Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Next Villa Manager

“Two of the traits we believe are of crucial importance are that candidates have experience of managing in the Premier League and a strategy for building on the existing strengths in our current squad.”

With the promise of the installation of a permanent manager before the next league game, Villa Chief Executive Paul Faulkner fuelled the fire of anticipation ahead of the interview selection process.

Of course, with this statement, the club have not categorically confirmed that they will appoint someone who has previously managed in the English Premier League, but they have given us some, if very miniscule, indication at least of the type of personnel they are looking to attract.

And with the next league fixture being held at the Britannia Stadium, MON’s successor surely has a tough short term task on his hands – but more importantly, he will arrive with the expectation of kickstarting a stalled vehicle and indeed building on the existing strengths in our current squad.

So as the race for the hot seat rises in temperature, I thought I’d take a look at the updated list of potential candidates burdened with the seemingly thankless job of awakening the sleeping giant.

Sven Goran Eriksson 7/2

Strangely, I think Sven’s personal life precedes him. Instantly, when people hear his name, they laugh or sigh and construe him as some sort of performing jester – in the wrong profession.

But as a football manager, I have to admit that the Swede has led an unblemished career and I would find it difficult to hold any objections to his appointment as next Villa manager.

Sven was fast-tracked into national acclaim after a superb one-season-wonder job with Degerfors as a young manager; and unbelievably, right up until his engagement with the English national team, Eriksson only failed to deliver silverware with just one club in those 23 years. His success as a club manager is indisputable. Even very recently, with Man Shitty, the 62 year old sex god mentored the Sky Blues’ best season for decades – dragging an underperforming club, devoid of a trophy in 30 years, into the Premier League top 10, winning two Manchester derbies (first time since 69-70) in the process before being bizarrely axed despite the infamous ‘Save Our Sven’ campaign.

I never understood why he wasn’t appreciated throughout his England tenure either. Imagine the shame of 3 consecutive tournament Quarter Finals (only Brazil matched this), or the embarrassment of being dumped out by Brazil (eventual champions), Portugal (the host country after a penalty shootout after that Urs Meier incident), and another penalty shootout defeat by Portugal in 2006 (with 10 men). In fact, England achieved their highest FIFA ranking of 4th in the world under the guidance of their lambasted manager – and after topping each of his qualifying groups, Eriksson was then succeeded by Steve McClaren who failed to even reach a major tournament.

Surprisingly, the only actual failure of Sven’s career came throughout his time at Mexico. Not bad for 33 years in football management eh? Yes, he had the benefit of a fantastically generous financial backing at Lazio, but after providing a return of 7 trophies in just 4 seasons, Eriksson proved to be sure-fire value for money.

Even his other apparent flops in the transfer market have proved a lot of people wrong. I’m probably Corluka’s biggest critic, but he is the one now starting for a Champions League outfit every week at Spurs. And I’ll put my hands up and admit that I hadn’t heard of Geovanni or Martin Petrov – but both turned out to be real gems. And of course, Elano “The Piledriver” won a place in a Brazilian first XI after being let loose by Eriksson. As a Premier League manager in the transfer market, I believe that Rolando Bianchi was Sven’s only dud (and an expensive mistake at that).

So his proven competencies within the field of management are indisputable and Sven would not only be a very safe option, but an exciting one at that. Having passed his only Premier League test to date, and achieving status as one of England’s best manager’s in a long, long while, Eriksson could be the perfect choice to take charge of a team full of Britons at Bodymoor Heath.

Kevin MacDonald 4/1

Tough one. Yes, he masterminded 9 conceded goals in 2 games and we foolishly failed to close out the game against Rapid Vienna, but Kevin currently has us in Champions League contention.

Of course, I’m speaking extremely prematurely and the Everton performance wasn’t heartening at all – but we won. Last season, we bowed out of Europe at the same stage, to the same team, and we leaked 7 goals at Stamford Bridge. The players’ leader, Petrov, has already backed the Scot to be given the permanent position and it would provide a simple and smooth transition from the Martin O’Neill era.

I like MacDonald’s calm and seemingly calculated approach before, during and after games, and after 15 years of service, 3 successive Reserve titles, a victory against top 8 rivals, and backing and response from the players, maybe Kevin deserves another stint to show us what he can do.

And hey, if it doesn’t work, it’s not as if that would deter Sven from throwing his hat back in the ring should the opportunity arise in the future.

Gerard Houllier 5/1

Again, another name which shouldn’t be taken lightly. At the age of just 38, he delivered the French league title to PSG before returning to Lyon to bring back-to-back doubles in his latest managerial stint.

On top of this, the former French coach not only overseen the regeneration of Liverpool’s training facilities, but he was responsible for bringing the club out of relative obscurity and into the 21st century in a proud tradition after reclaiming their first European trophy for 17 years and ensuring that, along with his 50% win ratio, he left a Champions League legacy (3 qualifications) which eventually grew habitual for the Reds.

However, only averaging 65 points throughout his time at Liverpool (one more than Villa’s season last year), it is hard to judge how well Houllier would do with a lesser outfit. But, taking a Liverpool team (who had won just a mere League Cup in the 6 year built up to his time in charge) to 2nd place with 80 points, Gerard proved that he knows how to acquire points in the Premier League.

I’d be more interested than excited to see the appointment of Houllier.

Alan Curbishley 8/1

I’m a fan of Alan, however I know some will say that his consideration would be a question of ambition. Unquestionably a safe option, ‘Curbs’ is still to bring success to a Premier League side and I have a feeling that his appointment would be met with unenthused groans by hardcore Villains.

But I look at it differently.

After overseeing 2 promotions and top flight consolidation with Charlton Athletic, Curbishley remarkably (and famously) saved newly promoted West Ham’s season from certain relegation with just 5 months to work with – and later turning them into a top ten outfit the year after.

Although it might not get me jumping from my seat, I would support the acquisition of Curbs, the former Villain, and would remember that everyone deserves their chance once they’ve earned it.

If football was so elitist and managers could not climb available ladders of opportunity, we would not currently be treated by the work of David Moyes, the beauty of Wenger football – and dare I say it, we would have no Alex Ferguson.

Ronald Koeman 10/1

Hard to argue with an overall managerial win percentage of almost 62% isn’t it (even if the majority of his career has been spent in Holland)?

Ronald is a proven winner and led an extremely limited Vitesse outfit to a momentous European spot with a severely restricted financial backing in his first job as manager.

Success at every club he has taken, Koeman even delivered the Copa del Rey for Valencia (their first in 9 years) in the midst of an otherwise poor season.

Unfamiliar with his strategic approach, I’m impressed with his acclaims to date and would view the capture of the young manager as an exciting step for our club.

Martin Jol 16/1

Why not?

Spurs treated him like dirt and after two consecutive top 5 finishes, the North London contingent were the only losers from his sacking after they wound up with Juande Ramos.

The Dutch man is still a relatively untravelled coach but his early years in the Netherlands saw him deliver a KNVB Cup in his first season as a football boss, before later winning 2 different Manager of the Year awards in 2 different seasons.

Spent big bucks on Darren Bent who let him down – and I am a big Bent critic, but boy he has proven that he will get goals and thus, has in some way justified Jol’s evaluation of him. I also wouldn’t just brandish Danny Murphy a write off. For £2m, Martin was investing in valuable experience for his squad and after leading Fulham to a Europa League Final, the Liverpudlian is still doing it.

What excites me most about Jol is not that he has followed on his Tottenham career with quick success at Hamburger and Ajax. No, it’s that he brought the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale to the Premier League for under £17m. How much would those 3 cost today? (Berbatov already made the club over a £20m profit)

After Eriksson, the 54 year old Dutch man would certainly be my choice to fill the void left by O’Neill. However, I fear he could remain committed to Ajax – but will surely feel that he has some unfinished business with the Premier League.

Phil Brown 20/1

Nope.

Unfortunately, the name of David Moyes doesn’t even appear on the William Hill website, but by golly, wouldn’t that be nice. I thought he could be lured by the temptation of improved financial backing at our club (which appears to have, at least temporarily, evaporated), and the realisation that he has taken Everton as far as he could. But the jump to Aston Villa will probably prove an all-too-sidewards step at this stage for the Scottish man, who has built his own squad with The Toffees and is probably destined for greater things (when another infamous Scot retires).

For me, we are blessed with a nice choice of potential applicants, with a blending variety. We could afford to be conservative, play it safe, take a risk or go for gold – it’s up to the board now. But the future doesn’t seem as bleak as a lot of people might think and even some of the disapproved names have undoubted talent which Villains should open their minds to.

Either way, we can look forward to the optimism and hope of a new regime in the near future. And judging by the criteria, or hints, set by Paul Faulkner, the above names should be topping the list – and I am one fan who is happy to see some of those managers in the running.

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The Rollercoaster Continues

And so, after 9 conceded goals in just 2 games, after European elimination, after failing to fill 8063 (almost 19%) seats, and lets be honest, after some dreadful, dreadful football, Aston Villa overturned their first big challenge of the season to climb proudly into the last remaining Champions League spot.

Football’s a funny old thing isn’t it?

Because as surely as this high will soon be quashed by a poor result elsewhere in the season, I’m going to once again allow myself to be blinded by the optimism and take a look at how positive things can sometimes be for an Aston Villa fan.

The Challengers

Yes, we are only 3 games into the season, but we are hanging onto the coattails of the Big Three better than anyone else in the league, and last year’s fourth place residents have already proven that they will be unable to cope with both the physical and mental demands of a midweek European match (even at such a premature stage). Tottenham have a good squad full of depth and talent – but the requirement of Champions League teams to peak twice in the one week, and not prioritise competitions, is a whole new experience for Spurs and their potential six more hangovers could prove detrimental in their domestic campaign.

Man City have a better squad full of deeper talent, but are fortunately blessed with an incompetent Premier League manager. After completely outplaying Liverpool, I rated the Sky Blues as a shoe-in for a Top 4 place – only for their overpaid personnel to demonstrate how they are suspect to neglect “lesser” league opponents this year off the back of more glamorous fixtures. And as long as Mancini concerns himself with not losing (rather than trying to win), the players at his disposal will remain restricted and limited and open to defeats by unexpected midtable challengers.

Liverpool are unconvincing as ever. Unlucky to be suffering the frustrations of a transition period, Hodgson could take time to gather momentum for the wounded Reds. But still blessed with Gerrard and Torres, Villa should hope that this progress takes longer than it should.

Obviously it is a massive ask to expect the mess that is Aston Villa to secure a Top 4 spot (particularly this season), but it is extremely heartening to realise that maybe the grass isn’t much greener on the other side after all.

Everton

Okay, we were abysmal at times today. The first half was largely pathetic and the exciting dominance we enjoyed against The Hammers just two weeks ago never seemed so far away. It was like MacDonald was reverting back to the conservative style of Martin O’Neill – except under this manager, we were unable to carve any chances unlike the MON days. We got men behind the ball, sure, and we limited the opposition effectively, but on the ball, the Villains were clueless. Indeed, but for a poor and completely unsuccessful Fellaini clearance, I might not ever have written this piece (The O’Neill team were always outplayed, but never lacked direction or danger). The final 20 minutes of the game: I’d rather not discuss. I never thought it was possible to become short of breath by sitting down – but boy, that was a stressful time.

Unlucky

However, I’ve said it before and I am delighted to say it again: In sport, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you take.

Besides, whatever the caretaker boss said at half time had a temporary effect on the team who were finally standing toe-to-toe with Everton and should have even put them away within that half hour spell. Ashley Young and John Carew had Distin on toast, and when we began to take them on, the Blue backline were struggling to find answers. Phil Jagielka produced a first class, last ditch block from Ashley Young’s rebound after big, bad John’s parried shot meant Tim Howard could only look on in hope. Similarly, Marc Albrighton showed his inexperience by rushing a rebounded shot from the opposite side when he could have firstly taken a touch. Everton never came as close as we did – and after refusing to give in to the pressure, we got out of there alive.

Brad Friedel

Yes, yes, yes. A quality goalkeeper is probably the most underrated, and conversely one of the most important, items within a football team. Producing a terrific reflex save from a Seamus Coleman flick, the American prevented certain heartbreak in the 94th minute to get a single fingertip to a Louis Saha shot which, at first glance, didn’t look threatening – thankfully Brad wasn’t as lax as I and went down, outstretched, to construct the game’s best save. A real relieving influence for a pressurized defence, Friedel’s impact in these 3 points should not be downplayed.

Luke Young

A case of humble pie for yours truly. Criticized on this very blog after his escapades in Newcastle, the number 2 produced his best performance in a long time to remind me why I had called for his selection on a number of occasions last year. Marauding into the penalty area, Young latched onto an inch perfect through ball from his namesake and effortlessly bent the ball into the top corner with his left foot – before completing the rest of the game in a sound manner and confidently making himself available as an attacking option time and time again. Apologies, Luke.

James Collins

Man of the Match contender. The Welsh man lived up to every inch of his beast-like stereotype with a ruthless performance at the heart of our defence in a game where anything less would have been catastrophic. Standing tall and putting league-bully Marouane Fellaini in his place with a commanding role, this match was made for James Collins.

Richard Dunne

I was a bit critical of ‘Dickey’ in the early stages of the game – accusing him of dwelling in possession and being clumsy in the tackle. But in hindsight, our number 5 was simply tactically cynical and tried to help out the midfield with a bit of ball retention in a no-nonsense display which swept the lethargy of St James’ Park under the carpet.

Stephen Warnock

I don’t know a lot, but I know that Stephen Warnock is a much more useful left back than Kieran Gibbs is. Another comforting solid match for the former Liverpool man, Everton’s right side was completely inept until the late introduction of Coleman, and like Luke, Warnock proved an attacking asset at least within our 30 minute spell. The entire defence should be credited with this victory after securing another clean sheet – defying the laws of averages (if you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick – Everton threw an abundance of mud at the wall today, and none of it stuck).

Marc Albrighton

Another tough game to get through for Marc, I think he just about tipped the scales and won me over throughout the 90 minutes. Early signs of naivety were apparent as Leighton Baines pushed forward, but the 20 year old got to grips and ended up recreating a number of thankful defensive clearances. He had a real bite going into the tackle as well which eliminated my early fears that he wasn’t physically ready just yet. At times, he ran out of steam and got overexcited when he could have held the ball up, but he was certainly our biggest threat from a wide area on Sunday.

Nigel Reo Coker

Take a bow, Nigel. An injury to Stephen Ireland in the warm up meant that a substitute was required, and in our hour of need, Reo Coker stepped up. Going through his usual shift of hard work and commitment, the number 20 was much better suited to this game than our new signing would have been – and I can’t recall one single instance where the lad lost possession. Even pulling the team out of the trenches with a few lung bursting, both solo and supportive, runs, the Londoner is, in my opinion, the unsung hero and another shout for MOTM – and could probably feel hard done by should he lose his place after this performance.

Stiliyan Petrov

Much too quiet today. The skipper failed to ever really impose himself on the game and produce any kind of magic you would hope from your creative centre midfielder. Of course, still worked hard and was maybe a victim of the referee’s harsh away bias, but we needed more from Stan today and we didn’t get it – and had to ride our luck as a result.

Stewart Downing

Probably the weakest of the team today, Stewart hit a couple of notable misplaced passes and didn’t seem too interested in affecting change in the match either defensively or offensively (excuse the Bob Bradley twang). I was angered to see that Agbonlahor was not replacing the left winger. I would have moved Ashley out and played two up top because Downing simply was not on-song today.

Ashley Young

Boy, is he thriving off playing behind the striker. Tireless off-the-ball work, combined with our best avenue of keeping possession, Young added to his delicious assist with 94 minutes of direction for a struggling outfit. If only we could have used his unflappably constant threat more.

John Carew

The big man came through for us today. Again, wasn’t really given a chance with desperate balls being hoofed forward to his isolated positions, but the Norwegian still managed to play a key role in the goal with a nod down for Ashley, and he led the line well enough in difficult conditions. Maybe taken off too early just when he had the clear beating of Distin, Carew was a perfect example of a “good” individual performance in a poor team display, lacking a little direction.

Gabriel Agbonlahor

Good to see him back. He showed glimpses of his use by holding up the ball and running into channels away from defenders. He was used as a bit of relief at times, but in truth, he was involved at a time where the game was being played in our box.

Although the team performance clearly wasn’t up to scratch, a number of individuals still demonstrated their value and showed that we are still a force if they can be moulded together (there was NO cohesion today and we still came away with the points).

Another clean sheet at Villa Park was the key to our 100% league record at home – a place where we failed to win 8 (42%) games last year.

Things were bleak just yesterday, and even throughout the game, alarm bells are clearly ringing. But just one glance at the Premier League table would suggest that we’re reaching any targets we are audacious enough to set in today’s environment, and it would confirm that once again, Aston Villa is overperforming.

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6-0: The Knee-jerk Reaction

So there I was; pen in hand, performance analyses tables drawn up – ready to dissect and detail the strengths and weaknesses of an attacking Aston Villa team at St. James’ Park… But sometimes, we don’t need facts and figures. Sometimes, we don’t need blind spots highlighted and it goes without saying that the pen and paper I was using were fired sorely in the bin quicker than Kevin MacDonald’s hopes of acquiring the permanent position disintegrated before his very eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to heap all the blame on our caretaker boss and he certainly didn’t get the rub of the green as big John still waits for the ball to return from orbit after his penalty shot, and Newcastle’s third goal from the corner curled about 2 feet behind the byline before entering the box (yet went bizarrely unnoticed on ESPN). But on his only test to date, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Scot failed – failed miserably.

Penalty

What a ball from Stan, by the way, to unleash Ashley Young who rounded the goalkeeper before being swiped to the ground. Young, incidentally, still looked remarkably dangerous and truly thrived playing off the front man despite his team going 6 goals to the worse. But it now begs the answer of what we do with Stephen Ireland – who admittedly, had a very quiet debut, but certainly looks more assured and effortless than anyone playing in claret and blue for a long time.

Now, I don’t know who takes the blame for Carew’s appointment as penalty-taker: manager or player? Because as I seen him lift the ball to place it on the spot, I was immediately vocal and frustrated in my opposition to the Norwegian getting the nod. Yes, he has scored a few in his time – but each have been cowardly blasts down the middle of the goal, and I for one knew what was coming (of course no one could estimate the proportions of failure which we were about to witness). I’ve said it so many times before and I unfortunately have to say it yet again: If you are going to hit a penalty down the middle, don’t hit it at all. A penalty kick should be left to someone who has the confidence to put the ball where the keeper can’t get it, and not left to chance by a bottler looking to hammer it down the goalie’s throat.

I’m not annoyed at the ball being skied, it is the risk the kicker runs when shooting in such a saveable area which really gets my goat. And if I knew, after having zero dialogue with big J.C, that he was going for more of the same – then surely his day-to-day manager, Kevin MacDonald, could have spotted this as well and elected someone different. Similarly, it is also up to the set-piece taker to put his hands up and say that he has no intention of aiming for the ‘unsavable zone’, rather he is going to close his eyes, blast the ball as hard as he can, and leave the outcome to the uncertain hands of a lottery-esc fate. But naturally, a forward wants a chance at another mark in their stats tally so it should be up to the manager to assign the player best prepared to consistently put the ball in the corner of the net.

I’ve probably spoken at great length about one incident which ultimately seems irrelevant in the magnificently grand scheme of things in the Newcastle massacre; but had we converted our 12 yard golden opportunity, we may well have made use of our early dominance and confidence and produced another scintillating display for the second week running to collect 6 points from our opening two games for the first time in 11 years. But now, we will never know.

New era

Instead, we allowed ourselves to be sucker punched just two minutes later and truthfully, we failed to ever really mentally recover from the drain of being one goal behind as opposed to be one up (we crumbled like we did at Stamford Bridge). And on that point: I’m all for the attraction of attacking football and I dream of seeing Villa play the beautiful game the way it should be played, but this should never serve to neglect the fundamental responsibility of defence. Yes, Barton’s goal was a bit of a piledriver but boy, did he have time to tee himself up. In fact, it was embarrassing that a top 6 club afforded an opponent so much time and space 20 yards from goal.

A lot of fans were angered at O’Neill’s uber-defensive mentality of piling 10 men behind the ball and from a football purist’s point of view, maybe we did over-commit to defending our goal throughout the MON era. However, the change in emphasis of our tactics should not grant a licence to our midfield to casually stroll back whenever they please. It should not permit the Villains to maraud forward with reckless abandon however they want. At times last year, it was annoying to see Downing and Young pinned back so far in their own half and the new lease of freedom for the wingers last Saturday at Villa Park was refreshing. But when I see Albrighton fail to track the attacking fullback for the Magpies’ second goal, when I see Dunne and Clark give-and-go as if they’re playing a 5-aside recreational game (leaving the heart of defence wide open for Carroll’s second), and when I consider the pressure mounted on Warnock all afternoon without backup, I was more disappointed thinking of how the players were taking the new regime for granted and that they expected an easy ride for the remaining 37 games.

Interestingly, at 3-0 down after 45 minutes, I wasn’t too downhearted. I recognised how things could have been different and I appreciated that we were still controlling large chunks of the game – unlike the past. And I viewed the half time break as MacDonald’s chance to shine. If he could muster a response from his side, if he could provide direction and concentration into an outfit which had clearly thrown in the towel, then Kevin could surely be the one for us. Unfortunately, the second half performance was much, much worse and the caretaker manager’s half time talked served only to ensure another 3 conceded goals against newly promoted Newcastle.

Nothing changed

As a Villa fan, there is always an unpleasant wake up call around the corner as soon as you even begin to have the audacity to be confident. We were good against The Hammers, but I had questioned the role of MacDonald in that result and I think it’s also time to question the ability of West Ham.

Blinded by a good performance, Villa fans (including myself) had forgotten the drastic necessity of the club to spend in the transfer market this summer.

Just because we acquired Stephen Ireland (at the expense of Milner), it doesn’t excuse the need for a goalscoring forward. Just because we swapped a central midfielder for another, we are not suddenly devoid of the requirement to strengthen our wing options. Albrighton has definitely been a class act in the opening two games, but in matches like today, we can’t be looking to a 20 year old to pull us out of the gutter. And after losing Milner, our midfield was completely dominated by last year’s Championship winners and maybe Ireland should not be confined to the centre afterall – meaning our central midfield problem needs sorting and the decision to move Young to the wing or not is still up in the air. Perhaps against better teams, we will not have the luxury to give Ashley a free role and will need to play him on the flanks to accommodate the new signing but the requirement of a quality number 8 and the bonus of having an extra attacking option are matters in which I hope Randy and the boardroom will not ignore – and appoint a fulltime manager immediately to sort it out.

Finally, I often complained at Cuellar’s selection at right back last season – but my oh my, did Luke Young look lightweight throughout the St James’ drubbing. Too slow and unaware, and bullied too easily, I would deem the signature of a better right back extremely obligatory as well.

So the great ‘Kevolution’ has come to a massively premature, and horrific ending; but instead of dwelling on it and indeed on this disastrous result, Aston Villa needs to act swiftly, very swiftly, to ensure that this mortification will never, ever happen again.

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3-0: If It’s Good Enough For Messi, It’s Good Enough For Me

On the 14th August, at 3pm, Aston Villa were managerless. The boardroom were penniless and the team were pointless.

Hopeless? Not in a month of Sundays.

Because on the 14th August, at 4.50pm, the “club in decline”, the “inharmonious dressing room”, the “shipwrecked” mission ignored all the off-field uncertainty at Villa Park and produced a devastating display which had us believing that MacDonald was Shankly, that new signings were irrelevant and more importantly; a performance which delivered all 3 points.

Of course, the team was set up identically to O’Neill’s preseason campaign so in a way, we are indebted to the Ulster man. However, whatever our newly-beloved caretaker manager said in the dressing room on Saturday, whatever words he advised in his players’ ears during the week, and whichever style he adopted worked terrific wonders as The Villains ran rampant against their claret rivals and secured a minimum winning margin of 3 goals – a feat we could only replicate three times in all last year throughout the entire league crusade.

It’s the cliché of the weekend, but the team were free to express themselves and had a refreshing fearlessness which banished the old policy of over-respect for the opposition – instead, going straight for their jugular with merciless havoc. Again, I wouldn’t downplay our former manager’s involvement in this as Kevin MacDonald has had just 5 days to work with the team – but to be honest, I don’t care who was responsible for Villa’s very own brand of Total Football, I’m just delighted to have witnessed it.

When our 20 year old, mostly untested, winger Marc Albrighton produces two direct assists from each wing (as well as a key-goal-involvement for the other), when 3 midfielders grab all the goals from shots within 18 yards of the nets (when Stan crosses the halfway line for that matter), when Aston Villa and Ashley Young are praised by one of the best footballers ever as playing exciting football and having a blinder ( http://twitter.com/officialmessi ), respectively, the shackles have certainly come off haven’t they?

Maybe it was planned throughout the entire preseason period, maybe it wasn’t. But rarely in the past 4 years have we ever dominated possession against any team and broke opponents down with such ease and assurance. Last year, we were caught out. Teams were ready for our counterattacking prowess and set up to spoil a spoiling team. Our predictability was all too apparent in the bemusing 52 league goals recorded by the biggest club in the Midlands. But we were aided by a mean defence.

This year (so far), we are opening up. Yes, there is a chance that this could prove to be a two-edged-sword and the step away from the old, cautious approach might well prove costly at times – particularly in cup competitions. But last season was the absolute last time we could have continued with our expected humdrum brand of football and the change is very welcome – and necessary.

And now the groans of Villa Park, echoed from uninspiring past results against Wigan, West Ham, Wolves, Sunderland and Blackburn, have all but disintegrated in place of mouthwatering content for the pure attack-minded regeneration.

 Yes, the Hammers were meek opponents but 17 shots (12 on goal) and a hatful of spurned gilt-edged chances (mostly from Big John), speaks volumes for our domination and suggests that nothing would have deterred a hungry Aston Villa outfit from getting the job done on Saturday – no matter who stood in the way.

Manager Debate

After hearing Petrov proclaim his desire to have MacDonald appointed as fulltime manager, I must admit that it got me thinking. I would in no way base this judgement on one fine result but more in the consideration that he has the players playing for him, he has introduced fresh faces to the action and it would be a smooth and simple transition from the MON era. I wanted the big name to take charge and continue to uphold the attraction of the club – but then I realised that this is Aston Villa; and drought or no drought, this speaks for itself. Mr Lerner and his boardroom contingent now have a massive conundrum in their hands: appoint Sven or Jol (which I’m all for) and risk drastic change, jeopardise more days like Saturday this year; or keep the faith with MacDonald and endanger our top 6 status through the guidance of an untried football manager. And the kicker is that this decision must be made immediately before the close of the summer transfer window. But what I will say is that only positive (extremely positive) reports have emerged from the Villa camp regarding the temporary boss.

Thankfully, I have no say in such matters and can simply look forward to Thursday with renewed optimism. Whatever MacDonald does next, he will always be remembered as the man who lifted the blues of last Monday, and allowed us to hope – yet again. He will be associated with the beautiful reminder that managers come and go – but Aston Villa is for life.

And as a supporter of the club first, I can bask in the glory that Marc Albrighton tops the Premier League assists charts; that two further youth team products, Andreas Weimann and Barry Bannan, have been successfully brought through the ranks; that every time Ciaran Clark plays a league match, Villa keep a clean sheet; that Marlon Harewood has finally produced the goods (oh, wait…); and I can be exceptionally proud to say that I am a peer of the thousands of fans who bid the ever-professional James Milner an emotional and deserving potential farewell. I can be proud to say that I am an Aston Villa man (God, the start of the season is magnificent!).

And do you know what else? It’s been a long, long time since a 3-0 home result at Villa Park flattered the opponents. Long may it continue.

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The King is Dead, Long Live the King

As much as it pains me to say, it’s time to move on. Martin O’Neill steered the Villa ship with a pair of undeniably steady hands for 4 years, but he will now embark on pastures new and probably go on to prove his worth elsewhere. It doesn’t matter. Because like him or loathe him, rate him or dismiss him, miss him or rejoice, Martin O’Neill is gone for good – but Aston Villa still remains.

It is now the age of a new leader – a new commander who has been set the task of ending our soon-to-be 15 year drought; a new chief who will guide his warriors with the scent of blood; a new provider who will be asked to deliver the meat in order to end our prolonged starvation of success.

And as a fan, it is my duty to give our next permanent manager my full backing. As players, it is their responsible to give our incoming supremo their full co-operation. And as the club’s board of directors, they are obliged to place their complete trust in Aston Villa’s next boss.

We are not here to prejudge the next man in charge. We are not here hoping for a reason to grumble. I made no secret of my disappointment at the Board’s recent deceit. Widespread Villains made no secret of their split in loyalties over the MON-saga. But what’s done is done. I took a side, and I was unhappy – but my blood is claret and I will continue to support the club. However, I fear that, come Saturday, there may be a lot of red faces around Villa Park as 2 separate protests expose the disharmony at Aston Villa. I hope this isn’t the case. Yes, I hope that there are a lot like me who are sad to see the back of O’Neill – but more importantly, I hope that everyone is like me and are AVFC fans first and foremost, and that they willing to leave the events of Monday and simply get behind their team. We are all here with the ambition that we can restore the spirit of ’82. And with a united front, we could begin to do that. Step by step.

So firstly, it’s time to give the new man in charge a fair chance and let him shape his vision for Aston Villa. And after time (and a lot of scrutiny!), we will begin to understand his methods and patterns and I’m sure that I will be the first in line with a few questions!

Therefore, without further ado, I present to you Aston Villa’s next possible managers:

Sven Goran Eriksson 8/11

 

Strangely, I think Sven’s personal life precedes him. Instantly, when people hear his name, they laugh or sigh and construe him as some sort of performing jester – in the wrong profession.

But as a football manager, I have to admit that the Swede has led an unblemished career and I would find it difficult to hold any objections to his appointment as next Villa manager.

Sven was fast-tracked into national acclaim after a superb one-season-wonder job with Degerfors as a young manager; and unbelievably, right up until his engagement with the English national team, Eriksson only failed to deliver silverware with just one club in those 23 years. His success as a club manager is indisputable. Even very recently, with Man Shitty, the 62 year old sex god mentored the Sky Blues’ best season for decades – dragging an underperforming club, devoid of a trophy in 30 years, into the Premier League top 10, winning two Manchester derbies (first time since 69-70) in the process before being bizarrely axed despite the infamous ‘Save Our Sven’ campaign.

I never understood why he wasn’t appreciated throughout his England tenure either. Imagine the shame of 3 consecutive tournament Quarter Finals (only Brazil matched this), or the embarrassment of being dumped out by Brazil (eventual champions), Portugal (the host country after a penalty shootout after that Urs Meier incident), and another penalty shootout defeat by Portugal in 2006 (with 10 men). In fact, England achieved their highest FIFA ranking of 4th in the world under the guidance of their lambasted manager – and after topping each of his qualifying groups, Eriksson was then succeeded by Steve McClaren who failed to even reach a major tournament.

Surprisingly, the only actual failure of Sven’s career came throughout his time at Mexico. Not bad for 33 years in football management eh? Yes, he had the benefit of a fantastically generous financial backing at Lazio, but after providing a return of 7 trophies in just 4 seasons, Eriksson proved to be sure-fire value for money.

Even his other apparent flops in the transfer market have proved a lot of people wrong. I’m probably Corluka’s biggest critic, but he is the one now starting for a Champions League outfit every week at Spurs. And I’ll put my hands up and admit that I hadn’t heard of Geovanni or Martin Petrov – but both turned out to be real gems. And of course, Elano “The Piledriver” won a place in a Brazilian first XI after being let loose by Eriksson. As a Premier League manager in the transfer market, I believe that Rolando Bianchi was Sven’s only dud (and an expensive mistake at that).

As firm favourite for the vacant position at Villa Park, I had to analyse the former England manager a bit more rigorously, and do you know what? Like Ulrika Jonson, I like what I see.

 Bob Bradley 11/4

Maybe should be the bookies favourite considering his nationality, but I’m not sure if that would be a deciding factor as Randy looks to keep pushing the club forward.

Untested in European football, the American has had unarguable success with his national side – following up a remarkable Confederations campaign (beating Spain and bringing the most successful country ever to its knees in the final) with a very respectable World Cup performance.

I wouldn’t write off Lerner’s compatriot so ignorantly: he converted himself as a renowned MLS manager and I, for one, would love to see the arrival of his son Michael into the Villa squad. But for me, this is a much riskier move than the aforementioned manager would be, and I think the name of Sven Goran Eriksson would be much more attractive for the club than that of Bob Bradley.

I’d be very interested to see him get his deserved chance in Europe or the Premier League, but I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be if it were us who took that punt.

Martin Jol 7/1

 

Why not?

Spurs treated him like dirt and after two consecutive top 5 finishes, the North London contingent were the only losers from his sacking after they wound up with Juande Ramos.

The Dutch man is still a relatively untravelled coach but his early years in the Netherlands saw him deliver a KNVB Cup in his first season as a football boss, before later winning 2 different Manager of the Year awards in 2 different seasons.

Spent big bucks on Darren Bent who let him down – and I am a big Bent critic, but boy he has proven that he will get goals and thus, has in some way justified Jol’s evaluation of him. I also wouldn’t just brandish Danny Murphy a write off. For £2m, Martin was investing in valuable experience for his squad and after leading Fulham to a Europa League Final, the Liverpudlian is still doing it.

What excites me most about Jol is not that he has followed on his Tottenham career with quick success at Hamburger and Ajax. No, it’s that he brought the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale to the Premier League for under £17m. How much would those 3 cost today? (Berbatov already made the club over a £20m profit)

After Eriksson, the 54 year old Dutch man would certainly be my choice to fill the void left by O’Neill.

Paul Lambert 8/1

After studying under our former manager for a number of years, the Scot would certainly prove a smooth transition. He’s doing a good job at Norwich, after that brilliant League Cup campaign with Wycombe in 06/07, but again he is still relatively unproven and much too risqué for my liking at this stage of his career.

Jurgen Klinsmann 8/1

Responsible for the regeneration of the German national team, Klinsmann led his country to a World Cup Semi Finals and I believe that his introduction of updated coaching techniques, playing style and attention to physical detail are pivotal to the onslaught success of Germany in the last 2 international tournaments.

Failed in his only club role to date, it would again be brave to appoint Jurgen but I don’t think I’d be unhappy to see him arrive either. However, constantly linked with every football post, I believe that his short odds are unfounded.

Alan Curbishley 10/1

I’m a fan of Alan, however I know some will say that his consideration would be a question of ambition. Unquestionably a safe option, ‘Curbs’ is still to bring success to a Premier League side and I have a feeling that his appointment would be met with unenthused groans by hardcore Villains.

But I look at it differently.

After overseeing 2 promotions and top flight consolidation with Charlton Athletic, Curbishley remarkably (and famously) saved newly promoted West Ham’s season from certain relegation with just 5 months to work with – and later turning them into a top ten outfit the year after.

Although it might not get me jumping from my seat, I would support the acquisition of Curbs, the former Villain, and would remember that everyone deserves their chance once they’ve earned it.

If football was so elitist and managers could not climb available ladders of opportunity, we would not currently be treated by the work of David Moyes, the beauty of Wenger football – and dare I say it, we would have no Alex Ferguson.

 Gareth Southgate 10/1

A Villa legend, surely.

But relegation and Alfonso Alves speak volumes for his current ability as a manager.

Scone’s Shortlist:

1)      Sven Goran Eriksson

2)      Martin Jol

3)      Alan Curbishley

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FAO Andy Gray

I’m disappointed…

Of course, I’m still deeply saddened by O’Neill’s departure; I’m frustrated and confused at my sudden change of opinion of our once beloved American owners; but I’m more disappointed at the careless (and convenient) inaccuracies being spouted about the media in an attempt to brandish our former (oh! That hurt) manager as a childish villain (and not the claret kind).

Yes, I make no secret of my obsession for the Northern Ireland legend – but I haven’t held O’Neill on a high pedestal for so long on a random whim. I’ve studied his performance, I’ve admired his achievements, and I began to respect his every word. And so, when I see a certain Mr Gray sitting behind his Sky Sports News desk criticising MON and kidding himself that his Google stat search is ample support, I’m more disappointed than surprised. I’m in no way surprised at Andy’s erroneous laziness (why should I expect a top television pundit to conduct a bit of valid research?), but I’m disappointed that some of us lay people have bought in to his tripe.

Mr Lerner has indeed been a great owner and had every right to tighten his purse strings for one transfer window (I’ve said this before), but when Gray attempts to vaguely explain that O’Neill has spent “something like” £120m of the American’s money, he led a lot of fans down a deceitful blind alley where unwarranted questions were raised as to how MON has been so immune to criticism (even if £120m was spent, this sum is still miniscule when compared to the lavishness of our closest competitors Spurs and Citeh). Martin O’Neill did indeed record an outgoing expenditure £123.85m for the club (if Gray is wondering), but after the sale of Nicky Shorey, the Ulster man is responsible for a NET spend of just £81.2m throughout his 4 years in charge. That’s merely £20m a year to bring a club in dire straits from 16th place to become top 4 challengers in today’s impossibly difficult money-mad football world.

Additionally, even if MON had spent enormous chunks (as being exaggerated by supporters from other clubs, and within our own unfortunately), he was still told by his employer that he would be allowed access to any money he raised through the sale of players – but now, all of a sudden, he isn’t granted such ‘privileges’. As the board, you cannot lie to your manager who is considering a new contract, and you certainly cannot fill his head with empty promises as he looks to discover how he can take his team forward.

On the 14th May 2010, Randy Lerner claimed that Champions League qualification was the aim for the season ahead, (http://www.goal.com/en/news/9/england/2010/05/14/1924753/aston-villa-owner-randy-lerner-we-are-aiming-for-the ), yet he expected his manager to perform such miracles within the limitations of a sell-to-buy policy. But O’Neill accepted the challenge and obliged – he knew that he would lose his best player for a second consecutive season, but he was unshaken. But less than 3 months later, MON was pushed over the edge – and we learned that something even more constraining than what was originally made public had been concealed from the former Forest player all along. And Martin O’Neill resigned. 12 weeks after putting pen to paper on a new contract.

Evidently, the timing of his departure is devastating. And maybe O’Neill wasn’t entirely thinking of the (overly critical) fans when he decided that he could not take the team any farther with his hands so tightly tied. But when he is not being allowed to shape his vision, how can he be the right man for the job? I suppose he came to this conclusion.

But the timing of the decision is a strange one…” but do you know what Mr Gray? Something tells me that this was not actually planned – but hey, maybe that’s just me. On a serious note, I’m sure than MON had no desire to walk out on his 4 year progress; to abandon ship immediately after it had reached new depths; to neglect the nurturing of such talent as Gabby, Albrighton, Delfouneso and Delph; to sell off an unfinished business. Or maybe, after all, he did plan to take the team through preseason, prepare us for a do-or-die year and then turn his back 5 days before the big kick off…

Gray goes on to compare the Villa situation to Manchester United’s loss of Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, he is irreplaceable and Fergie was not given the full £80m transfer fee to spend how he likes – however, Sir Alex was aware of this in advance (unlike O’Neill), he had the ability to still acquire the costly likes of Valencia, Obertan and Owen (unlike O’Neill), and he was in a position where he still had the vast, vast majority of players from the three times Premier League champions, not to mention their very recent Champions League exploits (similar to Villa?). It was also suggested that Harry Redknapp is being hard done by because he still hasn’t signed anyone ‘yet’. But a glance at his Portsmouth and Spurs debt, and the realisation that Tottenham will spend this summer, deems consideration of this argument very unnecessary.

Before I conclude my defence of Martin O’Neill (hopefully for the last time, because I want to give our incoming supremo every chance and my 100% support), I should also probably mention on a side note that had we acquired Stephen Ireland plus the reported £19m (which isn’t for spending) for James Milner, our NET expenditure would have had an even healthier face (for those who were so quick to look at the outgoing costs of the club). We should probably also be fair and consider the increased revenue of the club over the past 4 years, through gate receipts, European qualification, and of course, extended cup runs and TV rights. And why not throw in the fact that Villa distribute just the 7th highest wage bills in the league each year?

Hopefully the next time another famous voice attempts to take an uneducated swipe at O’Neill for “throwing his toys out of the pram”, they will firstly have a look at the difficulties which faced him in simply keeping us standing still in this crazy 21st century football business. Even more hopefully, Andy Gray will realise the errors of his judgements.

To quote my favourite, Brian Clough, “There’s a good lad…

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2010 A.D. The Year They Killed The Messiah

On the 15th of October 1973, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor tendered their resignation to the Derby County Board of Directors – who, in an unprecedented move, accepted their departure rather than bow to the demands of 2 of the most astute managers in world football. Today, Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa Football Club after seemingly reaching the end of his tether with the increasing chains of the powers-that-be. Today, the sleeping giant that is Aston Villa has now surely slipped into a deep, deep coma – and will never be woken.

As I was writing a new blog post on my season predictions, I explained,

“When I look at the personnel and depth of the 7 other teams in the Premier League top 8, and when I consider some of their spending power and growth, I see no reason why Aston Villa shouldn’t finish 8th this coming season. However, when I see images of Bodymoor Heath training, when I look at the excitement of some of our top-class players, when I hear O’Neill speak and when I consider his vision, I have every confidence that we will once again be in the shake-up come May…”

Unfortunately, as I was writing a new blog post on my season predictions, I read,

“It’s obviously a wrench to be leaving such a magnificent club…”

And at once, I had to stop writing. At once, the overly-optimistic Villain in me had been crushed, my rose tinted glasses shattered, and all at once, I could see only rubble before me on the plains of the 2010/11 season.

Romanticists are urging us to look at the positives, but some things in life just aren’t that simple, are they? Yes, I’ve criticised some of our players, I’ve overanalyzed some of our policies, and I beg for a sense of realism, but readers of this blog will know that, deep down, I am nothing more than a hopelessly hopeful Villa-addict. I will, when others won’t; I cheer when others frown; I believe when others doubt – but on the 9th of August 2010, this supporter fell from grace, cracked his head, and begrudgingly remembered that he is an Aston Villa fan; and with that, comes great misery.

Is it really that bad?

You bet. Because as I was riding high on the MON Express (I didn’t realise how high until now), I had forgotten the sickening feeling of having to turn off Match of the Day on a Saturday evening. I had blanked out all those cruel years of midtable apathy and I had elapsed the memory of when we were looking to Darius Vassell for goals, to Joey Gudjonsson for inspiration, to Alpay Ozalan for heart.

And now, regrettably, I see no way forward. I fear that Aston Villa will never be blessed with a manager of the calibre of Martin O’Neill again. The club has lost its entire pull-factor. James Milner is a goner; will we be so surprised to see Ashley Young follow him out the doorstep? Is a MONless AVFC appealing enough to attract the likes of Stephen Ireland (a player who we were on the brink of welcoming) or Robbie Keane? His achievements aside, the name alone of Martin O’Neill was working wonders for our club – and I can’t see any possible candidates having big enough metaphorical feet to fill his giant shoes.

In a way, the Ulster man has left us high and dry. 5 days before the new season begins, 22 days before the transfer window closes, we are managerless and still to make our first signing. But in another way, I don’t blame him. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if a board is going to hire a manager to oversee team affairs, they should put complete faith in that manager and his policies and allow him to shape his vision how he wants, with zero interference. If they feel that they cannot trust the man they have appointed and the directors feel that they know best, he shouldn’t be there in the first place – otherwise, let it be and give him a fair crack at the whip. And up until the past few months, I thought this mutual respect and communication was what we had at Aston Villa – and so did O’Neill. But how could MON take this club forward if we are constantly selling our best players? How could he take us anywhere if he isn’t being allowed to spend even the money that he raises himself? What would be the point in remaining with a project devoid of ambition, expecting failure?

The FA rejected MON’s application for the national job because he wanted to make sure that he had complete control of all team and academy matters (like it should be). (Similar unnecessary power-trips was why England missed out on having Brian Clough in charge all those years ago) Instead, the country was treated to the appointment of Steve McClaren who did his utmost to bring shame and disrepute to the 3 Lions crest. I say, “Back the manager; or sack the manager”… worryingly, our chairman chose the wrong option.

Irreplaceable?

Yes, I am a massive O’Neill supporter (although I can’t see any reason why everyone isn’t), but I do not want to become like that infamous blog which spouts out nothing but uninterested, uninspiring, pessimistic garbage each week about all-things-Villa. I’m an AVFC supporter first and foremost who simply recognised that MON was one of the best things in a long, long time that ever happened to this club – and I will back his successor (granted it’s not David O’Leary). I’m just having difficulty seeing how these clouds can be moved from Villa Park. I’m having difficulty considering life after O’Neill.

Martin gave us 4 spectacular years (I’ve discussed this in-depth in previous posts), and I, for one, am extremely thankful. Some say he was just there for the money (although he admirably walked out on his contract for footballing reasons); others say he had taken us as far as he could (even if he had, which he hadn’t, he had already taken us quite a distance). But O’Neill had us believing again – he had us hoping. And in the face of our 6 year despair, we couldn’t ask for any more.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, I don’t believe in fate. I maintain that we are placed in situations, faced with opportunities and we need to make the most of them, we have to try and make the right decision.

The term “Messiah” refers to the redeemer figure, the leader, the saviour – the one who will show His people the way. I can’t help but think that after dragging us from the dark ages, after prophesising greatness for this club, after restoring pride in our people, that Martin O’Neill was The Chosen One. And I dread to accept that we turned our back on his teachings, that we rejected his way, and that we, Aston Villa, banished The Messiah.

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