Paul Lambert has changed his tune and so have the Aston Villa supporters. The sight of a struggling Wigan Athletic walking all over Villa on their own turf proved to be the tipping point in a miserable season, as previously loyal fans vented their anger at a performance so inept that it forced Lambert to concede for the first time that his players are in a relegation fight.
The boos that greeted the final whistle were predictable on a day when Villa looked like a club sleepwalking towards the Championship. This was their third successive crushing defeat across the space of seven humiliating days in which 15 goals were conceded. Villa head to Swansea on New Year's Day with the lowest goal tally in the league and the worst defensive record. Every alarm bell should be ringing.
Lambert's regular post-match message that the team will "be fine" is kidding nobody; try telling the supporters who headed for the exits on Saturday with 34 minutes remaining that there is nothing to worry about. The fans have been tremendously supportive of Lambert since he took over from the much-maligned Alex McLeish in the summer but faith is not blind. It is one thing to lose 4-0 at home against a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur, as was the case on Boxing Day, but quite another to be thumped by an out-of-form Wigan.
Randy Lerner, Villa's benevolent owner, was there to see the latest debacle unfold and it must have been a chastening experience for a man who has pumped more than £200m into the club, including a sizeable sum on hiring and firing managers as well as a fortune on transfer fees and wages. Villa were among the highest net spenders again this summer but Lambert's decision to splurge £20m on seven players with 45 minutes of Premier League football between them has backfired.
It felt like a gamble at the time, even though Lambert was adamant the strategy would work. When it was put to him on the day the transfer window closed that there is a theory that if you keep signing players from below the Premier League, the team will end up not being in the Premier League, the Villa manager replied: "I had exactly the same question last year and the Norwich lads surpassed everything." Norwich, however, were riding the crest of a wave after back-to-back promotions. Villa have been operating in a culture of underachievement for two years.
Lambert has pointed out that injuries have not helped Villa's cause but of the half a dozen players that are sidelined only Ron Vlaar and Gabriel Agbonlahor have been regular starters. The simple truth is that something has to change.
Lerner and Lambert met on Friday and were scheduled to hold further talks on Sunday. Transfer strategy in January will have been top of the agenda and the indications are that Lambert is prepared to dispense with his policy of signing younger players and instead focus on Premier League experience. A central defender, a ball-winning midfielder, a striker and possibly a left-back will be targeted, although there is no suggestion Lerner is going to be throwing large sums around during the transfer window.
A beleaguered and inexperienced group of players will be grateful for any help that they can get. "If you look at who was on the bench, there's a few reserve players there," said Brett Holman, who at 28 years and nine months was the oldest of the 14 players Lambert used against Wigan. "If the manager feels the need to bring in some players, that's up to him. My opinion is that if there are one or two additions where you could pull players in who might say: 'Keep the ball, calm down here …' that wouldn't be a bad thing."
Villa's frailties from defence through to attack were brutally exposed by a Wigan side who never looked back from the moment Iván Ramis headed them ahead in the third minute. Although Holman hit the bar for Villa just before the interval, the game was over when Wigan scored twice inside the opening 11 minutes of the second half. Emmerson Boyce swept home the second goal shortly before Arouna Koné, who will be a big loss to Wigan when he heads off for the Africa Cup of Nations, rounded Brad Guzan for the third.
It was the perfect result for Roberto Martínez's side before Manchester United's visit on New Year's Day, when Wigan hope to reprise April's memorable 1-0 victory. "We showed last year that on our day we can beat anyone," said Gary Caldwell, the Wigan captain. "It's always a special game when they come and hopefully we'll get the same result as last season."
Man of the match Arouna Koné (Wigan Athletic)