Aston Villa have a lion on their badge. Nothing wrong with that; there are as many lions strolling around the streets of Birmingham as there are Rotherhithe, Kensington and Shrewsbury. Lions are noble, scary, and have impressive haircuts, and those are things every football club should be working towards.
If Aston Villa were an actual haircut, however, they'd be— hang on, no. That's the wrong comparison. If Aston Villa were an actual lion, however, they'd be the least impressive king of anything since Ivan the Terrible, whose epithet was, we're assuming, a review. They would be lying on their side in the punishing sun, ribs poking through mangy fur, tail asleep, mane falling out in clumps. Their claws would be blunt; their few remaining teeth would be cracked and useless. A lioness, consumed by pity, would drag over a tiny scrap of antelope, but Villa, too listless to eat, too listless to move, would just lie there and watch a cloud of flies beat him to the kill. Then he'd fart, and then he'd die.
Lions get off easy, however; as soon as weakness begins to show, some other stronger lion comes in and sends them on their way. Middlesbrough have got a nice looking red lion on their badge, so by extension, Tim Sherwood's time in charge should have ended with Aitor Karanka — who has a lovely mane and a perky tail — swaggering up, claws out, and catching him a full one right in the gilet. Instead we've had to sit through the sad reign of Remi Garde, a cub in the wilderness, gazing out at the horrors before him. Everything the light touches, he thinks to himself. It's been a good long time since there was any light at all.
There is something deeply sad about Aston Villa being in this state. In part this is just the way in it jars against the natural order of things: nobody can quite agree what a 'big club' is, but most would probably agree that Villa certainly are a 'big club', and while being a 'big club' renders no immunity to struggle or even relegation, it's discombobulating to see a 'big club'' slipping away with barely a whimper. There should be some kind of roar here, some attempt at a snarl. Instead, their 4-0 to Manchester City on Saturday that felt like a pretty good result.
In some ways, this season has felt like a bit of a throwback to the early days of the Premier League, before the Big Four/Five/Five-And-A-Half closed the competition down. The season has been one of profound disrespect from theoretical inferiors to notional betters, and wonderful players have been popping up all over the place. Leicester are five points clear of Tottenham at the top, and Riyad Mahrez and Dimitri Payet are the two most enjoyable players to watch in the league. And Villa, runners-up in the first season after the Great Rebranding, could should have been a part of all that fun, if they hadn't spent the last few seasons slowly poisoning themselves from the inside out. Not entirely sure how that fits into the lion metaphor. Maybe Paul Lambert ate a dodgy gazelle.
[A brief interlude while your correspondent considers expanding that "dodgy gazelle" aside into an extended riff about Jack Grealish, then thinks better of it.]
How Villa have got where they are is simultaneously easy and difficult to explain. It's the latter because it wasn't too long ago that they were qualifying for European competition with quite an exciting team. And it's the former because the slump can be summarised thus: they have literally done everything badly. Bad hirings and bad signings. Wages of disproportionate size and contracts of hilarious length. Their good players have been sold and the replacements have been miserable. And it's all been overseen by an owner who has spent the entire time desperate to sell the club, only to find that nobody's interested.
If you were going to sit down and write a script for the implosion of a club, it wouldn't go anything like this. There'd be intrigue and thrills and at least one car chase. Gabriel Agbonlahor would get kidnapped and nobody would bother paying the ransom. But while this hasn't been spectacular, and isn't even all that amusing any more, it certainly has been thorough. Even the lighter moments haven't lasted long: last season's FA Cup semifinal, for example, ended up getting folded into the wider amusement that was Brendan Rodgers! Man of Tactics! Getting slapped around Wembley by Arsenal didn't help.
Big clubs come and big clubs go, and nobody lasts forever. Early in the season, Aston Villa reached that awful point where relegation starts to look like the best option, in a clean-slate sort of way; the counterpoint to that is, of course, that the Championship is a horrible division to get out of and there's absolutely no guarantee that things just won't get worse. The risk you take when you blow everything up is that there's nothing left to build on, and unless the decision makers at Aston Villa are either (a) replaced by significantly more competent decision makers or (b) suddenly discover the ability to make good decisions, then you wouldn't bet on Villa making a quick return.
Or, if you prefer: the circle of life goes round and round, but sometimes, lions die, then come back as wildebeest. And that's nothing but deeply embarrassing for everybody concerned.