When you have an off-season as entertaining as what we’ve experienced this summer, it’s not a surprise that supporters are suffering a serious dose of dizziness. After a month of tiki-taka carousels and managerial Magic Roundabouts, the new Premier League season is being met on a backdrop of motion sickness. But amongst it all, Aston Villa’s appointment of a certain Paul Lambert, feels as if it’s got lost in the shuffle.
Villa fans didn’t so much feel motion sickness last season, but Alex McLeish induced salmonella. Throw in the deeply upsetting illness to skipper Stiliyan Petrov and it felt as if 2012 was amounting to something of an annus horribilis at Villa Park. The appointment of a new manager, especially after the tenure of McLeish, was always likely to be greeted with cautious optimism, but the wounds of the 2011-12 season won’t heal overnight.
Yet supporters should be able to afford themselves a wry smile at the countless feet of column space that the likes of Brendan Rodgers, Andre Villas Boas and even Michael Laudrup’s managerial appointments were afforded. The steely Lambert can galvanise Aston Villa in a way that maybe none of the aforementioned trio can.
One of the most poignant images of last season, was a banner held aloft in the Holte End, addressing one Alex McLeish. It bestowed the words: “It’s not where you came from, it’s where you are taking us.” To underplay the impact of appointing a coach with such ties to a rival club, is failing to grasp the sensitivities of football. No matter who they are, supporters are always going to greet their arrival with a degree of scepticism and blunted loyalty.
George Graham won Spurs their first bit of silverware in eight seasons, but supporters always struggled to get around his Arsenal past. Although McLeish didn’t exactly ride into Villa Park with a résumé that held as much gravitas as Graham’s. Despite his League Cup win, McLeish had been relegated twice in three years and advocated, shall we say, a pretty attritional style of football. That’s reasonably hard to buy into on it’s own, let alone the fact he arrived from Birmingham City.
The fact that he came from St. Andrew’s mattered. But the fact that supporters didn’t think he was any good, mattered more.
And come the climax of last season, fans fear for the future was felt just as urgently as their anger for the present. Writing in the Heroes and Villains fanzine back in May, Stuart Griffin seemed to capture the mood to a tee:
“There is a feeling that the club as a whole is utterly rudderless. No leadership or direction at the top, outside of getting the wage bill down. No real idea of where we are going or how we are going to achieve it”
“The fans have lost hope and unless that is renewed, next season will be horrible.”
Paul Lambert doesn’t have a magic wand and he isn’t going to soothe the worries about the top. But he won’t stand for a rudderless ship. Lambert has the drive and intensity to bring back the hope that got blasted away like the long ball that infected the McLeish brand of football.
For starters, you can guarantee that Lambert won’t stand for any of the gutless performances that Villa seemed to produce last season. One of the biggest critiques of Alex McLeish’s reign, was that in spite of the football his teams played, they always seemed to play with courage, heart and a ballsy work ethic; this never seemed to manifest itself at any point last season.
Lambert gets the best out of his players. Many who plied their trade for Norwich in the team who finished 12th in the league last season, played under Lambert for Norwich and even Colchester United, during his time in League One. David Fox, Marc Tierney, Grant Holt and Wes Hoolahan aren’t players you’d have thought would have got anywhere near this Villa team two years ago. Lambert has got them playing above them.
As with Bradley Johnson, Jonny Howson and Steve Morison, Lambert has proved he can take players deemed by others to be ‘lesser’ and get the very best out of them. He has hardly been given a transfer war-chest at Norwich, yet he hasn’t needed one, as the likes of Morison et al have shown. Supporters don’t need to loose sleep over the amount of money Randy Lerner will make available. Lambert will invest whatever he gets very wisely indeed.
The style of football too, will come as a huge boost. Lambert doesn’t employ the tiki-taka-lite of Brendan Rodgers, but his own brand of football is direct, pulsating and thoroughly enjoyable to watch.
Supporters can’t get carried away, although the fixture computer has been kind to Lambert and Villa. They play newly promoted West Ham and Southampton in two of their first three away dates and Swansea and West Brom visit Villa Park in September. If Paul Lambert can get Villa staring well, then the momentum could act as a springboard for a great season.
Next season is going to be a big challenge for Paul Lambert. Expectation won’t be sky high for a team who were in all honestly, lucky to avoid relegation last term. But Aston Villa aren’t a team who should be anywhere near the bottom three. Yet in the nicest possible way, Lambert’s ego and determination demands success.
He is as fiercely determined as any manager in the Premier League. And that’s just the tonic for all involved at Villa Park.
Are you excited for the new season under Paul Lambert? Are are expectations still relatively muted after the events of last season? Let me know what you’re looking forward to at Villa Park next season, follow @samuel_antrobus on Twitter and bat me your views.