BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Shay Given of Aston Villa is stretchered off injured during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester United at Villa Park on December 3, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
This was one of the worst games I have ever watched. And I mean that, sincerely; Manchester United's goal came on an absolutely comical defensive breakdown. Aside from that, neither team did anything of note. This wasn't just Villa being terrible; if I'm a Manchester United fan, I'm concerned after this performance. Villa was begging to be taken out behind the shed, and that United had reason for concern well into stoppage time is an indictment of how poorly the visitors performed. But make no mistake; Villa was awful as well, and aside from a decent effort from the defense (well, Richard Dunne) this may have been the worst performance of the season, a fact made all the more depressing considering this was a lineup so many were excited to see play.
The unpleasantness started early, with United's impossible-to-hate striker Javier Hernandez going out in the 12th minute with a non-contact ankle injury, one that looked rather serious. Soon after United would grab what ended up being the day's lone goal; Alan Hutton and James Collins were skinned alive down the flank, allowing Nani to send in an unchallenged cross for Phil Jones to volley past a helpless Shay Given for his first Premier League goal. For the next fifteen minutes or so, nothing at all happened. Then Alan Hutton got caught way out of position on what should have been a harmless ball over the top, forcing Shay Given to sprint out from goal and stretch to clear. In the process Given appeared to strain his hamstring, and in the 37th minute was carried (by hand, because apparently Villa Park has just one stretcher) off the field and into the locker room.
With Brad Guzan in goal, the nerves began to kick; little did anyone know, he'd barely have anything to do the rest of the way. After a cruel eight minutes of stoppage time, Villa trotted off to a half-hearted chorus of boos. They started the second half looking slightly more dangerous, but it wouldn't take long for United to rub the sleep out of their eyes and adjust enough to return the game to an unwatchable stasis. For about 15 minutes, nothing happened. Then Villa made their second change, Stiliyan Petrov coming on for Chris Herd. Herd had his poorest game of the season, but to be fair he looked to be battling an injury for most of the afternoon. It worsened as the game wore on, and an hour in it was clear that he was a major liability. Very shortly after Petrov came on, Jermaine Jenas appeared to catch his ankle on a patch of bad turf and McLeish was forced to use his final substitution just 63 minutes into the game. At this point, everyone stopped caring because Eck chose to bring on Emile Heskey, despite the fact that Darren Bent and Gabby Agbonlahor were completely choked off from the action all day. For all his faults, Stephen Ireland has a nice pass or good strike from distance in his arsenal, and in a game crying out for that sort of thing there would never be a better time to bring him on. But nope. Heskey.
After Heskey came on, a few things happened. United seemed to tire of having to be assed to care and began to commit more men forward. Villa somehow manged to take advantage of this fact, and created some pressure. Unfortunately the pressure was relieved by Heskey on two occasions; the first came after a corner, with Richard Dunne heading perfectly to Heskey at the far post only for Ivanhoe to head well, well over the bar. The second summed up this game, Aston Villa's season and Emile Heskey's career perfectly; with the ball in loads of space at the edge of the box and Darren Bent making a well-timed run at goal to his left, Heskey instead chose to take the worst shot in the history of football. From 20 yards out, Emile somehow managed to send in a chip with such a poorly chosen trajectory that it bounced ten yards in front of Anders Lindergaard and ended up going out for a United throw-in. As terrible as it was, I'd imagine everyone that saw it happen is thankful to have done so. It's just not often you see something so historically bad.
Then nothing happened until the whistle blew. People booed, but you could tell their hearts weren't in it. I'm sure there are Villa fans that were unable to watch, that will see the score and then see the reactions and think that it's just Villa fans bitching as usual. "1-0 to the champions is nothing to be ashamed of" they'll say. But they won't understand. It would be impossible to understand unless you saw it happen. Villa has a chance to make the rest of December a far more comfortable month, as United were atrocious and ripe for the taking. Instead they played one of the worst games of football anyone has ever seen. They lost just one place in the table, but if there were such a thing as style points they'd have fallen a whole lot further.
Randy Lerner was at this game. It may well be the first time hes been able to attend all season, in fact. There's no way he could have watched that game and been happy with what he saw. There's no way he could have watched that game and not thought to himself, if only for just the briefest of moments, "Oh goodness, I've made a huge mistake." Make no mistake, the players weren't good today. Richard Dunne spent the better portion of the afternoon bailing out his less competent colleagues along the back line; Darren Bent continues to just stand around and look like he's pondering whether or not to give Martin O'Neill a call this weekend. Marc Albrighton was disappointing. Jenas appears to be made of papier mache. But McLeish is the one that picks the teams, chooses the tactics and makes the substitutions. And he's shown that he's completely incapable of doing more than one of those things correctly at any given time. I don't expect him to be sacked before the year is out, and despite my increasingly strong distaste for him I'm not even convinced that would be the right decision. But no one can thing this is sustainable in the long-term. Because it's just absolutely abysmal.