You only have to go back two seasons to find the high-flying Villains sitting pretty in 6th in the Premier League. A feat forgotten after their diluted performance over the past couple of years, it’s easy to let the Midlanders’ pedigree slip your mind. After McLeish’s devastating reign, Premier League newboy Paul Lambert has been drafted to re-inject the fire into the lions after he guided Norwich to a highly respectable 12th.
Aston Villa have had a tough go of it recently, ever since Martin O’Neill controversially walked out at the beginning of their 100th season in the top flight. Allegedly over the forced sale of James Milner to Manchester City, the successful Irishman who was challenging the top 5 of the league upped sticks and left in indignation. Villa then turned over four managers in the space of a single season, from O’Neill to caretaker Kevin MacDonald to former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier. Houllier never quite got the backing of the team and didn’t re-settle into the English game, retiring from ill health towards the end of the season and handing over to another caretaker manager in Gary McAllister.
With the drop in form, Villa players were being drawn away left, right and centre. After losing midfield commanders Milner and Barry, shot-stopping Friedel chose to join Tottenham and Villa’s talented young wingers in Downing and Young were drawn away by Liverpool and Manchester United respectively. Decimated by the loss of their best players, Villa’s first season under McLeish saw figurehead and captain Stiliyan Petrov struck down and forced into temporary retirement by leukaemia. Darren Bent’s goals dried up as he was stretchered off with an injury which kept him out for the final three months of the season, just when Villa began to fight an unfamiliar battle with relegation from the top flight.
Somehow they managed to fight off the unimaginable and ended up just clear of the red zone. Needless to say, Alex McLeish was swiftly given the boot after an unpopular and unsuccessful reign at the helm of the Villains. With impressive and attacking Lambert taking the claret and blue reins this season, what can we expect?
Well so far he’s signed midfield-plug Karim El Ahmadi (4.5m) to fill the gap left by Petrov, Australian attacking flair in Brett Holman (6.0m) and the Feyenoord strongman Ron Vlaar (5.0m). Whether he can expect a windfall from Lerner’s recent sale of his NFL team the Cleveland Browns, we’re yet to see. Lambert says that he’s not finished in the transfer market yet and so far we’re impressed with his dealings. With Bent (8.5m) back to fitness and Ireland (5.5m) seeming to recapture his early Man City form, perhaps Villa can be lifted from the doldrums. A disappointing first season for N’Zogbia (6.5m) didn’t help but sometimes even the best players can be mismanaged and misplayed.
Villa aren’t lacking in talent and big names, what they are lacking in is the gel that holds these players together. Looking at the shirts on paper, the Midlanders should be comfortably mid-table and no doubt they’ll be looking to climb back atop their lofty perch of a few seasons ago and challenge the Liverpools and the Chelseas for that elusive fifth spot.
Do we think that Lambert has what it takes? I think that’s the wrong question to ask of Villa at the moment. Instead of can the manager manage the team, it should be can the owner manage the manager?
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Image Credit: Flickr –ell brown