by Jamie Whitehead

In the bourgeoning stages of any relationship, after the romantic dinners, handholding, stolen kisses and long walks along the beach, ‘The Conversation’ between the two of you arises.

It’s an awkward one, but at the end of the day, curiosity gets the better of you and you’d like to know a little more about your partner’s exes. Sometimes this bothers you, sometimes it doesn’t. Ultimately it’s down to you to remember how you felt about them before you learned this information.

It’s often been mentioned that supporting a football team can be like a marriage, the time, emotion and dedication involved is testament to this.

In June of 2011, Aston Villa appointed Alex Mcleish as their manager following the abrupt departure of Gerard Houllier. Aston Villa hadn’t just appointed a new manager; they’d taken him from who the media would tell you are their greatest rivals (believe me, that title belongs to West Brom), the recently relegated Small Heath Alliance (Birmingham City)

The road to this junction had been a long and confusing one. After a period of relative success under the much loved Martin O’Neill, which saw three sixth placed Premier League finishes, two appearances at Wembley and a semi-decent run in the UEFA Cup (I refuse to call the European competitions under their current names) O’Neill had built a strong side with an English backbone. Villa Park was a fortress. It might not sound much, but he guided Villa to a league win at Old Trafford for only the second time in my lifetime. It was a huge deal.

The so-called ‘bigger clubs’ were sniffing around the players. Admittedly, since the League win of 1981 and the European Cup win the following year, Villa haven’t had a sustained period of success in the way that Manchester United and Liverpool have had. But Villa are a massive club. Instrumental in setting up the League system, a model copied in every major sport across the globe. Double winners in the 1890s. European Cup winners in 1982. They’re a huge side.

After Gareth Barry departed for recent lottery winners Manchester City, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the squad followed suit. The next big departure was that of James Milner, a consummate professional any side would be lucky to have, following Barry up the M6 to the blue half of Manchester which saw Stephen Ireland coming the other way.

O’Neill wasn’t given the funds from the transfer, and we are led to believe that this was the ultimate reason for his departure. Four years of sterling work destroyed on one sunny Tuesday afternoon. Four days prior to the new season.

“We need someone with Premier League experience,” screamed the board. “We’ll find the right man” they backed it up with. After an interim period of reserve team coach Kevin Macdonald (which included a six nil defeat at Newcastle) Houllier was bought in.

Although the man lumbered his way from one PR disaster to the next, you could see he was building for the future. A very credible 2-2 draw (after being 2-0 up) to Manchester United at home with a side ravaged by injury was testament to this. Sadly, Houllier’s health took a turn for the worse and he was unable to continue his duties in the Villa dugout. There were calls at the time for Houllier to be given a Director of Football type role at the club. With his connections with Clairefontaine and the French Football Association, on paper the decision seemed like a ‘no brainer’ as our American owners might say.

So, after O’Neill’s success and some clear rebuilding under Houllier the club was in a very healthy position to move forward. Carlo Ancelotti had just departed from Chelsea; Dutch legends Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard had both publicly gone to the press in their own nation and declared their interest in the role. Mark Hughes suspiciously resigned from Fulham and we are led to believe that Roberto Martinez was interviewed and offered the job.

Then rumours were going around that Lerner was interested in appointing Steve McLaren. Cue outrage among the online fraternity. Let’s look at this objectively for a second. Yes, he was poor for England, but he won the League Cup with Middlesbrough and had guided FC Twente to the Dutch title. From a personal point of view, I was happy the board were listening to their customers, sorry, supporters. But was slightly flummoxed as to why he wasn’t appointed. Graham Taylor doesn’t hold a particularly great record at the England post, but he’s a legend at Villa Park, with supporters referring to him as ‘Sir Graham’ and the mood was a positive one when The Knight of the Aston Realm returned in 2002.

Then we hear rumours that Alex Mcleish is in the frame for the job. Cue a PROTEST at Villa Park and then in a whirlwind few days, it’s announced that Aston Villa Football Club have indeed appointed Alex Mcleish as manager. Alex Mcleish. From Birmingham City. Who had led Birmingham City from the Premier League to the Championship. Twice.

The media have made out that we’re disenfranchised because of where he came from. Yes, there have been a few (small) sections of the support that have taken this stance, but the majority of fans had a “It’s not what we wanted, but let’s get on with it’ attitude.

Brad Friedel, a staple point in the O’Neill era had departed for Tottenham Hotspur, and I think Mcleish got a few more onside replacing him with Shay Given (I think Villa would be in a much worse position than they are if it weren’t for him) and Charles N’Zogbia was bought in to somehow fill the gaping hole left by Ashley Young and the not so gaping hole left by Stuart Downing.

As the season progressed, the feeling at Villa Park has got worse and worse. On one of the more popular Aston Villa forums, Heroes and Villains the amount of people who have said they will not renew their season tickets is astounding.

It’s not the fact he came from them. It’s the fact he doesn’t have a Plan B. At the Bolton game on Tuesday night, Villa actually played quite well. Heskey played well. And Villa scored. They took the lead. Two minutes later, they were trailing 2-1, the final result leaving Villa, who have competed in the top flight every year since 1988, staring at the drop with their remaining games against West Bromwich Albion, Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich City. The mood is bleak.

Lerner has remained very quiet throughout all this. The general feeling is that Doug Ellis would have acted by now, and the fact that certain sections of the support are now calling for Ellis to return tells you just how bad things are.

What the support are left with is a manager who simply isn’t up to the challenge of managing a Premier League football club. Especially one where European challenges could, and should, be a realistic expectation. With an alleged wage cap of £40,000 per week Villa won’t find it easy to replace the inevitable departure of Darren Bent and no doubt a few others regardless of what league they find themselves in next season.

Randy Lerner, the American with the exotic name, a big pot of money and a respect for the history of the club has made some mistakes and doesn’t know what to do to put things right. There’s still time to put things right, but not much.

The highlight of the season has been the 3-1 away win at Chelsea. Villa are now staring at the Championship. Chelsea are preparing for the European Cup final against Bayern Munich. Thirty years ago, Villa were preparing for the European Cup final. Against Bayern Munich. Chelsea finished 12th in Division 2. It’s enough to make you sick.

Jamie Whitehead is Producer and Co-Host of 3for3, your list based podcast, a link of which is available on the front page. He doesn’t care where Mcleish came from, and he’s not too bothered about where he goes, either.