BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: Aston Villa fans unfurl their giant flag prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park on March 19, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
As you're no doubt well aware by now, there's a fairly sizable protest going on at Villa Park at the moment, with estimates of the number gathered ranging from 500-1000. I'm unable to watch, but I've been following along via Twitter and the like as much as possible. It's being reported now that the gates have been breached and the protest has moved inside the ground. Earlier on in the going there was a sit-in that blocked traffic outside Villa Park; it could still be happening.
All this, over an interview.
I'll admit, I'm an outsider. I will never truly understand what it's like in Birmingham, how deep the rivalry runs and how it can permeate everyday life. I'm an American, and my falling in love with Aston Villa happened in a manner very different than it does for most. Villa games involve waking up at 4 AM on weekends, drinking enormous quantities of coffee and having to watch the games twice because I was too tired to fully understand what was going on the first time around. Derby weekends don't bring with them the same tension; wearing a scarf or a shirt around town isn't likely to cause anyone to bat an eyelash. It's a different, and very detached experience. I know I'm missing out on something.
Not being immersed in the day-to-day reality of the Second City rivalry, having that detachment and isolation serves to give me something of a less emotional perspective. Do I hate Birmingham City? Of course. But I hate the club. I don't (at least as a rule) hate their fans, their players, their staff or anyone ever associated with the club. When I heard the club might be interested in pursuing Alex McLeish I was annoyed in the same way I imagine I would have been annoyed had I heard they were pursuing Sam Allardyce. Negative, kick-and-rush tactics, less than stellar track record, something of a safe choice. The kind of manager that might take Villa back towards the European places, but not the kind of manager that could truly help the club take the next step. I wasn't pleased (and I'm still very much not pleased) but that had nothing to do with his prior affiliations. It had everything to do with thinking he's bad, boring, safe choice of a manager.
It would now appear that there are quite a few people who disagree with me. I have a hard time believing that this same level of furor would have been on display had McLeish just been at, say, West Ham. Because while I don't think Alex McLeish is a great manager, he's not exactly had a great deal to work with. Much has been made of Birmingham's high net-transfer-spending, but it's looking increasingly like much of that was done at a level over his head. His tenure as Scotland's manager was brief, but not in any real way poor. H was in charge of Rangers for the same number of seasons as Martin O'Neill was in charge at Celtic (with four of those seasons overlapping) and his record isn't too much worse than MON's; two SPL titles, two Scottish Cups and Scottish League cups. MON's Celtic teams won three league titles, three Scottish Cups and one Scottish League Cup. During the years their tenures overlapped, Rangers won six trophies to Celtic's four. The difference? McLeish ended up at Birmingham City while MON surfaced at Aston Villa. From there their fortunes were obviously different, but look at what MON had to work with as compared to McLeish.
That's not to say that McLeish as good a manager as O'Neill, because I don't think he is. But he's not as far off as the reaction might have you think.The reaction that has included the vandalizing of Bodymoor Heath, the forcing open of the Villa Park gates and remote but slowly increasing calls for Randy Lerner to step down. Randy Lerner, the man that brought the club back from the brink, modernized the club's training facility to its current envied-by-most-in-the-Premier-League state, renovated parts of Villa Park with plans to do the rest. The man who provided the funds necessary to bring players the caliber of Ashley Young, James Milner, Stewart Downing and Darren Bent into the fold (and provided the funds for many less than successful transfers as well.) The man who has given a member of the board free license to speak with fans on internet message boards, so important to him is it that the fans feel as though their voices can be heard. Even more unsettling (to me at least, though I'm admittedly biased) is what seems to be elements of anti-American sentiment creeping in.
Over an interview. It's amazing. Even if McLeish is hired (which seems increasingly probably, unfortunately) the reaction would be completely over the top. I'm not thrilled with the board's interest, nor will I be with if the decision to hire McLeish (which is ultimately Lerner's) is made. But one poor decision cannot erase all of the good Lerner has done for this club, and quite frankly after the way Gerard Houllier was treated and almost forcibly shoved out the door by negative fan reaction, I can't blame Lerner for not putting a great deal of stock into the reaction of the more outspoken elements of Aston Villa's support.
Then again, I'm an outsider. I've been told that I can "go follow some other team" for finding the reaction to the club's decision to interview McLeish appalling. But despite my outsider-ness, despite the bizarre route I took to finding and falling in love with Aston Villa, I still deeply care about the club. I might not be able to claim the same sense of ownership based on how far away I am, but they're still a part of me, as much as any team that I care about. I'm used to teams letting me down, but I can honestly say that nothing that's ever happened to any that I support has made me feel the same way that this debacle does. This whole thing just makes me sad. Deeply, deeply sad. I just want it to end.