Did Aston Villa’s ambition change in one month?

In footballing parlence ambition is the acceptable byword for money. It is possible to infer from Martin O’Neill’s departure from Aston Villa last month that the side were now lacking in this department. The decision to eventually sell James Milner to Manchester City and not reinvest the resulting funds in the transfer market saw the Northern Irishman lose patience. Their capacity to challenge those around them for a Champions League place had seemingly waned. However a month later, Gerard Houllier is now in the hot seat primarily because of the club’s ambition. Has something been lost in translation or has the club’s ability to reach the top four never been in doubt?

After two sixth place finishes in the past two years, O’Neill has been muted on the reasons for his departure. This has not prevented reams of speculation as to why he left, the most plausible being that he felt the club lacked his ambition and drive to progress. The Villa chairman, Randy Lerner has said that he and the Ulsterman, “no longer shared a common view as how to move forward.” In other words the manager was frustrated by the newly imposed fiscal restrictions and Milner’s protracted transfer to a club rivalling them for a Champions League place. Nonetheless salaries had risen inexorably during his reign at Villa Park, as the annual wage soared to £71 million. This accounts for 85% of the club’s turnover and presumably could not continue unaddressed.

However for the man who had achieved a great deal at the club, the inability to utilise the fee received for Milner must have rankled. His side often struggled to break teams down particularly in the latter stages of the season when fatigue set in. The recruitment of a natural, reliable goal-scorer may have remedied this, allowing them capitalise on the work of their creative and dogged midfield. Believing winger Ashley Young’s future could additionally be in doubt, the former Celtic boss left harbouring the view that he could take them no further. Lerner pledged to be as “competitive as possible given our size and resources.”

Kevin McDonald took over the first team duties in his absence and witnessed his own value fluctuate over the course of a few games. A resounding 3-0 victory over West Ham delighted but was counteracted by a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Newcastle United. Not one to be accused of acting perfunctorily, Lerner appointed Houllier as their next permanent manager last week. The Frenchman who won a cup treble with Liverpool in 2001 is yet to negotiate his exit from the post of technical director at the French Football Federation. Contractual issues aside, Houllier was swayed to return to management by the ambition of Villa. “I had a good and safe job but Villa’s ambition made me feel I wanted to be part of the team. The owner has set no targets but in three years if we can get into the top four it would be excellent.”

His press conference featured no discussion of budgets, transfer policy or the financial issues which the club is grappling with. His appointment has been endorsed by many, notably by Steven Gerrard who described him as a “top manager.” While targeting the top four at the press conference, quotes emerged from France suggesting a more downbeat assessment. Reported in the Guardian, he said of Villa, “It’s a club that according to me has belonged between seventh and 12th place in the Premier League.” He also said that last year’s League Cup finalists were not on the same level as his former Merseyside club. Is the man who was “desperate” to return to the PL, tempering the fans’ ambitions? He has cited the need for gradual improvement but even that may be restricted in the short term. Three people have declined his invitation to be an assistant manager and he is unsure as to when he will attend his first league game. Practicalities will need ironing out before he can assess his squad’s merits and what they need going forward.

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