Can we go forward with Gerard Houllier?
Things have gone a bit 'Ooh La La` down at Villa Park thanks to the arrival of Frenchman, Gerard Houllier. We all knew the name and it was quite certainly somebody with experience of managing in the Premier League…
But it still left some of us scratching our heads and thinking Randy Lerner`s finally lost it.
When the General told us fans that Randy & Paul would be searching the pool of managers by way of those with Premier League experience, it didn`t exactly throw up a huge and exicting bunch of candidates. There were the usual suspects in Jol, Moyes and Curbishley. And there was some foreigners still trying to use the press to show their interest in the job like Koeman & Bradley. And there was even Sven Goran bloody Erikkson!
But it was the Frenchman`s name that caught everyone off guard. Not the first name on everybody`s lips and it certainly divided some fans, but either way it was a brave and very interesting manoeuvre by the board.
Gerard Houiller, the former Liverpool manager. During his re-building of the Anfield he did win trophies, he won three of them in one season to exact. But it was his failure to push Liverpool up the league table and then the failure to qualify for the Champions League that saw his end. It`s been six years since 'Mr H` (as so christened by the General in his thread) had left Liverpool with the doom-mongers swirling about negative tactics, unattractive football, the abuse of the youth policy and comments about the lack of support from the fans. Six years. That wasn`t all that long ago, but in football, well that feels like a lifetime ago!
The here and now, at Aston Villa, to say things were in disarray, is no understatement.
Martin O`Neill, 'The Messiah,` had just walked out on us with five days left until the start of the season. Once the media frenzy had calmed down focus turned to how we were to go about picking up the pieces and salvaging something from the coming season. With all Martin`s back room staff going with him, it was left to youth team couch and long time servant of the club, Kevin MacDonald to step up and bear the cross while the search began for the new manager.
During Kevin`s time as caretaker manager, we have to be kind. In an atmosphere where the fans had questions and the daggers were out he really did step in to line of fire to help steady the ship. Results weren`t fantastic and although I`m sure Glensider is still wiping away a few tears after that Newcastle trip, they weren`t overly bad.
So what if lighting struck twice and Rapid Vienna knocked us out of the Europa League? Two wins a draw and two losses from his five Premier League games is what matters. If I was the new manager coming into this new environment I would want to be steadying the ship at home rather than gallivanting in some second-tier UEFA League Europa Cup or whatever guise it`s in now. Without taking all of whatever glamour is contained in this competition, yes it would be nice to have a good run and would be lovely to win it. But I really don`t care about it enough to have it a distraction from the matters at home.
Instead Houllier is coming into to a club that is in eighth place, four points from second and still very much in the running at these early hours of the season. So for this, Kevin MacDonald gets my thanks, my respect and a huge pat on the back.
But now, he`s here. Gerard Houllier is the new manager of Aston Villa and it`s time to start thinking, can he take us forward? I could just save you and myself a lot of time and give you the short answer to this: Yes he can - because he`s not Martin O`Neill, but there`s just a little more to it than that.
That statement does sound overly offensive to good old Martin, but on the contrary it`s a veiled compliment.
What is the mark of a great manager? Trophies, yes. But there is one more key ingredient to what boards of directors will look at that perhaps someone of a fan`s perceptive would not, and that being the ability to leave a club in a better condition than he what he gained it in.
When history looks back at Aston Villa it will look upon Martin O`Neill`s tenure with a smile. He will be the manager that took us from languishing in the mid-table and beyond to real contenders constantly battling in the higher echelons of the league. Three six place finishes on the trot and if not for some of what can be comfortably be described as 'bad refereeing decisions,` we could have had one, possibly two trophies in the bag by now. Is that not a fair account of his 'success?` It`s easy to just think of the end as an example of the man but it doesn`t mean he didn`t help this club forward. Granted he was one-dimensional, had no plan B and completely lost the dressing room, but on the whole his CV has improved with Aston Villa FC listed as previous employers.
Back to Gerard though, and it`s because of O`Neill`s excellent work and cataclysmic descent that Houiller will find his time here so enjoyable.
I mean look at the squad he is inheriting. We have some excellent players capable of beating anybody; we`ve beaten everybody and looked good doing it for Christ sake! All the top four have been beatable to us in recent years thanks to the talents of the team. Richard Dunne is as good as anybody in central defence and we`ve got Collins & Cuellar pushing him. Two great full backs capable of defending and attacking, even if one of them doesn`t like showing it sometimes. Petrov`s legs might be failing him but he definitely has ability. In Agbonlahor, Young & Downing we`ve three young lads all on the fringes of the England team. Then we`ve got Albrighton, Delph, Delfouneseo, Clark, Bannan and countless others showing real potential and real promise that they can cut big time. Even Stephen Ireland, if rightly used, is a fantastic asset to us.
The only reason we haven`t pushed on from this sixth place spot is that this is Martin O`Neill`s peak. Things got comfortable. We didn`t even have to guess the team, it was just a given the same XI would play. The fringe players wouldn`t get a look in. No wonder O`Neill never wanted to update to the dug out from the smoking shelter it is now, he wanted it to serve as even more of a punishment to players he`d fallen out with. No plan B and at times no plan A. Things had stagnated with Martin and it was time for him to go. He should have realised this at the end of the season and walked away with grace rather than the shambolic low blow he sent our way.
But still, for all your good and for all your bad, thank you Martin.
With Houiller, we`ve something new, something fresh! Players are only written on the team sheets in pencil nowadays. Places are up for grabs and the previously excluded ones have a chance to impress again. The players have already seen from Wednesday`s match against Blackburn that they will get a chance and things will be different. I mean we saw a change of tactics, we saw three substitutions and we saw us fight for the game.
What we saw was some fresh ideas.
That is the only, single thing that we need to start winning again. This is what happens in football, after 3-5 years people suss you out, you run out of new things to try and things just start slipping.
For those worrying about how his French contacts will affect our youth system, don`t! As long as we have Kevin MacDonald around Houllier will be forced into listening to him as his stock has risen at the club to a position of respect. Houllier is simply an experienced international manager who brings with him bags of ideas and new things to try.
Since O`Neill`s departure I`ve heard some crazy predictions from the Villa fans. We`ll be fighting relegation was about the most ridiculous of them but with a few choice additions from 'Mr H` this team is good enough to push on THIS YEAR. We have all the ability we need, we just need the support to match.
Let`s pack out Villa Park and let`s find our voice.