reclaim their top-tier status, and while Leeds won the epic pre-Christmas contest at Villa Park when Kemar Roofe’s delicious injury-time winner introduced many knees and shins to obstructing plastic seats in the away end, the return contest is more widely remembered for the ‘ghost’ goal from Mateusz Klich, and Marcelo Bielsa insisting Leeds let Villa equalise unhindered. That fixture and the fracas surrounding ‘that’ incident has added more spice to what is usually a feisty occasion, but this time around it is hard to foretell which Villa and which Leeds will turn up.
Last season encapsulated the current stop-start trajectory of both clubs perfectly. Having won their first four games of the season, Villa then capitulated to a 3-0 home defeat to Leeds and a Patrick Bamford hat-trick. There then followed an exasperating season of inconsistency summed up by a four-day period in which an organised and accomplished Villa cruised to a relatively comfortable 1-0 win v Leeds at Elland Road, then lost to bottom-placed Sheffield United.
Both clubs are in a position of having the potential to break into the next base camp phase of hiking up the Premier League, where European football and routine survival is there for the taking, but this season has again proved maddeningly frustrating. At least for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds this is still something of a wild-eyed adventure, but Villa are sharing similar traits of being able to beat the teams in and around them but falling short against the top teams.
So the meeting on Wednesday night is predictably hard 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 appears that you never quite know when that team is going to turn up.
For Leeds, a two and a half week break should see us mentally and physically in better shape, if not perfect shape. It is to be hoped that the treatment room will, as a minimum, be rid of Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo by now and perhaps also Patrick Bamford. Triple murderball sessions might be the only way to get Bamford up-to-speed, but even just the sight of him on the bench at Villa will give everyone a much-needed boost.
The time has come for Leeds to attack the second half of the season with gusto and to secure the minimum five or six wins needed from the last 17 games to achieve Premier league safety, as quickly as possible. Given the quality Leeds have to come back into the team, that is a very achievable target, but nothing is certain in football, not least our ability to keep players fit and available for any sustained period.
And yet, while Villa might feel they have finally landed the leader and torchbearer they have needed for a long time in Steven Gerrard, and who might become the name we all recall in years to come when we think about Aston Villa, Leeds at least know they have no shortage of individuals who are already written into the modern history of the club, and are ready to stand up and be counted, both on and off the pitch. Now is certainly the time for them to do that.