Roll your minds back to August and think about everyone’s 14/15 Premier League predictions. They were more or less all the same, of course; Chelsea to win it at a canter (insert your own suitably equine-based pun here), a van Gaal-inspired United to surge up the table, and Liverpool to struggle fighting on four fronts with their newly defanged attack. As for who would go down, well - the options seemed endless.
Any one of the new boys were fair game, as were the likes of West Brom, West Ham, Sunderland and a decimated Southampton. One side not far from this unseemly mix was Aston Villa. After a good few seasons hovering in between instantly forgettable mid-table mediocrity and alarmingly shambolic relegation battles, the Villains didn’t look like surprising anybody with anything more than another scrap at the dog end of the table. Yet surprise everybody they have, with their stellar - and unprecedented in recent times - start to this campaign.
Why is it all going so right for Lambert’s men, all of a sudden? In terms of form, the Villa are off to a flying start, sitting as pretty in the form table as they do in the League itself, ensconced between Chelsea and Swansea in second. With three wins, one draw, ten points and a goal difference of +3, it’s been a far more comfortable start for the Midlanders than many imagined. An opening day fixture against Stoke away was actually quite a tricky start, with many a side known to come a cropper at the Britannia Stadium. What was most impressive about Villa’s victory that day was not just Andreas Weimann’s second-half shot, which ultimately proved too much for Stoke, but the way in which Lambert’s side dug deep and held on to their three points. Such determination is admirable, not to mention vital in the Premiership, but, as BBC Sport pointed out, this victory on the road was only Villa’s second of the calendar year.
With their season off to the best possible start, Villa fans hoped more excitement was to follow. They were disappointed, of course, though not disillusioned. Momentum, desirable in any football competition, is notoriously hard to achieve, and a Guzan-inspired Villa just about managed to hang onto a point in an uninspiring 0-0 home draw against Newcastle. Nevertheless, Lambert could only the see the positives in his side’s unbeaten endeavours, telling The Guardian that it was a ‘great start’ to the season for the Midlanders. ‘After everybody was doom and gloom about the football club towards the end of last season, we’ve certainly took that challenge on.’ Villa continued to defy the naysayers, or rather shake them from their indifference, notching up a 2-1 win over an obliging Hull side at Villa Park, before doing what they do best, and winning at Anfield. Yep, the Claret and Blues have a great record in the Red half of Merseyside. This was the fourth time in the past four seasons that Villa sped back down the M6 with at least a point safely in the bag. True, they may have met Liverpool at a good time - straight after an international break with Daniel Sturridge out injured, again, and Raheem Sterling knackered - but once more the Villains showed us their hitherto hidden resolute side, with a remarkably impressive performance from their remarkably English midfield trio of Ashley Westwood, Tom Cleverley and Fabian Delph. Phillipe Senderos had Mario Balotelli in his back pocket and Lambert and co left Anfield celebrating Villa’s best start to a season for sixteen years.
Gabby Agbonlahor’s scrappy goal separated the sides in Liverpool, and the striker already has two goals and a new four year contract to his name this term. In the aftermath of the Anfield result, the former England international paid tribute to his teammates, telling The Guardian ‘We’ve had a tough few years as a team but the younger players have stuck together...This season, in the first four games, we are reaping the benefits of it. It shows how strong-minded the young players are here that they can go through the tough times we’ve had.’ Indeed, with Villa Park regulars Nathan Baker, Westwood and Delph all in their early twenties, it seems like surviving relegation by the skin of their teeth in the last few years has paid dividends. What Villa have to hope, however, is that they start finding the net with more regularity, and soon. With only four goals scored in total this season - Agbonlahor and Weimann got one each against Hull - The Lions will be hoping the imminent return of Christian Benteke from an Achilles injury is a positive one.
Alongside a battle-hardened mentality, there has to be another factor in Villa’s current resurgance. Despite the canny investments and acquisitions of the summer – Premier League old hands the likes of Senderos, Cleverley, Joe Cole and Kieran Richardson, plus useful left-back Aly Cissokho and defensively-minded Colombian international Carlos Sánchez (who will surely be useful for the odd goal celebration or two), undoubtedly Villa’s best coup of the off-season was hiring the assistant managerial services of Roy Keane. It’s easy to jest and joke, and allege that the Villa players are all terrified of the former United and Ireland anti-hero, but his influence certainly seems to be having an effect, with Villa right-back Alan Hutton telling the Daily Mail ‘You know he'll give you the shot you need to perform and spur you on...You just have to look at his career, if there's anything you need to ask he's the man to go to. Just to have a man like that in your corner is unbelievable...He's passionate about the game.’ Although Lambert – who has also signed a new four year contract with Villa - and Keane have been firm friends for a number of years, they have never worked with each other before, having just missed out on playing together at Celtic in 2005 by a couple of months. Whilst everyone associated with Villa is under no illusion that Lambert is anything other than the boss, the presence of Keane has had a galvanising effect - something not exactly hard to imagine - as Hutton (another resignee, now staying at Villa Park until 2017) expands; ‘Roy's done brilliantly for everyone - he's lifted the standard in training and he'll let you know if that standard drops.’
It will be interesting on both a personal and a club note to see if Villa can keep their current hot streak up. Keane’s managerial success so far has been rather muted, with inconsistency dogging him at both Sunderland and Ipswich. The assistant role may be one he finds more success in, allowing him to play bad cop to Lambert’s good cop, perhaps, or maybe even vice versa. It mustn’t be forgotten that Keane is also plying his assistant managerial trade with his country, helping Martin O’Neill's attempt to guide The Boys in Green, aka the Republic of Ireland, to France 2016. In many ways, the ex-midfielder has the best of all worlds; a chance to work for, and redeem himself with, his country, plus find success in the Premier League, but in a way that doesn’t place him under all the pressure. If it all goes Pete Tong for Villa from now on (and let’s face it, when these sort of articles are written, they are usually harbingers of, if not doom, then choicest irony), Keane will not leave Birmingham smelling of roses, but he won’t be shot down in flames, either.
For Villa, and for the Midlands’ sake as a whole, you have to hope that The Lions’ start to the season doesn’t peter out just yet. Let's be honest - the region could do with some footballing pride; Stoke are flying the flag well for the north Midlands, and Wolves tore up League One last year, but Birmingham and the West Midlands conurbation as a whole deserves to have at least one team challenging for serious honours in the English game, if not more. Thoroughly outshone by Manchester at the moment, England’s 'second city' should really be demanding Villa and West Brom to push for Europe every year, Wolves to get back into the Premier League, Birmingham City to cease their free-fall and everyone to remember Walsall exists, too.
Whilst their league travails have been especially meritorious so far, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Villa; knocked out of the League Cup to lowly Leyton Orient, a decent FA Cup run remains Lambert’s main hope of glory this season. Other teams, such as Swansea and Southampton, have surprised too, whilst the likes of Man City have stuttered, though no one seriously expects the Champions to finish outside the Top Four, and Villa and Swansea to remain in it. A look at the table nearer Christmas will give a better indication of Keane’s effect on Villa, though a top ten finish – incredible though that would be - has to be the aim. To temper all their new-found optimism, Lambert’s side face a horrible set of fixtures as we wend our way into October; Villa have matches at home to Arsenal, away to Chelsea, home to City and away to Everton. If four points were gained from these games, the Claret and Blue army would be ecstatic, and maybe Randy Lerner would be too. Villa, in desperate need of a successful season, are also supposedly still in desperate need of a new owner. Carry on with this startling form, and who knows, maybe even a Sheikh or two might show interest.