Monday, February 16, 2009

The Match Pricks Q&A: Martin Banks from Aston Villa Blog

OK, back at it after the international mini break and the Liverpool-less FA Cup weekend. We start a new week with a new feature: The Match Pricks Q&A. I hope to make these semi-regular, and our first effort features Martin Banks from the excellent and devoted Aston Villa Blog. Villa are, in many ways, the most interesting side in the Premier League this season, and their ascendance into the Top 4 has caused a rethink of how the league can operate. It's certainly arguable that Villa indirectly cost Big Phil Scolari his job at Chelsea, at the least.

Of course, back in the early days of Match Pricks, Villa's captain caused me all sorts of consternation, so with Villa there's a hefty connection to Liverpool this season, too.

As the club embarks on a crucial two-week stretch that includes Chelsea at Villa Park this weekend and a trip to Moscow in the UEFA Cup, Martin Banks took some time to answer a bunch of my questions and share with Match Pricks what it's been like following the side this season, share some bits of Martin O'Neill humor and reveal that in the past, many Villans just hoped to play as exciting a brand of football as Bolton.

MATCH PRICKS: I'm guessing most Villa supporters were optimistic back in August, but cracking the Top 4 and being within a shout of first wasn't assumed a realistic goal. How's it been as a fan to go along on this ride?
MARTIN BANKS: It’s been fantastic but in many ways it still seems like a dream. The top four is uncrackable, we all know that, or at least we thought we did because now we find ourselves in amongst them. Will it last till May? Who knows, but if it doesn’t I won’t be disappointed, I’ll be proud that we came so close and did so well for so long. Back in August I was telling anyone who said we could do this, that they had their head in the clouds! But now, here we are, 7 points clear of the Arse, 2 points above Chelsea and even getting some to talk of our chances of winning the league.

MP: From a distance, it seems like Martin O'Neill is keeping things loose and fun, trying to reduce any pressure on the players. Does he have his "Rafa Benitez moments" where the pressure of the moment seems apparent? Or is he just encouraging everyone to enjoy things?
MB: His serious and pressured moments are on the sidelines. He is almost unparalleled in his passion on the side of a match. If you stuck a mic in his face during the game, you’d need to be pretty savvy on the bleep button. When it comes to interviews, he is very level headed and never boasts of his amazing success but does like to have a laugh too. O’Neill has a great dry sense of humour which has echoes of John Lennon’s. I reckon he’d be a great bloke to drink into the early hours with, talking football and putting the world to rights.

MP: What's been Villa's high-comedy point of the season? When O'Neill valued Ashley Young at £82 million seemed like a good joke and commentary on the state of football. Or has there been a comedy moment come on the pitch?
MB: When he told Robbie Williams that he thought he would struggle after Take That was hilarious but that was years ago. This season he has been on top form in some interviews, but I agree that I loved his ridiculous quotes about the value of Ashley Young, which he first said was £30m and then raised it when the Kaka farce kicked off. It was pretty ballsy of him to make jokes of a player's value after all the summer saga with Gareth Barry and the price tag he placed on him being the cause of so much fuss.

MP: What's been Villa's signature moment? Was it the 3-2 over Everton in early December? Had I been watching Liverpool make a comeback like that in the final seconds, I think I'd build a statue outside my house to honor the match. Or was it something else?
MB: You could look at the Everton finale as a signature of this season because for years we have been the team who that happens to, so it does encapsulate how far we’ve come. But as boring as it might be, I think the signatures of this season have been the games like Hull, West Ham, Baggies etc., where we’ve played cack but won.
To win when you aren’t on your game is a sign of good morale and a good team. But ... the Everton finale was fucking priceless! Let’s watch it again:

Watch that and not smile, I double dare you! (except Everton fans I guess)

MP: Who is Villa's unsung hero? Before the season, I thought Steve Sidwell might be a great signing, but I read somewhere recently, he's disappointed. Who hasn't gotten enough credit?
MB: Sidders hasn’t really managed to regain his Reading form with us as yet but he looks like there is still promise there. Barry staying was a bit of a kick in the teeth for him. Our heroes this season have been Ashley ‘The fucking man’ Young, Gabriel ‘No one can say my name but they all love me anyway’ Agbonlahor, Big John Carew, Super Martin Laursen, Stiliyan ‘At bleeding last I got good’ Petrov, Brad ‘I bet you can’t score past me’ Friedel and Curtis ‘I can’t think of any middle name for’ Davies, but they’ve all been ‘sung’. If Bouma’s leg hadn’t got all bent out of shape just before the season started I think I’d be answering with his name now, but as it is most the heroes have been so good that they’ve been impossible to not credit.

MP: How are supporters assessing the Gareth Barry thing from last summer? Does the success make it an afterthought? I'd think a Top 4 finish means he comes back next season.
MB: The success has overshadowed it, but he will never be the hero to the fans that he once was. I could understand him wanting CL football, but at Liverpool he would’ve just been part of a squad, whereas if he hadn’t rocked the boat he was on course to being treated like a deity at Villa Park. He’ll stick with us if we get top 4, but that could cause more animosity. We’ll see. The juries waiting till the summer on Bazza.

MP: Randy Lerner gets held up in the papers as the ideal foreign billionaire for the Premier League because he doesn't meddle. Is there anything supporters don't like about him? Maybe because he hasn't used his billions to sign Messi?
MB: Randy Lerner walked into a team that hated its owner very passionately, which was half the battle done for him – we would’ve embraced almost any new owner with open arms. So when he was also a great bloke, he became very difficult to dislike. He hasn’t thrown money around like crazy, which the fans may knock but it’s better to succeed our way than Chelsea’s. Man City and Spurs like to act big in the transfer window too, but where has it got them?! The Acorns touch was magic too. So nah, we love our Randy J. Long may he reign over us.

MP: On your blog, you mentioned some people booed at Villa Park after the 0-0 with Wigan. I watched the last half hour or so, and it was a miracle Villa didn't score. You're right, on effort alone, they had no right to boo. But, do you think some of the booing might have come because supporters see this season as not just a great chance to crack the four, but also a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win the League? As a Liverpool supporter, I know the pressure of getting so close to the top spot has caused me to crack more than once this season.
MP: As a Liverpool supporter I recommend you don’t get your hopes up. This is Man U’s title ;-) It’s a weird season this year and United will win the title because the others aren’t good enough rather than from their own qualities. None of the top four are maintaining any consistency this season. You may well be right, but I think Villa fans who think we can win the league need a reality check. We are doing great, but we are nearing burnout. It's going to be very tough to maintain this form. By the way, we won the league and European Cup in my lifetime. I was 2. I remember it well! ;-)

MP: Lastly, can you give me a Villa story – from any season you've supported them – that would help outsiders like me understand a little better how exciting and meaningful this season has been?
MB: Villa are the kings of the draw. No team has drawn as many games as us in Premier League history. For the majority of the time since the Prem was formed we have been (though we were loathe to admit it at the time) BOOOOOORING! We’ve successfully bored the living shit out of more football fans than anyone else. Even Bolton! We’ve had seasons where we’ve made Bolton look like Brazil, we were that boring. But since Martin O’Neill has arrived we have been young, full of pace and exciting. It’s fantastic. I can even give my Man-Utd-fan family members shit. I love it. I hope it continues for the rest of the season and beyond.


Ian Smith said...

Well done Jimmy moving the blog onwards and forever upwards. Great interview for a second there I wanted Villa to keep winning! Then I realized they are still a threat and should be treated like the devil!! Villa are having an amazing season and it has been a breath of fresh air in a league that at times is very stale.
Bring back the Premier league for gods sakes Im bored, so bored I read Colins recap of an Arsenal game from 4 years ago!!!

jack said...

Nice work!

Colin said...

You know, I watched that Everton/Villa match. I didn't just smile so much as I shook my head. I think a small grin came across though and I just muttered to myself, "Can you please start dropping points!"

That said, it was something else, wasn't it!?