by Jamie Whitehead
Aston Villa. They’re just one of ‘those’ clubs aren’t they? Well, not to me. I support them. But they’re kind of like Everton; they’ll have the occasional relegation scrap, but never really look going down. They’ll have the even more occasional push for Europe, and bottle it at the final push.
When talking about Villa, one question always gets bought up: Are they a big club? Birmingham City supporters often refer to our supporters as The Aston Historical Society, due to the constant references to the past. Like many others, I too am guilty of this. Villa aren’t a big club in the way that Manchester City or Chelsea are, Randy Lerner is merely a pauper when compared to Monsour and Abramovich. I can never envisage a day when Villa will be the number one supported side in China or however it is they word it these days.
But the league? Aston Villa invented that. The league that is copied in every major sport across the globe. Villa were the second side in history to win a domestic double, following in the achievements of Preston North End. Seven league titles and seven FA Cups as well as being one of only five English sides to win the European Cup (And I don’t care what anyone says, it was harder to win it then than it is now) Factor in the fact that unlike all the Uniteds and Citys there is only one Villa. Yes, Aston Villa are a big club.
With typical American gusto, Lerner and Co came in with a strap line to underwrite the club ‘Proud History. Bright Future’ The former cannot be argued for reasons stated above. But the second part? Open to debate to be fair.
I’m not going to cover old ground here, I’ve written about O’Neill, Houllier and Mcleish far too often on these and other pages. But to sum it up, O’Neill and Lerner were a match made in heaven. An owner keen to make an impact with (supposed) unlimited funds, and a manager who lives by a ‘Throw enough shit at a wall, we’ll see what sticks’ transfer policy. However, over his four years in charge, O’Neill did a great job at Villa Park which could ultimately have been built upon by Houllier had he not had to have step down due to ill health.
The 2011/12 season saw Aston Villa record their worst home record since the 1900s, claiming a measly four home league wins. Villa now hold the dubious honour of being the first side to lose a Premier League home game to a team from outside of England (having lost 2-0 at home to Swansea) For a club of Villa’s stature, this simply isn’t good enough.
Unsurprisingly, the support were unsympathetic in their views toward Mcleish and Lerner. Simply put, Mcleish is not a Premier League manager, and will struggle to find gainful employment at the highest level again. Lerner acted quickly at the end of the season by firing Big ‘Eck and Chief Executive Paul Faulkner promised a ‘Young, vibrant manager’
Ole Gunner Solksjear got as far as Birmingham International Airport during the recruitment process, and thanks to some wide eyed plane spotter on the VillaTalk forum who’d spotted Lerner’s plane depart for Norway, all hell broke loose in a way only football supporters can behave. Lerner was now the king, this was a brave appointment, Solksjear will use this as a stepping stone to the Old Trafford hot seat. All was well again in B6. But then Solksjear pulled out and suddenly we all got a bit carried away because of the Manchester United connection, apparently.
Step forward Paul Lambert; a man still in the early days of his managerial career. A man whose finest hour came having Zinedine Zidane in his back pocket during the 1998 European Cup Final, a man to lead Villa into a Bright Future?
After a poor start to his managerial career at Livingstone, which only saw two wins in seven months, Lambert, like one of his predecessors in O’Neill, managed Wycombe Wanderers before heading to Colchester United and then leading Norwich City to two successive promotions culminating in a very respectable twelfth placed finishing their return to the Premier League.
It’s easy to see why Lambert and Villa are on paper, a good match. Lambert is a young manager, and personally I can see him having four or five decent seasons before moving on to Spurs or someone like that.
One thing that Aston Villa are very good at, however, is Public Relations. Every season ticket holder recently received an email ‘written’ by Lambert making all the right noises ‘This is a massive club’ ‘There’s a lot to be done’ It might not sound like much, but right now, we’ll take what we can get.
Villa have always done better when shooting toward their famous Holte End. The dugouts at Villa Park were arranged in a way so the home bench was the further of the two from the Holte. Lambert’s first move was to reverse this arrangement and put the bench closer to the Holte. A psychological master stroke putting the players closer to the vocal support and instantly taking away potential bad memories from last season.
Last season was a tragic one for football. Following the awful news of Gary Speed’s death and the collapse of Fabrice Muamba at White Hart Lane, Villa experienced their own tragedy when club captain Stylian Petrov was diagnosed with acute lukemia. This was obviously an awful event that shook the football world to it’s core, but it was very encouraging and moving to see Stan back at Villa Park to celebrate his thirty third birthday with his team mates. We’re all rooting for you, big guy. Stick with it. If anyone can beat this, you can. But Lambert retained Petrov as the captain. And also gave Petrov his number nineteen squad number for the forthcoming campaign. As a former team mate of Stan’s at Celtic, this was not only a touching personal gesture, but a great statement of faith on both the man and the team’ abilities. Darren Bent is taking over captaincy duties in Stan’s absence, proving Lambert has enough standing amongst the players to keep one of England’s top strikers at the club for the foreseeable future.
It’s also been encouraging to see signings being made with more than two days of the window remaining. It shows that Lambert is already aware of which areas he needs to strengthen in prior to the new season kicking off.
At the time of writing, Lambert has had only one game in charge. A 2-1 away win at Burton Albion. Reports suggest that Lambert was on his feet throughout and was actively calling out players for misplaced passes. The man is a winner, and with his European connections and his experience from his time at Dortmund, Lambert is well prepared for the demands of European competition, weather he achieves this with Villa or his next job.
Time is a word we don’t often hear when talking about the tenure of the football manager. But, if Lambert is given the time, it could be a very fertile time for the Midlands’ biggest club.
Bright Future? Probably a bit early to say… But we’re moving in the right direction.
Jamie Whitehead is Co-Host of list based podcast 3for3. He covers the Premier League for BBC World and is a long suffering Villain. He wishes Paul Lambert every success and hopes he doesn’t have to write a similar piece for Lambert’s successor in the near future.