Aston Villa suffered the worst defeat in the club’s history back in December — an 8-0 thumping at Chelsea. Worse followed for Paul Lambert during his inaugural season; home defeats by Tottenham, Wigan and Southampton.
Slowly Villa turned their season around and, outside of the top four, only Liverpool managed to beat them in the final four months of the season.
A 3-1 victory at The Emirates over Arsenal on the opening day suggests the momentum has been maintained. So how did they turn it around?
Eight months ago: Villa lost 8-0 at Stamford Bridge last December after beating Liverpool 3-1 at Anfield
Support from the owner
Villa owner Randy Lerner has seen his club suffer on other occasions at Stamford Bridge. In March 2010, Martin O’Neill’s side were thumped 7-1.
After Villa lost by eight goals the American picked up the phone to speak with his manager.
‘The support I had from Randy was great,’ said Lambert. ‘I speak to him most weeks. I’m sure he has a chat with me and then goes away to vomit. But it was what I needed at that time. To hear the support was welcome.’
Unlike many other owners, Lerner remained rock solid in backing his manager when his contemporaries may have sought an alternative.
Young and bright: Lambert is becoming accustomed to his role at Villa Park after a nervy start
Owner: Randy Lerner (centre) showed great support to Lambert through the hard times last season
Lambert is the fifth manager at Villa Park to benefit from the ability of Agbonlahor. It is no coincidence that when the former England striker was missing through injury last season, Villa went through their rockiest patch of the season.
While Christian Benteke has rightly been lauded for his 19-goal haul, the efforts of his home-grown colleague have gone largely unheralded. It was Stiliyan Petrov who flagged up Agbonlahor’s contribution as being crucial.
Benteke might have either scored, or been involved in a staggering 48 per cent of Villa’s Premier League goals last term, but it was the return to action of his colleague that had just as great an effect.His eight strikes from February until the end of the campaign were a huge bonus for Lambert.
‘If Gabby gets a run on you, I’m not sure anyone can catch him,’ said Villa’s boss. ‘I haven’t seen anyone as quick as him in a long time. I thought he was exceptional against Arsenal.’
Pacey: Gabriel Agbonlahor has improved as a player, and has even been touted for an England call-up
Big man: Villa's best move of the summer was undoubtedly convincing Christian Benteke to stay at the club
New boys learned on the job
THEN AND NOW: VILLA TEAMS
Lambert had populated his team with unknowns and discarded many of the old guard.
The likes of full-back Matthew Lowton, centre-half Nathan Baker, midfielder Ashley Westwood along with striker Andreas Weimann and Benteke were all Premier League unknowns 12 months ago.
But Lambert persisted with them, even when performances at the turn of the year were sub-standard.
Successive draws away from home against West Brom and Everton gave Villa belief.
‘There was no doubt from Februrary onwards you could sense they were starting to click,’ said Lambert. ‘We started to get results consistently. Our run until the end of the season was excellent.
‘The players now know they can do it. They have done it for a year and you have to turn up in this league to perform.’
Young guns: Ashley Westwood (left) and Matthew Lowton (right) are part of Villa's bright future
Support from the stands
While Villa fans could not quite bring themselves to fully support Alex McLeish, there has been no such hesitation about backing Lambert.
They called for him to be appointed the club’s next boss in May 2012 during a defeat at Carrow Road and were granted their wish by Lerner.
Even in the face of poor results and displays to match, they have remained resolute.
Tagged ‘fickle’ by former boss David O’Leary, their stoicism has been rewarded.
Like many modern managers, Lambert perhaps over-emphasises their help. But in this instance, he has a point.
Support: The Villa faithful stood by Lambert last term, despite being called fickle in the past
‘Even after the Chelsea game our fans have been absolutely brilliant,’ he said. ‘They never once turned on the lads. They were hurt. Everyone at the club was hurt. But they were a major catalyst to helping us last year.
‘It would have been easy for them to turn up and criticise after 10 minutes. They never once got on our backs which was a unique thing.’
However, Lambert knows Villa are not yet the finished article. Saturday’s defeat at Arsenal once more highlighted deficiencies in their defence. Villa have not kept a clean sheet since a goalless draw against Stoke City nine months ago.