Sunday, 6 November 2011

Eck settling Villa's turbulent twelve months

Eck's shining light of stability 
Aston Villa's 3-2 home over Norwich City's ended a two successive defeat downturn and put the team into a respectable eighth place.

Only the usual suspects with bigger resources are outperforming Villa, Newcastle aside.

Alex McLeish isn't yet winning over the fans with his workmanlike style of football, nevertheless the club are much more stable than twelve months ago. In the wake of Martin O'Neill's shock departure on the eve of last season, the board scratched around to appoint the wholly inappropriate Gerard Houllier after a disastrous dalliance with Kevin MacDonald.

McLeish was always going to find resistance from the naysayers in arriving from the rabble at Small Heath, but I can't help but admire his Carling Cup win, particularly with the team he had and its startling lack of firepower and history of achievement. Yes, Blues were relegated at the end of the season but I think that had everything to do with the physical excesses of the Cup run.

What McLeish does do well is encourage players to grow in stature and confidence. Warnock and Petrov are beneficiaries of the new regime even if Ireland continues to annoy the faithful with his lacklustre shows.

But the fast-maturing Gabriel Agbonlahor's stepped upto the plate to become a senior player of real influence and quality at Villa Park. Working on his game rather than weight-training's helped plug the void left by the departed Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.

Agbonlahor and Bent developing a partnership
And increasing that work rate and goals is invigorating the strike partnership with Darren Bent. The £24m hit man, bought in the January transfer window has now scored 46 times since the start of the 09/10 season: no one, not Rooney or Drogba can match that.

It's important to remember what a proven striker we have and but for his checkered Tottenham career, Bent may have been playing for another top four team now, instead of arriving at Villa via Sunderland.

In defence, Villa have capability, talent and experience but lack confidence. But as results improve, so will form and as the season develops, so will fitness. There's nothing wrong with the reputation and commitment of players like Dunne, Collins, Warnock and great new keeper, Shay Given. Fans are calling for Collins to be dropped, but his early season progress has been hampered by injury.

The only legacy of the Houllier period was his commitment to youth. So many players staked their claim to the first team - and for one reason or another, they've slipped out of the reckoning. But Chris Herd is one player who's not only showing what a fine prospect he is, he's also creating competition at the back: so key to a developing squad.

I take Villa to continue improving and for Alex McLeish to look back at his first season in charge at Villa Park to finish higher than last season's stunted ninth place.