As the speculation runs rife that Maradona was seen shopping at the Bullring. Or that Rafa Benitez and Carlo Ancellotti are househunting in Little Aston. Perhaps it might be time to remember that there is a football team at the centre of this. It is also worth casting our minds back over an erratic league campaign and the frailties that were laid bare for all to see over most of it.
Whilst whoever Villa appoint will need to bring their experience, touch and style to the club, regardless of whom ultimately takes charge, there will be a number of pressing issues. They are glaring, fundamental problems, not just in personnel in the squad, but also our approach and ambitions as a football club.
Aston Villa were within touching distance of Champions League football a little over a year ago. This had been on the back of a campaign that also saw defeat in the final and semi finals of both cup competitions. For the first time in literally years of repetitive, mundare and largely unremarkable football, Aston Villa were competing again. We were no longer the mid table dross, we had exciting young players that drove fear into oppositon teams with pacey counter attacks. Once more our heads could be held high.
And then it fell apart. The Martin O’Neill departure and drawn out tribunal that ensued entirely summed up the collapse of an often idyllic but flawed dream. One cannot question the aspirations, the effort that was exerted and the progress made. However the speed at which our promise collapsed emphasised how little we had moved on in real terms. Whilst we had been giving the top teams in the division something to worry about, we perhaps registered as little more than a cause for concern in the grand scheme of their seasons.
The problem the clubs hierarchy faced just five days from the season curtain opener was that the unthinkable had actually happened. Whilst the facts are still of debate, the truth is that O’Neill got one over on all involved by the manner of his exit. Gerard Houllier stepped up. Ignoring his stubborn and strict approach, he was a man who gave his all to Villa during his short tenure. His ideas did not always come off, his tactics baffled as often as they impressed but you could not suggest that he didn’t bring both passion and effort to ensuring that Aston Villa would at least go down fighting. His predecessor may well have brought passion, but one could not pass such similar praise for his gentlemanly conduct.
The league table however reads deceptively well considering the nature of the season that was endured for long periods. Ninth does not tell the tale of bitter defeats to rivals, insipid performances against fellow struggler’s and our utter inability to hold onto a lead. Any lead. For all of the fine goals we often crafted, it was odds on that we would throw it away in spectacular, often self destructive fashion.
And regardless of who is our manager next season, the flaws will be need to be their priority to address.
Firstly the departure of Brad Friedel to Tottenham is a major, major loss. Obviously Brad was not part of a grand five year plan. But with him drawing a close to his Villa career we have lost easily one of our most consistent performers, a fine shot stopper, good communicator and reassurance between the sticks. The latter is something that for so many years we have just not had at Villa Park and this is to be sorely missed. Dare one cast their minds back to Enckleman and Sorenson.
The hunt for a goalkeeper need not be conducted so far from home. Ben Foster, although in some’s eyes prone to the odd clanger, will despite proclamation of loyalty to Blues, be available. He might not come cheaply, but he is perhaps worth the effort of prying from our bitter rivals. Foster would bring Premiership experience, need not be persuaded to move and would not be burdened with the pressures of bench warming for England.
Alternatively we could look to prize Shay Given from Manchester City. Reports surrounding Given suggest he is unsettled as he now sits behind Joe Hart in the pecking order. And he’s not getting any younger either. However, he is certainly an able back-up for City, and whether they would want to part with such excellent covering goalkeeper is a question in itself. Arsenal are of course a prime example of why it is important to retain good goalkeepers on your books if you want to win a Premier League or challenge for European honours. Perhaps the new boss will look under a stone to see if Brad Guzan is alright?
So problem one is definitely going to be sourcing a competent keeper.
The new gaffer will then probably cast his eye down our list of defenders. Once he has regained consciousness and been reminded he signed a contract he will naturally seek to invest in shoring up the leakiest backline in recent Villa memory. Defending, we fans will remember, has been the bed rock of our modern approach to the Premier League.
Richard Dunne and James Collins could easily find themselves looking for new employers. Dunne had an outstanding first season with the club. However, his criminal loss of form meant that we witnessed one of the most naturally gifted defenders lose his way and often cost us points. Collins, whilst committed, baffles with bizarre distribution, abysmal positioning and managing to get caught high up the pitch time and time again. Whilst a gamble, we have to hope that Ciaran Clark is ready to step up alongside a new face (…or what about Carlos Cueller???) and fill the gaping holes in our defence. In any event a new face would be welcome, but quite who this would be is very much a matter of debate.
And the full backs? Can Stephen Warnock be rehabilitated? How do we replace the raw talent and surprise attacking threat that Kyle Walker brought to our game? Lichaj looked far from ready before his loan spell at Leeds and Luke Young has probably forgotten whether he is a right or a left back. Either way, a complete overhaul would be welcome and justified.
In the middle of the park the release of Nigel Reo-Coker on a free transfer has many justifiably stumped. Whilst Coker was not going to be winning us league titles, he was very good as the job he did. Unsung, and deployed for his entire Villa career in a defensive role, Coker was used sporadically before working his socks off in the final third of the season to battle in the middle of the park week in, week out. Is the injury prone, reckless tackling and largely unproven Fabian Delph going to be expected to fill this role? I have high hopes for the talent that Delph represents, but is he the answer to what we need? Perhaps we will re-acquire Reo on a free?
The new manager will also have to manage the likely departure of Ashley Young and the perhaps more concerning news that Stewart Downing is pondering a move on. Young has loftier ambitions which he is welcome to investigate. For all of Young’s attributes, he could often go missing in a Villa team that needed a spot of guile or a spark to change a game. As such, whilst he has provided some happy memories, the petulance will not be so fondly recalled by many.
Of greater worry would be the sale of Downing. A steady performer who has benefited from a number of growing seasons in the Premiership, his range of passing and stamina would be sorely missed. Further the winger is always looking to create a chance or make one for himself. Thus he is a welcome threat in a midfield in which goals come at a premium. Holding onto Downing would be a massive achievement – especially as the prospect of losing our two most creative players would hardly represent a step in the right direction.
And then we must look to find support for Darren Bent. Heskey, although endearing himself to some degree with his presence and work rate, is not the future nor the calibre of player I expect to see alongside our record signing. Question marks also sit over Agbonlahor. Again another player whose commitment you couldn’t question. But. On the back of an injury ravaged and largely fruitless season in terms of goals, is his position safe? Gabby seemed adrift in the Houllier era, perhaps something can be salvaged before he becomes one of a number of talented Villa youngsters who should have progressed further.
A re-build is not necessarily a bad thing. The remnants of a promising but ultimately flawed Martin O’Neil side are now beginning to move on. The Houllier efforts sat awkwardly but with some degree of success amongst them. Whilst we were disjointed, there at least appeared to be a plan, occasionally.
A speedy appointment will at least enable the new boss to take stock of what he has at his disposal and what he can realistically attain. They will likely be familiar with the Villa and have an idea of the weaknesses they would have readily exploited. And a fresh approach is welcome. Because for the last year the club has been barely ticking over on the pitch. Apathy has most definitely abounded.
And so, new manager, it doesn’t matter who you are. All you need do is match the fans passion with your commitment, put a spine back into the football that we play and bring the pride back into being an Aston Villa supporter. Your canvas is blank, your followers expectant but have no doubt that our cause is true. Bring back the glory days to Aston Villa and you shall be immortalised.