What began as a simple team bonding day has turned into a full-blown incident for Aston Villa. After a day of paintballing, the players and coaching staff sat down for a group dinner, but by the end of it, headlines of heated exchanges, rebellion and bullying were being written, and the repercussions could have a major impact on Villa’s goal of staying in the top division.
The finer details are scarce and look likely to remain such at least until after Wednesday due to legal concerns. However, the general story seems to be that Richard Dunne and James Collins, who did not take part in the paintballing as they are recovering from injury, turned up at the dinner drunk. There, they proceeded to get into a heated argument with first team coach Sid Cowans and goalkeeping coach Rafa Gonzalez, as well as publicly criticising Fabian Delph, who supposedly dared to stand up to them.
Furthermore, the two continued drinking along with Luke Young in another pub after the incident, where they were supposedly boasting about what had happened. Dunne has already admitted that he was so drunk that he could not remember what he had said the next morning.
The pair have both made public apologies, suggesting that whatever exactly may have happened, there is definitely no smoke without fire.
But the disciplinary action to be taken is yet to be decided and is expected to be revealed to the players in a meeting on Wednesday.
That there are legal people involved suggests that severe punishment is expected. It is rumoured that the club wants to fine the two players six weeks wages, reportedly almost £300,000 each.
In the case of Dunne, there are even rumours that he may be sacked following his fallout with the coaching staff earlier in the season. The legal aspect is that under PFA regulations, the maximum fine for players is two weeks wages, but Villa are reportedly keen to challenge these rules.
The potential impact of the incident goes much further than simple disciplinary action, though. Despite sitting 13th in the table, Aston Villa are only two points above the relegation zone and in a desperate fight for their Premiership survival.
Their defence has been the weak point this season, and the potential loss of their two senior central defenders weakens an already porous defensive line. With Carlos Cuellar still out injured and Ciaran Clark suspended, the must-win match against Wolves this weekend could see a makeshift defence.
It is highly likely that Dunne has played his last game for the club. Regardless of his poor form and previous disciplinary problems this season, his actions toward his teammate are hardly likely to be overlooked by either his other teammates or by the management.
On the other hand, Collins may get a second chance, albeit on a final warning, and there is still a good chance he may be moved on in the summer. However, if he is withdrawn from the squad for this weekend, it leaves a major worry for Villa in the centre of the defence.
Carlos Cuellar has revealed that he hopes to be fit by the weekend, which would be a huge boost for the side, and in an interesting development, Stephen Warnock has been left out of the reserve side, possibly suggesting he could be in line to end his two and a half month banishment from the first team.
Even if Cuellar returns, it still leaves a fairly threadbare-looking defence. Nathan Baker is expected to continue in the heart of the defence, and if Warnock does not return to the starting XI, Fabian Delph will continue to deputise at left-back.
It does leave the problem though that there is no real defensive cover on the bench. Chris Herd deputised at full-back in the FA Cup against Manchester City, but he is a midfielder by trade. The loan of Eric Lichaj at Leeds has been extended, suggesting he is not being looked at as a possible candidate.
However, there are clearly major problems behind the scenes at the club. The list of players who have fallen out with either Houllier or the coaching staff continues to grow. Stephen Ireland, Stephen Warnock, Habib Beye, Richard Dunne, James Collins and John Carew have all had issues and have been frozen out of the first team picture.
Add in the injury crisis that hit the club earlier in the season, leaving 15 players out injured at its peak, and it has not been an easy first season for Gerard Houllier. However, he is not completely devoid of blame. Mistakes have been made and certain aspects have been neglected.
This has simply served to build the frustration amongst a certain section of the fans and the playing staff. However, this doesn’t excuse the actions of the two players. Drunkenly arguing in public with the coaching staff is highly unprofessional. Turning on your teenage teammate for standing up for the manager is simply unacceptable for two senior players.
Regardless of the impact on the team, the two players must be brought to book. Drunken, unprofessional behaviour and bullying cannot just go unpunished for the sake of having the two players available. Indeed, how welcome they are in the team with their teammates remains to be seen.
This weekend is a huge match for Villa, made even more important by the events of this week. Victory against Wolves could move Villa five points clear of the drop and into 11th position with only eight games to go. However, if Wolves can take all three points and other results go against Villa, they could find themselves only one point and one place above the drop zone and in serious jeopardy.