It is hard to know what is going on exactly at Villa Park. Kevin MacDonald was never totally sure he wanted the job, until he put his name forward and it was promptly rejected, the players showed their support for MacDonald while celebrating Ashley Young’s goal in his last game at the weekend, and incoming boss Gerard Houllier is restricted by commitments from his previous employers at the French Football Federation (FFF).
The fans are unconvinced by the appointment of Houllier, but within the game there are few who are held in as high esteem. It is easy to forget just what Houllier achieved at Liverpool. The obvious successes are the trophies he won in 2001, but there is far more to consider. The rebuilding of a reputation and professionalism after the so-called ‘Spice Boys’ era (whether the title is a fair one or not, Houllier managed to shrug it off), the re-development of the club’s now impressive Melwood training ground, and the core of players he put together that were then expertly steered to the Champion League title under Rafa Benitez. His history in the transfer market at Liverpool was mixed. People remember the flops, but for every El Hadji Douf there is a Sami Hyypia, every Bruno Cheyrou, a Gary McAllister, and speaking of which.
Houllier has turned to who he called his ‘most inspirational signing’ to help ease him back into the rigours and demands of the Premier League. After learning his trade at Coventry, Leeds and most recently, Middlesborough, Villa is a step-up from them all. The relationship the two men shared together at Liverpool was one of mutual respect and a fruitful one, and there is no reason to see that not continuing at Aston Villa.
What the two men inherit is the nucleus of a very good team. Regardless of the sale of James Milner, there is a very solid and settled defensive unit, pace and creativity in the shape of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, and an academy that produces a regular amount of Premier League talent – Marc Albrighton being the latest example. Much depends however, on the ambitions of Randy Learner.
It seemed that Martin O’Neill left because of the sales of Milner and Barry, combined with the lack of investment in new players over the duration of the summer. If Learner is really intent on dipping less into his deep pockets, then Houllier will have trouble trying to build a team in his own fashion. That said, some of his best signings at Liverpool were on the cheap; Hyypia and McAllister as mentioned above, as well as Danny Murphy, were all relatively low in cost, as was Jerzey Dudek. Houllier also has an extensive knowledge of players around the world due to the longevity of his career and his obsessive attention to detail.
The other managers touted for the position at Villa included Alan Curbishly (decent without being spectacular), Sven-Goran Erikksson (experienced but a mercenary), and the untried Bob Bradley who would be completely new to the Premier League. Many fans wanted MacDonald, but even he wasn’t totally sure about his credentials for the job himself.
Houllier and McAllister know the league well, have vast experience both here and abroad, and have the respect and admiration of players, contemporaries and journalists and fans throughout the game. Whether Villa can finish as high as 6th again this season, may be a tall order considering the improvements the likes of Man City and Spurs have made, but in the management team that they have appointed, all the ingredients for success seemingly exist.
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