by Richard Brook
Aston Villa and Norwich City fans alike sang, during Villa’s 2-0 defeat at Carrow Road to inform Villa manager Alex McLeish that he would be getting “sacked in the morning”. They were wrong: He just about hung on until the afternoon before the official announcement confirmed the whispers.
McLeish’s sacking came as possibly the least surprising news of the season as Aston Villa finished a mere two points above the Premiership’s relegation zone, when they parted company with their manager.
In the days leading up to his dismissal McLeish stated that he was part of a “project” with Villa’s American owner Randy Lerner, to reduce the wage bill – including the sale of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. McLeish also stated that at the start of the season he believed that there was a possibility that Villa’s squad would finish in the bottom half of the Premier League, and that if a lack of strength in depth was exposed by injury they “might have problems”. In short McLeish felt he had fulfilled his brief of reducing the wage bill and maintaining the club’s top-flight status.
Through the sacking of McLeish it seems apparent that there has either been some crossed wires about the nature of Villa’s ambitions for the season, or that the Villa Park board have finally bowed to pressure from the fans. Indeed McLeish’s statement of his objectives, assuming they are correct, is curious. To publicly announce that he views himself as successful because the full extent of Aston Villa’s ambitions is to stay up on the cheap, could only serve to heap yet more pressure on to himself, and crucially on to Lerner to act to disprove this assertion by sacking him. Such ambitions, if they are worthy of the word, were never likely to placate the already restless fan base. Beyond this, had McLeish kept his job after such comments, how could he hope to regain the Villa dressing room having labelled his current squad as ‘possibly bottom-half’ and likely to encounter problems in the event of injuries? These comments were made in full knowledge that he would be expected to rely heavily on Bosman free transfers in the summer.
Aston Villa are an old club with a proud tradition, and with an honours list that would be envied by all but those most elite of English sides. Rightly or wrongly, the fans are accustomed to more ambition than merely top-flight survival.
From the very start, McLeish’s reign appeared doomed to failure. Not only did he join the club directly from cross-city rivals Birmingham City, but he did so on the back of a relegation, at a time when Blues fans were keen to see the back of him and his brand of “anti-football”. Before McLeish was ever appointed at Villa, Blues fans were already taunting their neighbours over the fact of his name being linked.
It is hard to know which team got the best deal out of Alex McLeish’s time in England’s second city. Villa escaped with their position in England’s elite division intact, but they finished on fewer points than those amassed by Birmingham in their relegation season, and Blues did win only their second piece of major silverware, the 2011 League Cup, under McLeish’s stewardship.
Villa’s fans will hope that McLeish was either incorrect in his understanding of his objectives, or deliberately misstated them in a bullish response to the media speculation around his position. However, it should be noted that in the club’s statement regard McLeish’s dismissal, Lerner appears to address the clubs ambitions and some of McLeish’s comments very directly:
“Aston Villa can confirm that Alex McLeish’s contract has been terminated with immediate effect. The club has been disappointed with this season’s results, performances and the general message these have sent to our fans.
“The board wishes to assure supporters that we are conscious in every sense that Villa expects and deserves more and we will strive to deliver this.”
These words have the propensity to cause one to wonder if there ever is smoke without fire.
In spite of the above points, there are plenty of very genuine reasons why Alex McLeish might reasonably have expected to be leaving Villa this summer. For example the club have only won four home games all season, only one team scored fewer goals and only bottom of the table Wolverhampton Wanderers won fewer games. The important statistic that led to Villa getting sucked into the relegation battle, that they survived by the skin of their teeth, is that they won just once in their final 16 league fixtures, between February 1st and May 13th. At the time of their win immediately prior to this period, Villa lay 11th in the table.
So who will replace Alex McLeish at Aston Villa? The appointment will tell us far more about the true extent of Villa’s ambitions, than the words of either McLeish or Lerner. Will Villa be prepared to pay compensation to a club or will they hire an out of work manager, such as Rafa Benitez or Alan Curbishley, both among the bookies favourites? Will Villa turn within the club to Kevin MacDonald once again – another name mentioned? Brighton’s Gus Poyet and Claudio Ranieri, most recently of Inter, are both rumoured to be interested.
At the moment, however, the next Aston Villa managerial appointment looks increasingly like a two horse race between Wigan’s Roberto Martinez and Norwich’s Paul Lambert. The latter was, like McLeish, the subject of agreement at Carrow Road on Sunday, both sets of supporters chanting “there’s only one Paul Lambert”. In targeting these two men, Villa are showing a desire to play football that is pleasing to the purists and putting their faith in a young, forward thinking manager, all of which will be pleasing to their fans. More cynical observers might comment that, given the public exchanges between McLeish and Lerner, the club is not seeking to appoint the highest profile names on the list, and are looking at managers with a track record for working on a relatively limited budget.
The Villa Park faithful will find out infinitely more about their club’s true ambitions through the next managerial appointment, and their dealings over the course of the close season, than they ever could through press releases.
They say actions speak louder than words, and if Villa are to avoid a similarly disappointing season next time out, then the time for action has, most definitely, arrived.