Paul Lambert as Villa lost at Manchester CityEarlier this week, Paul Lambert was told by Randy Lerner, the owner of Aston Villa, that he would still be in charge even if he presided over the club’s first relegation since 1987.
It was some statement. Some gamble, too. But then, given the conditions under which the manager has been obliged to work since arriving from Norwich, to do otherwise would be the grossest hypocrisy.
Lambert was given a simple task when he fetched up at Villa Park: realign the club closer to the economics of the real world. No longer could Lerner afford to keep paying out huge sums on under-achievers.
The American had come into the English game seeking a profit and instead was staring down the barrel of multi-million pound losses. Sure, some of that was his own fault - £6million it ultimately cost him to remove Alex McCleish, someone who, because of his previous connections, should never have been employed in the first place. Nevertheless, something had to be done. And he made it clear to Lambert that the costs had to be reduced.
Besides, there are plenty of hints in Lambert’s work this season that it would be foolish to jettison him now. Sure, Villa fans are right to be frustrated at the callow nature of some of their team’s defending. Those hefty defeats by Chelsea, Spurs and Wigan were wretched. There are about as many clean sheets around Villa Park as there are in a King’s Cross hotel.
Yet, in the progress of players like Ciaran Clark and Christian Benteke there is real evidence of what the future might hold. Benteke is the sort of player the likes of Alan Shearer had never heard of before Lambert brought him to the club. Now the pundit drools over him regularly on Match of the Day, complete with a bizarre pronunciation for his surname.
That Lambert is doing the right things is not in doubt. Whether they come to fruition in time is the big question. The £60million question, given that is the reward for staying in the Premier League next season, when the new television contract kicks in.
So while Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea can enjoy the luxury of an FA Cup jolly this weekend, the stuff that counts will be taking place at the Madjeski Stadium where Villa will be the guests of Reading, and Loftus Road where QPR take on Sunderland. That is where the result matters. Where grubby desperation will be the prevailing emotion. That is where failure could be catastrophic. That is where livelihoods may well be affected.
For QPR things really are more than urgent. Unlike Lerner – and unlike the unusually restrained Russian owners at Reading – Tony Fernandes has faced up to the approach of catastrophe by engaging in the most reckless gamble.
With his payroll already overloaded with overpaid and underwhelming football mercenaries, he has added yet another layer in the transfer window in the hope that they might haul him to safety. The urge to stay in the Premier League to take advantage of the broadcasting money doubling next season has led him to eschew all economic rationality. While Lerner trims and cuts – just in case – Fernandes speculates. And now everything, from the kitchen sink upwards, has been gambled on the red. Failure now, if the ball lands on the black, and utter disaster lies ahead.
For Villa, relegation would not presage anything like that sort of problem. It would be humiliating for sure. A club of their stature should be nowhere near the drop zone, particularly after the accumulated success of the Martin O’Neill era. But with the wage bill under control, it would not signal the kind of financial Armageddon that would overwhelm Loftus Road. They could quickly regroup, quickly return. Especially with a man of Lambert’s capabilities still in charge.
Much more beneficial, naturally, would be survival. To be able to exploit the new money with a sensibly built wage structure would represent something close to financial nirvana. If the young players develop as the manager insists they will then, the embarrassment of this season will be temporary indeed.
The margins, though, remain fine. And this weekend there is absolutely no room for error.
Should United or City lose in the Cup, there is the small matter of the title still to play for. Chelsea, too, have the albeit less than elevated Europa League in hand. For the big players, this their next game is – ultimately - a sideshow, a jolly.
Should Villa lose at Reading, or QPR fail against Sunderland, however the consequence could be game-changing. That is why – whatever the romantics might claim about the enduring qualities of the Cup – the action that really matters this weekend is in the Premier League.