If ever I’ve seen a manager shoot himself in the foot quite so readily, it was Gerard Houllier after his side’s 3-0 defeat in the FA Cup last week. Aston Villa bowed out of the only competition they had left in their season thanks to an average display against Manchester City. Houllier picked a weakened side and Villa looked as though they didn’t want to be there – something the manager has taken a lot of stick for. It was a worrying display of negativity from the Frenchman and supporters are already questioning whether he is the right man to take the club forward.
It’s a tough one. At times, Houllier has got his team playing the kind of football the Villa fans have been craving for years. Former boss Martin O’Neill used to get criticised for being too one-dimensional and tactically naïve. Houllier certainly isn’t either of those things. He has rejuvenated Ashley Young, signed some very good players and looks as though he’s salvaged a very poor season.
But then he goes and does something like this. Eight changes were made for an FA Cup tie away at Manchester City. Villa have nothing else to play for, really, and they were two games away from a Wembley semi-final. Okay, so fatigue, injuries and suspensions means squad rotation is vital, but surely he could have gone with a stronger, more experienced side than what he did? In his post-match interview, Houllier suggested that even his best eleven couldn’t have beaten Roberto Mancini’s men. Off the back of that, you can forgive the fans for wondering if the Frenchman has already outstayed his welcome in the Midlands. Imagine if Crawley went to Manchester United with that attitude – they would have got humiliated. It just goes to show what a little bit of passion and pride can do.
Maybe Gerard Houllier needs reminding of some old clichés: Football’s a funny old game, there are no certainties in football – that sort of thing. We’ve seen managers play weakened teams in the League Cup and even the Europa League to concentrate on more pressing issues in the league, but Villa have very little else to play for now. Houllier would have us believe that his side are still very much in a relegation fight. But how many of us seriously think Villa Park will be a Championship stadium next season? Considering Wigan, Wolves, West Brom, Blackburn and Blackpool, to name but a few, are facing the drop, I’m quietly confident Villa won’t get themselves tangled up in that affair come the end of the season. So why not at least try to give the fans something to look forward to with a trip to Wembley in the FA Cup? They must be craving some success, and seeing their cross-city rivals Birmingham lift a trophy would only add to that feeling.
Houllier now has to work very hard to win the fans over – again. He will be given the time, but any more of these stunts and the Frenchman’s own fans will become his biggest enemy. He has the pedigree to take Villa forward, there’s no question about that. But he needs to understand what the fans want before he starts to field weakened teams in big cup games. There’s a lesson to be learnt, Mr Houllier.
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