by Liam McConville
Just over two years ago Randy Lerner was seen as the ideal blueprint for foreign owners in the Premier League. After buying the club in 2006, the American invested heavily in the squad as Villa finished sixth for three consecutive years. There was also the Carling Cup Final in 2010 which Manchester United narrowly triumphed in coming from behind to win 2-1. Villa had every right to feel aggrieved after Nemanja Vidic hauled down Gabby Agbonlahor and was lucky to avoid a red card. However after Martin O’Neill’s shock resignation just five days before the start of 2010/2011 season, things started to go wrong for the Villains.
O’Neil was appointed by previous incumbent Doug Ellis and in all fairness to Lerner his choices in managers since have not worked out at all. Reserve team coach Kevin MacDonald did a reasonable job in his role at caretaker but a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Newcastle showed that he probably wasn’t cut out for management at the top level. Lerner’s response was to hire former Liverpool and France boss Gerard Houllier. This seemed an odd appointment at the time as Houllier had been out of management for over three years. The situation was in danger of becoming a farce as the Frenchman’s arrival was delayed for two weeks as he waited to be released from his job at the French football federation.
Houllier’s reign did not begin well and with Villa floundering in the relegation zone in January, Lerner sanctioned a club record deal for Darren Bent. The deal rising to £24million was a signal of intent and Bent soon delivered with goals that kept Villa treading water. However in April Houllier’s health deteriorated as he suffered further complications to a long running heart problem. Assistant manager Gary McAllister stepped in for the rest of the season and guided Villa to ninth. Houllier soon departed heeding advice from his doctor, leaving Lerner with the biggest decision of his Villa tenure.
Mark Hughes and Steve McClaren were just some of the names linked to the position before Wigan boss Roberto Martinez turned the job down. With limited options Villa’s owner did the unthinkable and approached fierce rivals Birmingham City to speak to their manager Alex McLeish. The Scot had just relegated Birmingham but had also won the Carling Cup giving the Blues a very mixed season. Following relegation he was backed by his board and had begun the long summer recruitment process.
McLeish’s football has been generally dour as Villa have regularly rolled over against the top sides.
Understandably Villa supporters expressed their outrage at the imminent arrival. Five hundred fans gathered outside Villa Park to make their voices heard, but the appointment went ahead. Ashley Young and Stewart Downing left for a combined £37million with Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given joined for considerably less. McLeish was handed an easy fixture list but failed to take advantage of this. Villa drew five of their first six games and their inability to close out games has seen them win only six league games all season.
McLeish’s football has been generally dour as Villa have regularly rolled over against the top sides in the league. This lack of ambition from the manager must infuriate fans who have grown accustomed to success under O’Neill. Players have often been played out of the position and flair players such as Stephen Ireland have often been ignored. So far Villa have a paltry return of thirty points with eleven games to go and Villa are struggling in fifteenth. If the bottom five weren’t so desperately poor, the Villains would be much deeper in the relegation mire. With a tough run in to come things could yet get worse and the way that Birmingham sank down the table in the last ten games should send a collective shudder down Villa fans’ spines.
Fans have been rightfully vocal in their anger at the debacle surrounding the former European Champions. Further bleak news came last week as the club announced £54million losses for the year ending May 2011. Although these figures exclude the sales of Young and Downing and include Bent’s record transfer fee, the staggering losses should be ringing alarms. Following this it was clear that the wage bill needed trimming and Martin O’Neill appears to have inherited the knack of stretching budgets to the very limit from his former manager Brian Clough. It must be even more galling seeing O’Neill and Sunderland soaring high above Villa in the Premier League.
Lerner’s popularity is dwindling along with the attendances at Villa Park this season. It will take more than generous gestures such as the owner paying for fans travel to Arsenal for the recent FA Cup tie to prevent a revolt from the Villa faithful. McLeish cannot be blamed for wanting to take the job but results and performances have simply not been good enough. Further pressure will not go unnoticed and with the Scot looking more and more beleaguered with each passing day, the owner may be forced to show his ruthless side sooner rather than later.