Monday 11 December 2017

'Hurt' Lambert the author of his own destruction

Aston Villa 1 Sheffield Utd 2

Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough hugs Ryan Flynn after the FA Cup Third Round match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Photo: Press Association.
Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough hugs Ryan Flynn after the FA Cup Third Round match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Photo: Press Association.

Oliver Brown

SHEFFIELD UNITED have never been the same since an illegally-registered Carlos Tevez scored the goal that sealed their relegation from the Premier League seven years ago.

For a club stung by the indignity of their status in 18th place in League One, the sunlit uplands have of late looked remote to the point of dreams, until this toppling of Aston Villa reacquainted 6,000 travelling supporters with a few cherished FA Cup moments.

The day, barely a decade distant, that they confronted Arsenal in the semi-finals has been joined in the memory bank by a fully-merited triumph for a team who, for all their glaring limitations, simply wanted it more.

Villa manager Paul Lambert acknowledged he felt "hurt" by the opprobrium heaped upon him when his team, with a lack of creative impetus, deservedly succumbed to Ryan Flynn's thunderous late winner.

But he had only himself to blame, after his denigration of the Cup's significance to Premier League clubs turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One inconvenience safely eliminated, he might conclude, en route to the anonymity of mid-table.

But where fans of United will always have this dank January day as a source of reminiscence, it is doubtful whether the claret-and-blue corner of Birmingham will bring out the bunting if and when Villa finally finish 14th.

"I never demeaned this competition," said Lambert, who absurdly claimed that his earlier remarks had been taken out of context. For the record, he had argued that most managers of top teams would prefer to avoid the FA Cup "if they were being honest".

It was a Grinch-like sentiment of which Dr Seuss would have been proud, and it returned to haunt the Scot as several Villa fans tore up their tickets and threw them at him in the aftermath of this defeat.

Jonathan Fear, editor of a fan website, spoke for many by sending his back before the game had even kicked off.

Lambert committed the same cardinal error as predecessor Martin O'Neill in his attitude that Villa, without a trophy since the 1996 League Cup, should esteem the riches of the Premier League above all else.

O'Neill aroused fury among the club's disciples when he tossed away any hope of success in the 2009 Europa League by fielding a weakened team against CSKA Moscow, while still in the hunt for the Champions League, and Lambert's own stock has fallen by intimating an equal lack of regard for another valuable prize.

Granted, he sent out an apparently strong line-up, including star striker Christian Benteke, but his clumsy pre-match words were hardly likely to have galvanised a team who had won only three games at home all season.

So it transpired, as Villa's catalogue of mistakes -- most belonging to the hapless Benteke -- gave United, ranked 51 places below them, their cue to plunder.

First Jamie Murphy snatched the advantage with his deflected strike off Ciaran Clark, then Flynn erased Nicklas Helenius' equaliser with a luscious left-footed strike to send the hordes from South Yorkshire into raptures.

For Flynn, a graduate of Liverpool's academy who arrived at Bramall Lane from Falkirk, the satisfaction was profound.

"If you keep your shape and defend the way you are supposed to do, then you can do it," he said.

"We made sure we put Villa under pressure and I can't think of many clear-cut chances they had. It was simply a question of belief."

Their conviction was inculcated by manager Nigel Clough (below), desperate to rehabilitate his reputation after his sacking last year by Derby County.

At 47, he has been associated with improbable Cup narratives before -- none greater than when his Burton Albion side drew 0-0 with Manchester United in 2006.

But, for all the insistence that his motivation is not personal, there remains the enticing notion of trying to win the one trophy that father Brian famously never won.

PLATFORM

A promising fourth-round draw, at home to either Norwich or Fulham, keeps that thought alive.

"You can see how much it means to us," he said. "It gives us a platform for the rest of the season, and puts a smile back on people's faces after a rough six months.

"I know dad wanted to win every trophy, and I think it's a shame when the FA Cup has to take a back seat because it is such a wonderful competition."

For his part, Lambert insisted: "I'm just as gutted as everybody else at the club. I have never been a good loser."

Even so, he is developing quite a name at Villa Park for humiliating cup exits: first the loss to Bradford

in last season's League Cup, and now this.

Over in Ohio, Randy Lerner continues to offer his manager his support but one senses he will not tolerate such embarrassment much longer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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