A poll on the Birmingham Mail website this week asked readers how many points Aston Villa would earn in the forthcoming festive period. The most popular option, with 24.6 per cent of the vote, was no points at all.
If there is a mood of pessimism, it is understandable: this is a team without a league win since the opening day and six points adrift at the foot of the Premier League table, with just six points.
The last side with that meagre total after 16 games were Derby County in December 2007 – and they were relegated by the end of March.
If Villa are to avoid the same fate, it seems fair to say they need a good Christmas.
Starting at St James’ Park this evening, they visit three of the bottom six – Newcastle United, Norwich City and Sunderland – as well as hosting West Ham United on St Stephen’s Day.
“The next four games will be crucial,” was the straightforward assessment of manager Rémi Garde, who takes his team to Tyneside having secured just two points from five games since replacing Tim Sherwood.
When Garde met Villa owner Randy Lerner in New York last Monday, he received welcome words of support from the American – and, crucially, the promise of funds for reinforcements in January.
“What I wanted to feel was the support of the owner in what I want to do,” said Garde. “I had that once again, six weeks after arriving. I felt a strong support for my work.”
Garde, who yesterday recalled left-back Aly Cissokho from his season-long long to Porto, is expected to move for at least a striker – possibly Ghent’s Laurent Depoitre – and a left-back when the window opens.
Villa plan to appoint a new chairman shortly to replace Lerner, who tried in vain to sell the club last summer, but the manager stressed that the owner’s commitment was not wavering amid the threat of relegation.
“I just can tell you I see a man who suffers in this situation. He is totally committed to the football club,” he said.
Garde was not alone in delivering a message of unity ahead of this key run of fixtures.
Villa CEO Tom Fox is adamant that, in the 49-year-old Garde, he has the right man to turn the club around.
The former Lyons coach is an impressively composed, articulate figure and he has created an “incredible atmosphere” at Villa’s training ground, according to Fox.
“Remi is figuring out daily what he has as a squad, not only in terms of quality and style of play but also the character of the men,” saID Fox. “He believes the business we did last summer was positive and, like me he believes in the squad he has.”
One player Garde has swiftly lost belief in is Charles N’Zogbia, who has disappointed, not for the first time, with his attitude in training.
N’Zogbia is expected to be shown the door in January and may be joined by long-serving club captain Gabby Agbonlahor.
“I am confident we have a manager who will be with this club for a long, long time,” added Fox, who considers that, in this season of shredded scripts, there remains hope that Villa could become the first side to survive such a wretched start.
“I haven’t given up, the manager hasn’t and the players haven’t. I understand why people are frustrated [but] there is plenty of the season left. In the more recent past, people look at Leicester as a source of possibility and potential.
“People who have already given up should have a bit more faith,” he adds. “What we are trying to do is difficult and is a project that will put their club back in a better position than it has been in for some time.”
Fox, formerly chief commercial officer at Arsenal, has sought to improve Villa’s commercial and player recruitment arms since taking over as chief executive in August last year.
Home-grown winger Marc Albrighton is now shining for Leicester City after the club let run his contract run down, while Villa, according to one club source, are paying more than £10m annually on wages for players making zero impact on the pitch.
Independent News Service