Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Villa act swiftly to appoint a manager this time

A Special One before the Special One
Aston Villa's board have acted decisively in appointing Paul Lambert as their new manager. After a brief flirtation with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Norwich boss was identified as the man to replace Alex McLeish, putting to an end any repeat show of the problems this time last year.

Back then, indecision, rejection and fudge proved costly as the board were forced to appoint Alex McLeish. Flipping Eck, who crossed the city to Villa was fifth-choice. After weeks of rumour and fruitless negotiation, hundreds of angry fans protested at Villa Park as the man who'd relegated Blues twice was unveiled.

Gerard Houllier quit before the season's end citing more heart problems, leaving Gary McAllister to caretake. Villa finished 2010-11 with a flourish: a 2-1 win at Arsenal was followed by a final day 1-nil win over Liverpool. Window signing Darren Bent's goals helped secure a ninth placed finish after a springtime dalliance with the wrong end of the league. Randy splashed £24m on the Sunderland striker to insure against the unthinkable.

So there was cause for low-level optimism: after all, McLeish was inheriting a better squad than he had at St. Andrews, he could call upon on an enlarged squad crop made possible by Houllier's faith in youth - and he had won Blues some silverware (so ruining Villa fans "one hundred years and won f*** all" Blues tribute song).
Lambert takes over from Alex McLeish at Villa Park
Instead the footballing fair all season was lamentable. McLeish had a reputation for setting up defensive teams and he took his confidence-sapping pub-team mentality and placed it upon the shoulders of a good team built by Martin O'Neill.

I deliberately took a seat next to the bench for Villa's home game with Wigan, so I could see how McLeish managed during game time. While clapping the flicks and tricks of Barry Bannan, he seemed to exchange a negative comment immediately afterwards with his coaches. I'd heard talk from another reporter that he didn't think the youth were good enough; a real kick in the face for the likes of Albrighton, Clark, Herd and Delph, who'd figured largely in Houllier's plans.

McLeish never looked assured in the job.

But it could've been all so different if Villa had appointed a boss with less panic and conjecture. No less than five names were in the frame in advance of the surprise link to the Birmingham City manager.

David Moyes was the early rumour. I had it on authority from a former Villa player now connected in the world of agents that the Everton boss had had two meetings with a representative from Villa's board. To the disappointment of many (including me), that's as far as it went; whatever issues Moyes had at Goodison were settled without the story emerging from the shadows.

Then suddenly and without any advance warning, Mark Hughes quit Fulham. The Welshman had just completed an eighth-placed finish at Craven Cottage, a place, a point and a seventeen goal better goal difference than Villa. The betting exchanges took this as a definitive job offer from Villa Park. How wrong that proved: in fact, owner Randy Lerner was said to have been spooked by Sparky's Cottage walkout.

Matters then got a little out of hand: Villa set their sights on Champions League winner, Rafa Benitez. But he gave short shrift to the Villa opportunity and swiftly rejected Randy's overtures.

Former England manager and umbrella model, Steve McClaren was called for interview - within 24 hours, he was told by Paul Faulkner not to bother turning up. No explanation was given and the disappointed McClaren, who wanted a return to England after disappointment at Wolfsburg, had a short-lived spell at Forest.

The spotlight then fell on Wigan's Roberto Martinez: a last day Premier League survivor with a win at Stoke. The Spaniard had cultivated a reputation for playing good football at both Swansea and the DW Stadium. But his special relationship with Dave Whelan put paid to Villa's chances.

Meanwhile, the close-season clock was ticking: other clubs had completed their summer signings, pre-season preparations were well underway. Still, no one was at the helm.

When Alex McLeish's name started circulating on Twitter, I originally thought it was a joke. Birmingham City had already mailed out Season Ticket renewal cards with his picture, autograph and spiel to get behind a promotion push.

Two days and £2million pounds in compensation later, the Blues boss was wearing a claret and blue tie, aiming to placate angry fans and win them over! Frankly, it was a terrible way to kick-off a new regime.

The only relieved people must've been Messrs. Lerner and Faulkner, but even they must have hoped beyond hope to a bit of good fortune: McLeish's arrival was nothing like they'd chosen.

This time, the board acted quickly, decisively and boldly: hiring a man who the fans are behind and with a fighting chance in the transfer market, with both time and available finance.

Lambert speaks of energy, vigour and ambition: he's reawakened Norwich City with commitment and organisation. Villa represents a step up.

He believes in Villa's potential and arrives from a place where he couldn't have fulfilled those dreams previously.