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Last Updated: Monday, 8 May 2006, 06:31 GMT 07:31 UK
Is West Midlands football in decline?
By Phil Gordos

Villa's nearest Premiership neighbours will be in Sheffield and the North West
Villa's closest Premiership rivals next season will be Sheffield United

Aston Villa are once again left to fly the Premiership flag for the West Midlands following the relegation of Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion.

It is a burden the 1981 League champions have grown accustomed to since the heady days when Blues, the Baggies, Wolves and Coventry City were all playing in the top flight.

Then it was just a short hop down the M6 for one of several hotly-contested local derbies.

But next season the nearest Premiership club to Villa Park will be newly-promoted Sheffield United, 62 miles away in South Yorkshire as the crow flies.

But even Villa, one of seven teams to play in every Premiership season, are no longer safe in the top echelon.

In fact, they are teetering on the edge, their status as one of England's top six clubs long since forgotten.

Don Goodman, who spent the bulk of his career in the West Midlands and now regularly commentates on the region's top teams, says Villa's plight this season has surprised him.

Villa finished the season safe from relegation but were only two places above the drop zone.

Goodman says Villa's parlous position means manager David O'Leary is under real pressure for the first time in his three-year career at the club.

The former West Brom, Wolves and Walsall striker also believes the club's rapidly diminishing cache of big-name players are failing to live up to their star billing.

"Of all the West Midlands teams, Villa have shocked me the most," Goodman told BBC Sport. "They have really been poor all season.

"I've seen a few of their matches and I've never come away once thinking they played really, really well.

They used to be considered one of the big clubs but they are nowhere near the top five or six now
Goodman's Villa verdict

"They bagged just enough points to get away with it but to see them where they are now is massively disappointing.

"They used to be considered one of the big clubs because they won the League, the League Cup and the European Cup but they are nowhere near the top five or six now."

Villa's struggles are a far cry from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they topped the Premiership table under John Gregory, reached an FA Cup final and played in Europe.

"Too many players have not performed," stated Goodman.

"Managers live or die by the signings they make but, like a lot of signings that have come to Villa, they haven't produced the goods. They have had injuries but so has every club."

Talk of a takeover has reared its head at regular intervals during the course of the season but chairman Doug Ellis seems no closer to relinquishing his tight grip on the club.

O'Leary says the uncertainty is partly to blame for his side's poor showing as well as the lack of transfer funds, although he had 6.5m to spend on striker Milan Baros.

But the excuse cuts no ice with Goodman.

"Players are paid to perform out on the pitch," he said. "It shouldn't make a difference to them what happens off it.

"Let's not kid ourselves, ultimately, the buck stops with the manager and, for the first time, David O'Leary is really under pressure."

Gary Cahill
Defender Gary Cahill has been one of Villa's few positives
What's more, Goodman believes that unless new players are brought in and, despite the emergence of several promising kids, Villa will struggle again next season.

"Some of the youngsters have been Villa's best players this season," said Goodman.

"Steven Davis has been a revelation, while the emergence of Gary Cahill has been a big plus.

"That's one positive but the one thing youngsters guarantee you is inconsistency.

"If Villa go with the same squad next season, then it will be a relegation battle."

It's not looking too rosy for their near neighbours either.

While Birmingham and West Brom were falling out of the top flight, Wolves were falling short in their bid for promotion to the Premiership and Walsall were sliding to their second relegation in three seasons and now find themselves in League Two.

Coventry provided the only bright spot, rocketing up the Championship table under Micky Adams after looking like relegation candidates early on.

"West Midlands football is in the doldrums right now," conceded Goodman, who turns 40 next week.

"It's purely coincidental that all the clubs are struggling at the same time but it's not at all good in any way, shape or form."

I'm always disappointed when people fail to remember what a manager has done for a club in the past
Don Goodman

But he sees some hope for the future and says Birmingham, West Brom and Wolves will be among the favourites to win promotion next season as long as they do not panic by sacking the manager.

"I'm always disappointed when people fail to remember what a manager has done for a club in the past," said Goodman.

"I loved Sunderland and had three great years there but it upset me the way Peter Reid was treated.

"He got Sunderland up and established them in the Premiership. Then he got hounded out when things went badly.

"It happens at every club. Alan Curbishley was jeered by Charlton supporters earlier in the season, while Middlesbrough fans wanted Steve McClaren out.

"Fans have got short memories, in my opinion, and managers should be treated with more dignity."



SEE ALSO
Phillips takes heat off O'Leary
01 May 06 |  Aston Villa
Robson eyes quick Baggies return
30 Apr 06 |  West Bromwich Albion
Birmingham and Baggies relegated
29 Apr 06 |  Premiership
Wolves to keep faith with Hoddle
03 May 06 |  Wolverhampton Wanderers
Walsall unveil Money as new boss
03 May 06 |  Walsall
Adams pledges future to Coventry
18 Apr 06 |  Coventry City


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