Anatomy of a relegation dogfight

I suspect there are clubs, and managers, who specialise in relegation battles. Who know how to prepare for and conduct a battle against the drop. Who are able to find that extra bit of something to keep them up when all is said and done.

I haven't looked into Premier League or even old 1st Division statistics, but my gut feel tells me that on those occasions when surprise candidates end up in the bottom three come the second half of the season, they often go down (Everton's escape a few seasons ago would be an exception). Leeds, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and West Ham United all spring to mind: teams who were "too good to go down", but who went down anyway.


I have a feeling that clubs who are mentally unprepared for a battle against relegation, and who may struggle to adjust to its demands on the pitch, in the boardroom and in the stands, face a tougher challenge than those who are used to battling the drop. Teams who feel they rightly belong in the top six and shouldn't really be where they are have a big psychological adjustment to make, and we have to make it quickly.

So I've had a think about what I'm calling the "anatomy" of a relegation dogfight in a an attempt to work out whether this Villa outfit has what it takes to keep us up. I've come up with seven characteristics I think are going to be vital in ensuring Villa can look forward to a Premier League future.

1. Honesty about where you are

The "too good to go down" mantra isn't just applied by the media - it's clear many sides who get into trouble have that belief. While I hear Houllier's words, it does seem that he is on a slightly different planet to the rest of us: the "trust me, we'll be moving up the table soon" and "if we'd won the fans would be singing my name" comments hint at a character disconnected from the fans' sense of reality. It us up to GH to accept that we are in genuinely deep trouble, that his decisions have contributed to that trouble, and to build the motivation and fight in his squad to accept and deal with it.

2. A united dressing room

I'm not going to elaborate on this. But the "all for one and one for all" mentality is a must if relegation is going to be seen off. The players must be behind the captain and the manager, all of them. I hope that Gary McAllister is right and all the recent Bodymoor Heath fall-outs were only so much handbags - but we should have our doubts.

3. A sense of urgency

While I admire confidence and appreciate composure, there's something wrong about Gerard Houllier's body language and tone of voice at the moment. Uncle Gerry is full of bonhomie and is taking it all in his stride. I know he's had a heart attack and needs to look after himself, but I think he needs to show us how seriously he is taking this.

4. Concentration and nerve

I don't think we're a much better side than Wolves, Wigan or West Ham - and these relegation battles go down to the wire. So do many of the games which determine relegation outcomes. Villa have a habit of conceding late to throw away points: that habit (which I think is much about coaching and captaincy as play) has got to be ditched and ditched now. Survivors of relegation battles pinch points at the end of games, they don't throw them away.

5. A readiness to grind out results

It's great that Houllier believes in fluid, skilful and attracting football. So do I. And if we were still challenging Tottenham for honours, with the budget to buy players like van der Vaart and Modric, I would go all out to make that transition. Instead, what will get us out of the mess if for Villa's senior players to stand up and be counted (despite the red card, Heskey's last two performances have been outstanding), and for Houllier to play to Villa's strengths and start to focus first on stopping sides playing and shutting down space. We mustn't lose games, which means we must address the defensive record first. These are the same defenders O'Neill used, so there is no reason why the defensive record should not be improved now that Reo-Coker and Petrov are back to protect them.

6. Physicality, and fight

This is so inconsistent at the moment. The performance at Chelsea was not one for the purists (if we had tried to outplay them, we would have lost 7-1 again), but at least it was characterised by real fight and genuine commitment. We are going to need to see everyone in a claret and blue shirt really grow a pair between now and May.

7. The banishment of arrogance

This is no time for players who think they're too good for all this, and make their own minds up when they can be bothered to perform. We have a few who are prone to go missing, as well as a manager who isn't beyond a bit of arrogance himself. The gaffer, his assistant and their players are all in this together, and every one of them needs to be humble in their commitment and devotion to moving Villa back up to the table. The club is bigger than all of them, and they have a solemn duty to it.

I'm sure there's a lot more, and I'm sorry to bang on about the "R" word the first time we slide into the bottom three.

Randy Lerner is backing the manager, so I guess he has asked himself whether Houllier is the right man to bring all the above to our squad over the decisive months to come. I have to say, I know who I'd have in charge if it came down to a scrap, but we won't go there....