It was a difficult season for everyone concerned with Aston Villa last time out as the controversial appointment of Alex McLeish did little to quell concern at Villa Park. Having already relegated their midlands rivals, the Scot tried his best to repeat the trick but thankfully his players did just enough to survive and Chairman Randy Lerner has since cut his losses on the unpopular manager.
Fast forward a few months and there’s a fresh band of optimism among Villa fans ahead of the new season. Such hopeful emotions can realistically be attributed to the majority of supporters counting down to the Premier League’s upcoming opening weekend, but with Paul Lambert in charge there’s a genuine sense of positivity stemming from the Holte End. The former Norwich City boss may not be blessed with an extensive list of honours on his CV but he has shown in his fledgling managerial career that he is more than capable of cobbling together of group of players and making them hard to beat, all the while trying to play attractive football. It’s a philosophy that is thoroughly appealing to the Villa faithful, so with renewed vigour for the impending League campaign, what can fans expect from their beloved side this season?
So steep was the previous campaign’s dip in form that the majority of fans would be happy just to return to the top ten and suffer no threat of relegation. While these expectations may seem watered down given the club’s illustrious history, there’s a sense of realism regarding the current situation, which is keeping fans grounded. Long gone are the days of European finals, and even replicating the 6th place finishes enjoyed under Martin O’Neill is not something that is expected of Lambert and his new cohorts. It’s a refreshing change from the often demanding world football fanaticism and on reflection is probably the best approach for Villa going forward. After all, they have a new manager and a young squad which, on paper, is clearly weaker than the top eight teams in the league. While there is no reason not to try to break that mould, demanding such ambitious standards from an inexperienced group could place too much pressure on the side and inevitably lead to disappointment if such high standards are not matched. Instead, the majority of fans have chosen to keep their demands more reserved and understand that a top ten finish with a decent cup run would constitute a marked improvement on the McLeish era. It would be a progressive step in the right direction and continuous improvement year-on-year is the most appropriate method of development.
Naturally, fans of mid-table teams always aspire to take the next step up in quality and many can still find solace in the achievements of Fulham, and more recently Newcastle United, and use their success as a benchmark for future league and European endeavours. The top flight has become increasingly competitive but the triumphs of similarly ranked sides illustrate the possibilities on offer if Lambert can find the right balance in his team. Such desperately needed stability will be aided by the return of a number of senior players this summer after Villa’s squad was stretched extremely thin towards the end of the last campaign. Their first XI was more akin to a youth team on occasion, as various unknown youngsters were thrust into the limelight and asked to match the performances of their more superior team mates. Understandably, they failed to make the grade for the most part but their experiences will serve them well in future and few fans hold their struggles against them, as the finger of blame is aimed firmly at McLeish. Despite looking tactically inept, the former Birmingham manager’s questionable decisions may offer one positive, given that he has actually blooded a number of youngsters into the side. While Lambert will not rely as heavily on youth next season, he will be comforted by the knowledge that the majority of his reserves have first team experience and can flourish when surrounded by more confident stars.
With a more solid foundation to build upon, anticipation is fairly justified ahead of their opening day clash away at West Ham. They have an eager new manager, some talented senior stars and a number of youth players with the ability to fill in when needed. Add to that a summer recruitment drive that has seen the likes of Ron Vlaar and Brett Holman join their ranks from Dutch football and the future is looking brighter every day. While the club’s latest signings may not be household names, Lambert is still making strides to improve the squad and this is an important change to proceedings given their unwanted reputation for selling top stars.
With a few choice signings to complement the side’s talented performers, Aston Villa could easily regain their place in the top ten and realise the expectations of the terraces. While Lambert may not have much European pedigree just yet, if the bustling attacking energy witnessed at Carrow Road last year translates to Villa Park then the Midlands could well be shrouded in claret and blue next season.
Is Paul Lambert the right man to the club forward? Should Aston Villa fans be excited about their chances next season?
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