Villa: Is Not Being McLeish Enough?

We're not sure that Randy Lerner bought into Aston Villa to get 50 points and a mid-table finish but that might be as much as this squad can manage. It's probably enough for now...

Last Updated: 13/08/12 at 15:40 Post Comment

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Last season:

Premier League 16th; FA Cup Fourth round; Carling Cup Third round

Manager Paul Lambert (since June 2012) Odds on being first out of his job 25-1 (joint 12th)

Transfers in Brett Holman (Alkmaar), Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord), Matthew Lowton (Sheffield United), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord)

Transfers out Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland), Connor Taylor (Walsall), James Collins (West Ham)

Writing about Aston Villa in pre-season inevitably throws up memories of 2010 and speculating in this space over how Martin O'Neill was going to fare, only for him to part company with the club before a ball was kicked. The loss of the Northern Irishman, now at Sunderland, is a blow from which the club have not recovered, compounded by the poor appointments that followed.

Nice as it would have been for Gerard Houllier's twilight years to have included a successful return to club management, surprise at the medical problems that forced him from the job was not widespread. If there was sadness over the circumstances of the Frenchman's departure from those capable of distinguishing football from real life, it was disbelief that dominated when Alex McLeish was named his permanent successor with the stench of Birmingham's relegation still overpowering the fumes from the Gravelly Hill Interchange.

It is the fact that football is so hard to predict that makes it compelling (and I will have some humble pie to eat thanks to Nick Miller later in the week), but the closest thing to a racing certainty in football was that the Scot would struggle to win over the support and would be under added pressure with each adverse result. He had the backing of Sir Alex Ferguson but the support of the most biased man in football counts for nothing in real life.

Goodbye or farewell are too warm in their sentiments for Villa fans; good riddance is at least in the right area though to come close to the mark I would have to use unpublishable language. Disposing of McLeish may have been cathartic but it did not solve the Villa conundrum, and nor has the arrival of Paul Lambert.

They are the biggest club in the country's second biggest city and once upon a time they were European champions. Their top-flight roots go back to the Football League's inaugural season when they were the most southerly club and they were soon one of the most successful. But they have never recaptured the spirit of those early decades except in the years culminating in the 1982 European Cup win. Since the Premier League started they have suffered too many eclipses and even with Randy Lerner's takeover they remain in the shadow of the north-west and south-east.

Under McLeish they could not even manage to be the region's leading team, finishing nine points and six places below West Brom. Part of that was down to the former Birmingham manager's motivational skills, and the loss of Darren Bent to injury and Stilian Petrov to serious illness added to their troubles (and, in the case of the Bulgarian's leukaemia, put them in perspective).

Spending has been sensible rather than lavish, with the £3.2m paid to Feyenoord for the centre-back Ron Vlaar the high point, with another defender, Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United, just behind. Though Brett Holman, the Australia winger, could be a good Bosman acquisition, the most exciting sights for the Holte End could be the youth products headed by Barry Bannan and the still-only-22 Marc Albrighton. But it seems unlikely that Lambert will be able to get too many Second City pulses racing with this squad and if Shay Given repeats the form he showed at Euro 2012 then the Holte will howl.

Mid-table is densely packed and, though Villa finished two below the 40-point mark, 50 or so and a top-ten finish are possible. It is not clear, though, that that is the level of success Lerner was seeking when he became involved.

The good news for Lambert is that a gentle start to the season offers an opportunity to bed in himself and his new charges, with trips to West Ham and Southampton before the end of September and visits by Everton, Swansea and West Brom. But in the long run this may just be a season where relief at the departure of McLeish remains the overriding emotion and in the end a manager needs to do more than simply not be someone else.

Philip Cornwall

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