So fellow Villains, after another torrid season, yet another managerial change and we find ourselves at what most will hope is a turning point in Aston Villa’s recent history.
Paul Lambert is a manager who not only won many admirers at Norwich in the previous Premiership season, but also gained much respect in the wider footballing community with promotion to the Championship from League One in the years prior to it. So the new manager is not only a footballing manager, but his appointment has been met with the approval of fans and players alike, something Alex McLeish frankly never stood a chance of ever having.
His appointment has also, from the outside at least, seemed to galvanise what looked to all last season as a squad in turmoil. Senior players seemingly unwilling or unable to fall into line with Mr McLeish’s ideas and philosophy, and younger players being asked to step in to their shoes and play to a level many had neither the experience nor the knowledge to cope with. Although, in saying that, a number of those who did were impressive and with regular games and patience could turn into real players yet.
Having watched a number of games myself last season I believe the end for Alex was as inevitable as night following day from the moment Darren Bent got injured; his only serious goal threat being removed, and from that point on I felt it was very much an exercise in damage limitation. Even the loan move for Robbie Keane, which is something I felt was both years too late, and a last roll of the dice from the board, did little to change this way of feeling. Never the less I enjoyed Robbie playing in a claret and blue shirt, even if it was only a few times. He bought passion, commitment and professionalism into a squad sadly lacking in all these key areas at the time.
Then there was Stan; our beloved club captain, and stalwart of our midfield for years. When I heard the news from a friend on the morning it was announced I was heartbroken. Having known people who have battled the disease I know it can be fought and is not necessarily terminal, but I was almost sure it was the last time we would see Stan wearing the lion rampant.
True to form from our beloved and historic club, both the players and fans put apparent differences aside and united behind the captain, a salute ringing out at every game on the 19th minute and an almost palpable siege mentality developing on the pitch; we would fight on till the last game, and we’d do it for Stan.
Obvious problems and issues between players and manager were put aside, until after the season had come to a close. At Villa Park on the last home game against Tottenham after the match (a lucky draw against a faltering Tottenham) protests were held, fans remained after the game and demanded heads rolled, specifically McLeish’s and the club once again descended into a farce.
McLeish was sacked, and the European Championships provided a welcome distraction from off field matters at Villa. Managers being linked with the club came thick and fast, but two names kept cropping up, and soon became favourites for the job. Paul Lambert and Roberto Martinez were both young managers with budding reputations within the game, both had worked minor miracles that season keeping Norwich and Wigan respectively in the Premiership, both on relatively little money and playing what most fans consider attractive entertaining football.
Martinez had turned down the opportunity to come to Villa Park the prior season and in most fans eyes had committed some sort of imaginary slight by remaining loyal to a football club that is close to his heart. That alone had strengthened Lambert’s stock and when the announcement was made he would be the next manager it was met with many nods of approval from pundits, fans and players alike. I for one wish Paul every success at my club, I hope he can bring a dynamic, attacking and free flowing style of football that mixes the best of our traditional English, fast paced and direct style of play with the more fluid and measured approach employed by teams in leagues all over Europe.
So as I suggested at the start of this piece we are now at what will hopefully be a turning point in our club’s future…
Or are we rather at a crossroads? Let’s not fool ourselves into believing that simply a change of manager and playing style will solve all the problems that were exposed last season at Villa. Major investment is needed in playing staff, wheat needs to be sorted from chaff once again and players who have contributed little since signing extortionate contracts need to be put firmly in their place or got rid of. Couple this with a worrying trend that has emerged in clubs all over the Premiership in recent times; “The Boys Club” mentality that senior players at the likes of Chelsea have developed meaning they effectively have the power to make or break a tenure with a few choice words to the press and basically indifferent attitude on the pitch leaving the manager and his coaching staff scrutinised unjustly.
This developed under at Villa under Martin O’Neil in my opinion and some of the more senior players have had more of a hand in seeing off Gerard Houllier, Gary McAllister and Alex McLeish than is their right or is conduct befitting a player wearing my colours.
I genuinely hope that Mr Lambert spots this early and deals with it appropriately, as I’d hate to see Villa sack a young manager at the end of the season due to some player’s refusal to change or adapt to new training methods and tactical styles. Still if I had my way a number of the “senior” players repeatedly involved in these incidents would be out the door before the new season begins anyway. There is also the issue of the owner to be looked at. Now it all started out well for Randy, but as time has worn on, the whole “honest American investor, understanding the history of the club, proud to be part of it” spiel has frankly worn a little thin. He was conspicuous only by his absence last season, that, his need to sell before buying and a succession of rather confusing and frustrating decisions regarding management choices and press statements have left many Villains with more than a suggestion of a bad taste in their mouths while speaking his name.
Let’s be honest we all know last season, and the season before would be hard, we were in a huge hole after Martin left. A lot of dead weight needed to be shifted without making any money back; the wage bill alone was astronomical, that coupled with losing players of a high standard and either not replacing them at all, or replacing them with players not of the same calibre meant the overall quality in the squad was severely lacking. The heady heights of 5th in the league and chasing down a Champions League spot seem little more than a distant memory these days it has to be said, but it was a collection of problems that bought us to this, no one person can carry the can, it’s been a slow corrosion not an implosion of Leeds United proportions.
But as a fan it’s difficult to take I know, after all, the whole point of following a club is because you want to see your club, your players do well. How many of us have followed Gary Cahill’s career with more than a little spark of pride knowing he was ours? Villa produced him, and we all knew he’d go on to be an England regular. So yeah hope springs eternal I suppose. Strap yourselves in fellow Villains it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
Assessment Of The Playing Squad
Goalkeepers: Shay Given, Andy Marshall
Defenders: Alan Hutton, Stephen Warnock, Richard Dunne, James Collins, Ciaran Clarke, Enda Stephens, Eric Lichaj, Nathan Baker, Derrick Williams
Midfielders: Stephen Ireland, Charles N’zogbia, Marc Albrighton, Fabien Delph, Stiliyan Pertrov, Barry Bannan, Chris Heard, Daniel Johnson, Gary Gardener, Samir Carruthers
Strikers: Darren Bent, Gabby Agbonlahor, Nathan Delfouneso, Andreas Weimann, Graham Burke
Recent Additions: Brett Holman, Karim El Ahmadi, Matthew Lowton
Loan Players To Return: Brad Guzan, John Makoun
Hardly Inspires confidence does it?
We all know Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock are simply not up to the task. Personally I think Eric Lichaj makes them both look very average and looks like a really good prospect and with the addition of Matthew Lowton it looks as if one if not both of these have limited days left at Villa. I’d be very interested to see if Mr Lambert renews his interest in Kyle Naughton from Tottenham now that Andre Villas-Boas has taken over at White Hart Lane. I think he did extremely well at Norwich last season and looks like a tidy player in the vein of fullbacks such as Kyle Walker and Ashley Cole who like to get up and down the pitch and provide extra width, something we lacked badly last season. That coupled with my personal opinion that Richard Dunne should be shown the door and someone along the lines of Scott Dann from relegated Blackburn bought in to bolster the likes of Clarke and Baker who made real cases for starting positions last season.
Midfield is a real enigma at Villa for me; we look to have some real quality in this area of the field, but were compromised last season by hoofing the ball long and constantly missing them all out for large chunks of games. Ireland I hope can recapture his Man City form next season; he showed small snippets last season and with a full pre-season inside him and a manager who will want him to pick the ball up and carry it I see him, Charles N’Zogbia and John Makoun getting a new lease of life next season. Marc Albrighton needs to step up as well, he’ll be one of the players Mr Lambert will be most looking forward to working with, and it will be a make or break season for the likes of him and Barry Bannan.
Despite saying this, we are still thin on the ground width wise. I’ve been very impressed this season with a number of excellent prospects in the Premiership and one or two WILL cost serious money but we have been promised investment so let’s make the most of it shall we? Nathan Dyer, Victor Moses and Junior Hoilett would all be excellent additions to and squad. Midfield or up front I think they all offer excellent options, real dynamism and are good on the ball as well as having a good delivery and being a goal threat. Those mentioned as well as Matty Jarvis from Wolverhampton Wanderers, a player I’ve enjoyed watching for a number of years.
Other than that I will have to go for a personal favourite of mine and once again go for Alberto Aquilani from Liverpool, a player I have much admired and am frankly confused as to his status at Liverpool. I would be willing to take a punt on him should Liverpool be willing to be listen to offers around the £6-8m mark, any more than that and his cost and inevitable wage demands would be too much of a gamble for the manager to justify.
Where strikers are concerned I’ve already stated that I think the abilities of the three players Dyer, Hoilett or Moses would suit Villa down to the ground. Any one of them and the addition of Stephen Fletcher, again from relegated Wolves would be a interesting move, as I feel he’d be very much in the mind of Mr Lambert considering his success with Grant Holt at Norwich. I believe it’s time to part ways with Gabby Agbonlahor as he just hasn’t done anything for a number of seasons now and I feel we should cash in while he’s still on a decent contract and will fetch £6-10m.
Top Three Signings: Kyle Naughton, Junior Hoilett, Stephen Fletcher.