Contradictheory: How the Covid-19 lockdown helped Aston Villa avoid relegation

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  • Sunday, 02 Aug 2020

Aston Villa's head coach Dean Smith (right) with players during a break in the match against West Ham United. Smith used the Covid-19 lockdown to motivate his players. — AP

As an (almost) lifelong supporter of English football club Aston Villa, the truism is that they never fail to disappoint. Except for just recently, when they spectacularly did the opposite.

Two weeks ago, with four games left to play, the club was still two rungs away from safety. It had been 173 days since Aston Villa had won a game. At least one analytic site calculated the probability of Villa being relegated to the division below at 93%.

And yet, we stayed up. It’s a minor miracle.

Much of the credit has been given to manager Dean Smith, who arguably had done the most of all the English Premier League managers during the recent period of Covid-19-enforced rest. He rejigged tactics, hoping his players would tighten defence. But what really made a difference it seems was when he took the trouble to talk to players one-on-one via video conferencing. He would discuss what he expected of them and what team members should expect of each other. “Football is about relationships on the pitch and knowing one another – the strengths and weaknesses, ” Smith once said.

He also believes that if you get the performance right, then the results will follow. Before the lockdown, Aston Villa allowed an average of more than five shots against them per game. After the restart, it was down to fewer than three.

Although it took time (and more than a little luck), the team persevered in the end. Team members fought for one another, and team spirit was high. What looked like the doom of being relegated, the drop in income, and losing some of our best players, has now turned to unbridled expectation to do better when the new season starts again.

In one sense, despite the success of staying up, we are kidding ourselves. Some of our players are not good enough to compete at the highest level, and we can’t keep relying on fortunate bad refereeing decisions. But we have faith in the manager and the attitude of the players, and we hope for the best.

The irony is that if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t given Smith the opportunity to improve things, we might very easily have gone down. Instead, we managed to come out stronger at the end of all that.

It’s very similar to what a friend of mine went through. He opened a hotel in central Kuala Lumpur in March 2020, two weeks before the movement control order (MCO) was announced – and obviously had to shut down pretty soon after.

It's a “boutique hotel for creative nomads”, the kind of chic, hip, Instagrammable spot right smack in the middle of the city on Jalan Bukit Bintang. You could see it attracting glampackers (think: backpackers with money to spend) who would use it as a base to explore KL.

But of course everything had to be put on hold during the lockdown.

My friend confessed he became depressed at the situation: They weren’t going to be getting any guests or income for a while, and he didn’t know how long that would be.

He also had a very difficult decision to make of who to fire. So he gathered his core management team of half a dozen people around him and they held online Zoom meetings twice a day. What they were going to figure out was how to beat this Covid-19 slump.

At times, the discussion became heated, but it was all for a common cause. My friend found his team members inspiring, claiming that the constant contact kept him on track.

“I didn’t have to motivate people because this team was already motivated, and they were motivating me.”

And finally, it was decided that nobody would be fired. The way he put it was like this: “Your job is to take care of people. Your job is to give people jobs. And so, if at a time like this, you just pull out, you’re basically not doing your job as a boss.”

The good news is that when the MCO was loosened, people started checking into the hotel again. On a recent weekend, they had 45 out of 85 rooms booked – an achievement considering it’s a KL hotel relying on locals going on staycations. Despite the dangers, people still want to go out. They want to connect with other people.

Yet, because there are still no foreign tourists, the hotel is practically empty during the rest of the week. My friend is still losing money each month. And if a further wave of infection causes another lockdown, it will be a disaster. The new normal isn’t here yet, because what we have at the moment is a transition. So the future is still uncertain, but one thing he is sure of is that bringing people together was the right decision.

He said if you want to talk about a “new normal”, it’s that now he has a team he can trust.

There is a saying that true character is revealed in a crisis. It’s not just about saving a football club or running a hotel, it’s how you do it, and more importantly, how you change the lives of the people around you.

As I said, we are not yet in a new normal, and the changes yet to come may still plunge us into new crises. But if you believe you’ve emerged from the last few months as a stronger community, then there should be no fear of what the future brings.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Aston Villa , football , Covid-19


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