Writer: J P Fear
Date:Monday April 10 2006
In June 2003 David O' Leary, who had been out of work since leaving Leeds, became manager of Aston Villa. Villa had just had one of their worst premiership seasons ever, finishing 16th and only avoiding relegation by beating already-doomed Sunderland 1-0 at Villa Park in the second last game. Graham Taylor had subsequently resigned as manager, citing that the club needed a 'massive overhaul at all levels'. There was unrest among the players, and the future of the club was extremely uncertain.
David O'Leary took the job that many managers would basically 'not have touched with a barge pole', and all those not in possession of a barge pole generally kept their distance. There are many reasons for this, but most seem to point towards the man at the helm, Doug Ellis, whose stringent regime had more or less been the reason both Taylor, and his predecessor, John Gregory, resigned.
At his press conference, O'Leary stated 'We want to finish higher than 16th next season, and we certainly want to finish above Birmingham.' He understood the hurt pride that was being felt by most Villa fans at what was a low point and he vowed to put it right, saying that every player would start on an even footing.
In our squad at the time were, amongst others:
Juan Pablo Angel - Had been underused by Taylor, and had scored just one premiership goal under him, had never fully fired in his two and half years for Villa, and seemed likely to leave for Spain for 2m (7.5m less that what Villa had spent on him)
Peter Crouch - Had cost 5m but had misfired also, having gone an entire season without scoring.
Jlloyd Samuel - Product of the youth system, had won the left back position to be his own, but was not regarded as being capable enough to play at that level.
Ulises De La Cruz - Had a very poor first season, resulting in him being christened 'Useless' by his own fans.
O'Leary had not got much money to spend in the summer. He saw in the squad several key requirements. A goalkeeper (Enkelmann had lost the confidence of the fans and players), a defensive midfielder (Boateng was being sorely missed). In came Sorenson and McCann for a combined 4.5m
The season started poorly, but of note was the rejuvenation of Juan Pablo Angel, who seemed to be playing out of his skin for his new manager. Even while the results were going the wrong way, O'Leary insisted it would take time for the team to get into his way of playing. In the first derby in October Villa came away from St Andrews after a 0-0 draw, which although not a victory, was an improvement on last seasons capitulations. It was taking time, but slowly it looked like the team were uniting and gelling again. Then after a 4-0 reversal at Old Trafford, DOL slammed his team, saying they didn't play with any belief and it was unacceptable. Next weekend we beat Wolves 3-2 with Angel netting twice, and then midweek carling cup we beat highflying Chelsea 2-1 in a great game at Villa Park. Angel scored a wondergoal, before Cole equalised.. But Villa went on the search to take the lead again, and McCann got it. Do we all remember how great we were that night? How Angel tore apart a Chelsea defence with Terry, Gallas and co. Claudio Ranieri was gracious in defeat 'Angel was magnificent and Villa deserved it'.. O'Leary said he was 'proud of his team'..
The turning point had been reached.
DOL praised his players even if they weren't always firing. Vassell took a long time to score but DOL kept faith with him. When he did score against Fulham, he scored again 10 minutes later!! DOL spoke up the immense Angel, the emerging Whittingham , the rejuvenated Samuel, and the improving De La Cruz. Indeed it seemed some of the Villa players had gone into overdrive for the new boss. And there was nothing but praise coming from them. Angel said DOL was the best manager he had ever worked with.
The improvement continued. In the new year we were heading for top ten. We bought Solano for a SNIP at 1.5m. We were a force to be reckoned with again - with real belief. We were unlucky to lose 2-0 to arse at home coz of two dodgy decisions from Mark Halsey (I think) allowing a quick free kick from Henry and giving Kanu a nothing penalty.
There was real belief going into the derby vs Blues and for an hour we trounced them, and it could have been 8-0 when it was only 2-0. we all know what happened then..
But the belief didn't die, and we were up against star-studded Chelsea in the premiership. AND WITHOUT ANGEL.. our team was Sorenson, De La Cruz, Mellberg, Johnsen, Samuel, Hendrie, McCann, Hitz, Barry, Vassell, Crouch. Luke Moore, Peter Whittingham and Dion Dublin were late subs. And we beat them 3-2. What a game and what a performance. Read that teamsheet again and ask how we did that??
In the end of that season we came 6th and we almost got to 4th.. And other year 6th would be enough for Europe. With the squad we had that was remarkable, because it was a worse squad than we have now.. players that we seem to slate regularly these days played huge parts - Samuel, De La Cruz, Angel, Whittingham, Ridgewell, even Crouch.
In the summer again we didn't have much money, and our major investment Martin Laursen was injured in the 3rd game of the new season and was out for the next seven months.
We finished 10th that year, which, considering what had gone before, was a disappointment. Inevitably a small squad that had performed excellently and stayed relatively injury free couldn't maintain this run..
Think on the injuries we had in DOLs first season. Apart from Delaney suffering a horror tackle from Bocanegra we stayed relatively injury free. think of the depth that was in the squad then.. a long term injury to Mellberg, McCann, Barry, angel, even Samuel or Johnsen would have been a disaster. We only had one left back, one right back (UDLC is a winger), and two centre backs (Mellberg and Johnsen) with Ridgwell emerging and striker Dublin having to drop back.. We were quite lucky with injuries back then, or by contrast we have been very unlucky in the last two years.
Since then we have had Laursen suffer two huge injuries, Barry missed a few months of last season, McCann missed 6 months, while Jlloyd Samuel played though an injury since we had no cover.
All that I have written is to remind us of what went before.. We might think on that double victory over Chelsea as being under someone else.. but it was DOL and us the villa fans that motivated those players to play so well.
This season has been a huge disappointment. But we have been unlucky. Its not an excuse, it's a fact.
Guess how many different combinations we have had at centre back this year????
Mellberg+Laursen, Mellberg+Delaney, Mellberg+Ridgewell, Ridgewell+Delaney, Ridgewell+Hughes,Ridgewell+Cahill, SIX!! Are there any other clubs in the premiership that have had to do that?
Four players have played there so far.. Delaney, Hughes, De La Cruz, Samuel
Samuel, Bouma, Barry, and even Hughes have had to play there..
This has been caused by injuries to Mellberg, Laursen, Cahill, Delaney, Hughes, Bouma. That's SIX of our defenders that have had injuries that have lasted several weeks at least..
Our inconsistency in defence is matched by our inconsistency in attack.. all these combinations have STARTED for us.
Angel/Phillips, Angel/Baros, Phillips/Baros, Phillips/Moore, Moore/Agbonlahor
And next, look to all our signings in the summer:
Phillips, Berger, Milner, Bakke, Taylor, Hughes, Baros, Bouma. Out of those players only Taylor and Bakke stayed fit till now. Hughes has had at least two injuries that have kept him in and out. Phillips likewise. Baros likewise. Bouma likewise. Milner now has a virus for a long time. Berger, well, we knew he wouldn't play every game, but even by his standards, his fitness this season has been very bad.. None of the new signings have yet had a consistent ten game run in the team. OUT OF 8 SIGNINGS. Even the most callous fan would have to agree its unfortunate.
And as for Bakke, we all slammed DOL for playing him, but gradually we began to see how valuable he could be. He got rightly stuck in vs Arsenal. and right now we are crying out for someone to that because McCann just doesn't cut it anymore it seems. Bakke, we got on loan for nothing, and we couldn't even afford to keep him for another 5 months! How pathetic is that???? DOL hasn't lashed out, but he is exercising admirable restraint. and that might be the source of a lot of our criticism?? WE would never have accused Gregory of 'not caring' but then Gregory said Ellis was in a timewarp and eventually lost his job. yeah, O Leary could say 'Ellis is a tight ***' but what would that do except get him fired? Maybe he is waiting for the takeover of which 'he knows nothing' to happen, and maybe he knows it will.
DAVID O'LEARY IS A GOOD MANAGER. He did brilliantly at Leeds, and he did well with us until this season.. People will say he spent millions at Leeds etc. But I remind you that after George Graham went to Spurs, DOL took over at Leeds, and took them on a run of TEN GAMES IN A ROW, before they had signed
anybody!!!! THAT IS GOOD MANAGEMENT! And look at the players that he had there, yes they were great players but are they now? Kewell, Viduka, Smith, Bowyer, Woodgate, Michael Bridges, Ian Harte. the list goes on. These were key players in a team that was challenging for the premiership, and reaching the champs league semi-finals.. Where are they now?? Kewell is at Liverpool being a shadow of what he was.. Viduka is scoring 10 a season at Boro when he used to get 30.. Smith has turned into a defensive midfielder (and not a very capable one at that despite his best efforts), Bowyer once Lampard-like shows only flashes of what he used to do amidst usual obscurity, Woodgate has been injured ever since, Bridges - I don't even know where he is now, but I do know he was joint top scorer in the premiership with 18 goals, and Harte is playing second division footy in Spain.. O Leary brought the best out of those players, and he did it for us too with Angel, Samuel, De La Cruz, even Crouch while he was here found his scoring touch again.. Admittedly these players may not have maintained the standards but they once hit them nonetheless and THIS WAS UNDER DAVID O'LEARY.
O'Leary has given youth a chance too. The players that have emerged might not all make it, but the ones that will are going to be of huge benefit, especially Davis.
Whittingham, Ridgewell, Luke Moore, Steven Davis, Craig Gardner, Gabby Agbonlahor, Gary Cahill, they have all emerged under O Leary. Yes, some of them wont make it to the top level.. but fore every one that wont I think there is one who will. Whittingham might not be a Premiership player, but he was given his chance, as was Davis, and Davis has been a shining light. Its about the risk, its about trial and error, but DOL has never been afraid to give them a chance..
David O Leary wants to do well for Villa. If he didn't he would never have taken a job that, as I mentioned earlier, many would not have touched with a barge-pole. if he didn't he would have called Ellis a dinosaur and quit like Gregory and Taylor both did. My point is, that his hands are tied in a lot of scenarios - by our lack of funding, by the injuries we had this season. amongst other things..
Despite the poor season, we have had performances this year. We beat Blues and Baggies in their own backyard, we were very impressive at home to Arsenal and to Chelsea.. There have been signs there that the passion is there, but there has not been a consistent teamsheet all season.
And while our young players have tried and given their best, I think its fair to say the senior players have let us down. Its not fair to leave them blameless, even if as some say 'they don't want to play for DOL'.. These players are pro's and they are paid A HUGE AMOUNT OF MONEY.. Mellberg, Angel, McCann (with a few exceptions), Phillips (lately), Djembax2 (the whole AFC thing) have let us down this season. Simple fact. People can argue that DOL should be motivating them, but what sort of players are so UNAMBITIOUS that they cant go out there and give 100%... MOST OF US DO IT FOR OUR SUNDAY TEAMS WITHOUT THE HEATED DRESSING ROOMS, WITHOUT THE HUGE SALARIES.. And we usually have to pay for the team bus!!! So if the players
aren't motivated they have got serious problems of their own..
Look at the facts. We were 16th the season before DOL came in. He put it right the following season. He can do it again. He hasn't walked away from what is a difficult club to manager in the current climate, and has been for some time.. If DOL goes, who comes in??? and what will it do for us?? People say Stuart Pearce etc etc. Pearce started well, but they have lost FIVE IN A ROW.Remember that fans of Newcastle and Chelsea wanted DOL too, after his first season with us. He did better with us than Pearce has done with City in the same timescale.
You can call his first season when he took us to the brink of champs lg qualification a fluke. or you can call this season an unfortunate blip. His record before villa suggests its a blip..
David O Leary was a winner as a player, he has always aspired to be a winner at managerial level too. He says he knows how to turn this club around. I FOR ONE BELIEVE HIM. Lets back him, and let him do just that.
By Now its Bersonal'
Date:Monday April 10 2006
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